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Bahamas paradox: putting on a good face for tourists while overcoming the tragedy of Dorian

This holiday mecca for cruise ships, luxury hotels and vacation homes that was partially razed days ago by a Category 5 Hurricane, is going through a bipolar moment: mourning over a natural disaster while dressed up for for visitors on their dream vacation.
9 Sep 2019 – 07:11 PM EDT
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NASSAU, The Bahamas - After getting off a plane at Lynden Pindling airport in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, the first sight greeting visitors is a man dancing, dressed in a feather suit and a drum with the Bahamian flag. “Welcome to Bahamas,” he says, smiling. Just beyond him a band of three musicians plays live in the immigration hall, a second musical welcome in less than 150 feet.

The festive reception at this holiday isle is far removed from the grief and the horror left by Hurricane Dorian which for two full days tore apart the islands further north, Grand Bahama and Abaco, where it razed everything and left - so far - 43 dead, according to the government's official count. (It is taken for granted that when the flood waters subside, the number of victims will dramatically increase).

That is the dichotomy facing the Bahamas now: an archipelago that depends heavily on a $4.3 billion tourism industry which accounts for more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product.

For the time being, vacations and the relief efforts must go hand-in-hand. The more fun the tourists have, and the more money they spend, the better for a speedy receovery from Dorian. Preliminary estimates put the cost of the damage from Dorian at $7 billion, according to Bloomberg.

In Nassau, the tourist shops are open by the port while on the other side of the city ships ferry in the hundreds of now homless evacuees from Dorian's impact zone.

But, at another airport in Nassau, the anguish of tragedy is far more palpable in the terminal of Odyssey Aviation where small planes and helicopters come and go from the disaster zones. In a corner, under the shadow of a large white tent erected to provide protection from the sun and heat, people are still searching for word about about their families in the hardest hit islands.

This runway is where the wounded arrive, and people come to see if anyone knows anything about their grandparents, their parents, their children. One of them, Lashanda McKinney, is 19 years old and moved to Nassau to study education at the University of Bahamas. She lives alone and her whole family resides on islands devastated by the hurricane.

“I usually go back home to visit,” she told Univision, adding that she was able to confirm some of her loved ones on Grand Bahama survived. "I was in contact with them during the hurricane" but then "I lost communication," she said.

McKinney said she has had no news of her relatives in Abaco. "That's where grandmother lives, my dad, my aunts," she says. She has spent two days sitting in the shade of the white tent. And she says she will keep coming until she has news.

“I saw images of Abaco. There is nothing there. There is no food, there is nothing to drink, there is nothing left,” she says and adds: “I keep my faith,” shaking off the discouragement of her own words.

No information

The staff at the terminal know little about what is happening on the destroyed islands and there is not much they can do to mitigate the anguish of those who, like McKinney, await news of their families.

Anthony Hinsey, who works in communications at the Odyssey, explains they have virtually no communication with the survivors. Rescued people are given access to a telephone line in the Abacos so they can be met upon arrival in Nassau.

"What they are doing is that when a person is rescued in Abaco, before boarding the plane or helicopter heading here, those people can make a call to their families," says Hinsey.

“Upon arrival, those who need medical attention are taken by ambulance to the hospital. But those who are well, are reunited with their families here. ”

He says that dozens of people are asking for information. "But in most cases we don't have it," he laments.

A hospital, little space

The government says more than 3,500 people have been evacuated from hard-hit regions of the Bahamas and an estimated 70,000 or the island's entire 360,000 population were left homeless by Dorian's destructive 185 mph winds. Those rescued from the disaster zone arrive at Princess Margaret, the only public hospital on the island.

The injured lie on stretchers in the halls. There is not enough space and the hospital staff believe that they have not seen the worst yet because they fear as rescue crews reach the more remote and cut off islands more people will be found and brought to Nassau.

The center's chief medical officer, Caroline Burnett, told Univision that three people had died at the hospital. Some critics say the government's death toll is deliberately being kept low so as not to frighten away the tourist industry. The government counters that rescue workers have yet to fully inspect the most impacted areas and it has no way yet of knowing exactly how many died. Extra orders of body bags suggest the death toll could end up in the hundreds.

A bipolar dynamic

Meanwhile, it's a different scene outside the airport.

The city's hotels, usually full of people vacationing with sun hats and shirts adorned with palm trees, dozens of uniformed people from different relief organizations around the world have flown in for the catastrophe.

A Nassau hotel taxi driver, Henry Smith, normally lives from that flood of foreigners who arrive every day. One of his sons lives in Grand Bahama, and he was able to confirm that he survived and is fine.

Smith explains that he has spent his entire life here and believes that the catastrophe caused by Dorian is "the worst" he's seen. He compares it to the passage of Hurricane Floyd that also tore into the Bahamas in 1999, but he believes Dorian far surpassed it.

The level of destruction will definitely affect tourism in Grand Bahama and Abaco, he says, though it won't be felt so much in Nassau.

That's the paradox of this archipelago paradise in the wake Dorian: keeping a brave - and happy - face for visitors in order to preserve its vital tourism industry that it will depend on more than ever to finance the reconstruction ahead.

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, says it is trying to get the message out that its top destinations like Nassau, the Exumas, Eleuthera and Bimini are unscathed and open for business. Nassau is the Bahamas top destination, bringing in 2.6 million visitors between January and July this year, but Grand Bahama and Abaco are the next most visited spots, accounting for about 734,000 visitors between them.

“In order for the reconstruction to happen, we would need our visitors to keep coming, so taxes can be used to aid in the reconstruction of those two islands [Abaco and Grand Bahama, where Dorian hit],” its deputy director general, Ellison Thompson, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami

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