How Social Media Is Helping Survivors of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas
On September 1st, Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 behemoth, having skipped Barbados and cut just west of the Lesser Antilles, the chain of islands in the Eastern Caribbean that, two years ago, was hit by Hurricane Irma, another Category Five storm. Dorian then veered north, passing between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, before heading toward the two northernmost islands in the Bahamas: Abaco and Grand Bahama. As the storm made landfall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association declared it “extremely dangerous.” Dorian had grown massive and stalled over the eastern portion of Grand Bahama Island, moving at just one mile per hour over the course of thirty-six hours. As it hovered, winds peaked at a hundred and eighty-five miles per hour. “Dorian’s fury,” as the N.O.A.A. described it, left in its wake hills of debris and a massive oil spill. Communities were displaced, twenty-five hundred people remain missing, and at least fifty died. Sand and debris muddied the clear, turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
During the storm and then after, pleas for rescue appeared on Facebook and Instagram. When the eye of the storm passed over Abaco, an island of about seventeen thousand people with a large population of undocumented Haitian migrants, residents posted images of their countrymen using small boats and Jet Skis to rescue neighbors. Based on the images appearing online, it seemed as if more rescues were being carried out by Bahamian civilians than by government officials. A video went viral of a man navigating a small motorboat through the murky waters of Freeport, Grand Bahama’s largest city. He discovered a family who had waited out the storm in their attic. As he approached, a man hollered a warning out of the attic window and helped him steer around a submerged vehicle. He then loaded the entire family on his small boat and sped away, likely saving their lives.
As residents posted from the islands, Bahamian expatriates were using social media to request information about the safety and location of their friends and family. Appeals for water and relief supplies began surfacing, too. Instagram stories advertised the locations of the Bahamian consulates in major cities across the United States. Other posts called for donations to aid survivors. Mykah Smith, a twenty-five-year-old Bahamian yogini with fifty-six hundred Instagram followers, posted a call for donations to help survivors.
“My Bahamaland❤️ This hurricane has ravaged us. It has claimed lives, the youngest victim only 7 years old. Homes gone forever and countless people missing,” she wrote. “If you are an influencer please use you platform to help. We are more than a tourist destination and pretty beaches. We are people who love our country and have hope in our future.” Smith, who lives in Nassau, the capital of the seven-hundred-island nation, then gave instructions for how to donate. “Prayers and thoughts are great but people have lost everything and donations are needed!” she wrote. “Please see the link in my bio to donate and check my story for the needed supplies and where you can take them.”
Smith, who is also the head of a recycling nonprofit, told me that the posts were her way of getting the world to engage with the calamity. “Basically, with what I shared, I was using the little social-media influence that I do have to try and garner support for us, and spread the word, because a lot of people didn’t even know what was going on,” she said.
Smith has changed the link on her Instagram profile to a listing of approved Dorian aid groups, which includes a Bahamian nonprofit called the HeadKnowles Foundation. The organization was originally founded by Lia Head-Rigby and Gina Knowles as a Facebook group that resembled Angie’s List, where members posted recommendations for goods and service providers in the Bahamas such as caterers or masons. Eventually, HeadKnowles grew into a large network of small-business owners throughout the Bahamas. In 2015, after Hurricane Joaquin hit the country, the organization began collecting financial donations through crowdfunding and received so many supplies that they took over a furniture warehouse for a month.
“We had an assembly line organizing things into boxes; we had people weighing so that we would know which plane is coming,” Rhondi Treco, the thirty-eight-year-old associate director of HeadKnowles, said in a phone interview this week, where she sounded exhausted, and, at times, was on the brink of tears. “We would have people donate planes.” Treco told me that someone donated a DC-8 jet, an aircraft that can hold about a hundred thousand pounds worth of relief supplies.
Joaquin was a Category 4 storm that ravaged smaller islands in the southern Bahamas, including San Salvador and Rum Cay. Treco oversaw the delivery of aid to the islands and coördinated closely with local government administrators to assess exactly what was needed. “They supplied the needs of each of the individual islands based on their demographics, so we didn’t load the islands up with additional junk,” Treco said. “That was very important in our process, and we did that for quite some time, so that’s what built our reputation as a hurricane-relief organization in the Bahamas.”
In the years since Joaquin struck, HeadKnowles has raised at least seven million dollars through GoFundMe for hurricane relief projects. This year, the group hoped to raise a million dollars, but after seeing aerial footage of the damage from Dorian, the organization increased its goal to ten million dollars. In the past ten days, HeadKnowles has raised 1.2 million dollars alone.
In the aftermath of Dorian, the Bahamian government has been criticized for its handling of recovery efforts. Hubert Minnis, the Prime Minister, has been accused of not responding quickly enough and being slow to accept international aid. The government responded. “We are doing everything we can to move as effectively and as efficiently as possible,” said a spokesperson for the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency. “We’re dealing with a disaster.”
Across the West Indies, citizens have complained in recent years of a lack of government preparedness for hurricane seasons. In 2017, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Lesser Antilles, and residents there carried out impromptu rescues after government officials were slow to act. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, hit the island of Dominica, where the government had prepared only for a Category 3 storm. International aid organizations have also been accused of using hurricanes to solicit donations and then failing to distribute money to the people who need it. A ProPublica and NPR investigation, from 2014, revealed that the American Red Cross reassigned emergency vehicles from an active disaster scene to a press conference and “botched key elements of its mission.” (Red Cross officials defended the organization’s performance and denied that the group had made decisions based on public-relations motives.)
With government officials and aid groups struggling to respond to massive storms, hurricane victims are turning to social media. During and after Hurricane Irma, in 2017, Facebook was instrumental in search-and-rescue efforts in St. Maarten, where people posted urgent requests for generators, water, and diapers. Patrick A. Scannell, a doctor and health scientist in St. Maarten, founded a group called Hurricane Disaster Contact & Aid – SXM, where people posted both missing-persons reports and calls for donations. The group received so many postings that it created a separate “Make St. Maarten Great Again (Donation)” page. “We decided pretty early along that those two purposes in that one group was getting in the way of rescuing missing people, so we decided to split it into two different groups,” Scannell told me in a telephone interview.
He said that he was amazed by how effective Facebook could be in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. After the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, he said, people used Facebook messenger to coördinate searches for loved ones who were potentially buried in the rubble. After Irma hit St. Maarten, he created Facebook albums that organized missing people by neighborhood. Since Dorian made landfall, a Facebook group called Dorian People Search Bahamas, accumulated nearly thirteen thousand members. A member posted a plea for information about whether a family in Abaco had survived the storm, naming each member. “Please say if you have seen them,” the person wrote. “Praying for their safety and the safety of all people trapped in this nightmare.” Twenty minutes later, another user replied, writing, “I saw Norma she is fine. I have heard Donnie is accounted for and alive.” Hundreds of similar threads appeared on Facebook.
On the island of Grand Bahama, Dorian ripped the roof off of an oil refinery, causing oil to spill into the water tables of the eastern part of the island. Twitter played an instrumental role in the rescue of people trapped in their homes, many of which lacked potable water. Kimberly Mullings, a broadcast journalist living in Freeport, said that she used Twitter to guide search and rescue missions. “I was most useful inside, reading Twitter and then coördinating people outside on Jet Skis,” she said. So much debris filled the flood waters that only personal watercraft were small and agile enough to conduct rescues. “You couldn’t fight Category 5 winds,” Shawn Gabrielle Gomez, a twenty-five-year-old journalist and content producer at a Bahamian agency called Social Light Media told me. When the storm downgraded, that was the only chance.” Gomez, who has a large social-media following, worked with Mullings and retweeted rescue requests from survivors. She told me that in the Bahamas, Twitter is not used as much as Instagram and Facebook, but it proved vital after the storm. “I do social-media management, and I never thought in a million years we would use Twitter to save lives,” Gomez said.
Other platforms had bureaucratic limitations. Treco, the associate director of HeadKnowles, told me that she was unable to talk to a person at GoFundMe by phone to negotiate the fees that the platform imposed on donations. As my colleague Nathan Heller wrote in the magazine, in June, GoFundMe had raised more than five billion in donations as of 2017, but crowdfunding efforts can create perverse online incentives, in which the most heartrending story wins. Survivors of Dorian, though, hailed the utility of social media. They said that it facilitated grassroots rescue and aid efforts, cut bureaucratic red tape, and saved lives. It also exposed the shortcomings of post-colonial governments, showcased how citizens saved each other after the storm, and facilitated donations to aid groups. Mykah Smith, the Bahamian yogini, said that she hopes that expatriates and tourists will “see the Bahamas as more than just a tourist destination and see that we’re a people that love our country.” She added, “If you can support us in good times, come and support our country and help us when we need it.”