When Hurricane Dorian concluded its onslaught on the Bahamas in September, the country was left to face unprecedented destruction.
The islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama lost more than 13,000 homes. Many schools including a satellite campus of the national university were wiped out. A key seaport and airport were hit hard, with temporary shutdowns contributing to total damages projected to exceed $3.4 billion. Tourism in those two islands took a pause for months. Grand Bahama was declared open for business and welcomed flights from Miami only on Feb. 13.
With all the catastrophic loss, the country did gain one thing: a government ministry that has worked with the National Emergency Management Agency and is preparing for the next big hit, armed with international training and a sense of focus heightened by the threat of climate change.
“I think a lot of people when they hear new ministry or a new authority, they think of bureaucracy,” Bahamas Consul General Astra Armbrister-Rolle told Global Atlanta in a Consular Conversations interview at Miller & Martin PLLC’s Midtown offices Jan. 31.
“But in a place where it hadn’t existed before, when you know that you’re going to get more frequent storms and more severe storms, you have to start innovating, and it has to start somewhere.”
The Bahamas also emerged with deeper evidence of its international partnerships — from general outpourings of support to the $1.5 billion in cash and in-kind charitable donations pledged toward helping the country get back on its feet.
Blending government capability and private-sector commitment will be vital if the Bahamas is to reach its long-term goal: paying forward the lessons of recovery, said Ms. Armbrister-Rolle, who represents the country’s interests in 10 states across the Southeast U.S.
In addition to coordinating an immediate local response that led to more than 400,000 pounds of relief supplies being sent to the Bahamas, she immediately began scouting for new emergency-response solutions that will pay off further into the future. For starters, she attended a demonstration event sponsored by Verizon and Nokia in Perry, Ga., which showed how technologies can aid governments pressured to respond quickly.
“Bringing those kinds of sensibilities to the Caribbean region in general is going to be very, very important to the Bahamas today. But it could be Jamaica tomorrow. It could be Cuba next day. And so the Bahamas’ goal is to lead the way in being that technology hub that understands how we need to be able to respond to these disasters,” she said.
Behind these preparations stands empathy with human stories of grief and adversity, she said.
Working with fellow female colleagues in the consular corps from Canada and Guyana, Ms. Armbrister-Rolle set up Conversations for a Cause locally to look at “what happens when the most vulnerable of society are affected by the storm.” The event included a panel of women in Atlanta telling their stories of being caught in the hurricane.
“They talked about what it was like being in the shelters, why they decided to come to the United States rather than to stay in the Bahamas. And it was just a really great opportunity for us to kind of commune and talk about issues that affect us all,” she said.
The Bahamas will continue to focus on dialogue at both the intimate and international levels, she added. In some ways, the disaster only serves to accelerate conversations about economic vitality that started early on in her tenure, some of which were discussed in her first Consular Conversation two years ago almost to the day.
Continuing Economic Diversification
The Bahamas has long been focused on complementing its strong tourism sector with advancements in agriculture, logistics, manufacturing and technology to grow employment and enhance competitiveness. Food is a particular vulnerability, as with many island nations, and infrastructure development is a major priority.
“If we can’t get food into our country, and we’re not growing in ourselves, how are people going to eat or something more catastrophic comes next year or this year?” Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said.
The Commercial Enterprises Act of 2017 aimed to boost foreign investment in the country, providing incentives in target sectors from arbitration and agriculture to aviation and arbitrage. In other words, the move toward economic revival didn’t start with the hurricane.
But there have been acute measures aimed at getting small businesses back up and running and driving economic activity. Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said VAT tax and import duties have been suspended in Special Economic Recovery Zones on the two affected islands.
Grand Bahama itself had become the government’s chosen showpiece for technology, calling itself a “Silicon Island” that offers special visa categories to attract tech talent and drives discussions on the future of financial technology, artificial intelligence and smart-city initiatives in the Caribbean.
When Ms. Armbrister-Rolle brought a trade and investment summit featuring top ministers and the country’s ambassador to Atlanta in 2018, island’s minister of state, Kwasi Thompson, was a key speaker.
The Bahamas’ goal is to lead the way in being that technology hub that understands how we need to be able to respond to these disasters
Grand Bahama is set to send a delegation this year to Atlanta to shore up relationships and learn from institutions like Georgia Tech as it builds out a tech ecosystem, Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said. Added to that now will be discussions about opportunities in reconstruction. The unfortunate events have provided a reason to reach out to architects and other service providers in the Bahamian diaspora.
“With the rebuild of the airport, and the rebuild of power generation facility, all of those are new opportunities for us to rebuild stronger, more resilient structures. And so that’s going to take a massive effort,” she said, noting that the response would be coordinated carefully by the new Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction to retain the islands’ architectural charm and avoid unnecessary duplicative efforts.
Still, a strong tourism push in 2019 helped blunt the negative impacts of the storm, which shut down the important fisheries sector on Abaco and the logistics center of Freeport.
“Where we lost our economic investment with those two islands, tourism picked it up,” Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said, crediting the country’s leaders with a “world tour” that let people know the hurricane’s damage was localized and limited.
“I think one of the things that people really didn’t realize is the Bahamas is not one land mass; it’s actually an island chain of more than 700 islands and cays. Whereas Abaco may be damaged, Eleuthera is open, Exuma is open,” she said.
The year ended with a record 7.2 million visitors, and the consulate’s tourism attache would like to see Delta Air Lines Inc., which serves three Bahamian destinations and helped with the relief effort, add to that total by bringing back a seasonal flight to Grand Bahama this year.
Fostering Educational Connections
One area where Ms. Armbrister-Rolle has been extremely active is in fostering educational connections, which she believes will be intensified as a result of the storm. Already, Hampton University in Virginia offered a free semester to displaced students, and others are stepping up.
In the two years since her first discussion with Global Atlanta, she fulfilled a pledge to set up an educational attache at the consulate to spearhead partnerships with local universities.
With the Bahamas as of 2019 offering free college tuition to anyone under 35 and maintaining a 2.0 grade point average, Georgia State University has become one of the American institutions helping elite Bahamian students gain a U.S. education.
GSU in 2019 began offering scholarships and grants to up to 10 scholars who come to Atlanta under the Bahamian Ministry of Education’s Public Schools Scholars Program, which carries the expectation that they will return after graduation, a measure intended to reduce the islands’ “brain drain.”
The university’s impressive record with first-generation college students attracted the Bahamian government’s attention.
“We thought that it would be a great opportunity for our Bahamians who are in the family islands, or who are from low- income homes, to be able to take part in a school they could almost help to assure them that they would complete their degree,” Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said.
Beyond that, Georgia State is also offering faculty assistance to design online and distance-learning programs that will help serve the island’s network of technical colleges.
“Education is going to be the key to our development. We understand that, we know that, and while it may not be that very direct fundraising effort that will cause the country to rebuild faster, we know that that’s going to help us sustainably grow and become a lot better.”
For more information on setting up university partnerships with the Bahamas, contact education attache Rochelle Russell at the consulate at email@example.com. Tourism inquiries can go to Gabrielle Archer, area manager for the Ministry of Tourism.
To donate to recovery efforts, visit https://www.bahamas.com/relief.