NASSAU, Bahamas – Shella Moneistime paced outside a packed government shelter for hurricane victims.
Her 3-week-old son wore a clean diaper as he napped inside. She had a cot and three meals a day. But she was distressed.
“We get food. We get water. We sleep,” Moneistime, 31, said, her voice cracking. “The point is: How long we going to be in there?”
It’s been almost two weeks since Hurricane Dorian leveled Moneistime’s home on Great Abaco island and no one here can answer that yet.
The most urgent crisis left by the Category 5 hurricane, which battered the northwestern Bahamas for 40 hours and killed at least 50 people, is over. Nearly everyone has been evacuated from Great Abaco, where most structures were obliterated. Many also left Grand Bahama, where flooding and wind damage was widespread.
Aid efforts in those islands were underway even as a tropical storm brushed the Bahamas on Saturday. Humberto was expected to bring up to four inches of rain and winds of about 40 mph as it moved past Great Abaco Island.
But the large-scale displacement has created a new challenge. The government says New Providence, home to the bustling city of Nassau, has received at least 5,500 evacuees, probably far more. More than 2,000 are in government shelters, most of which are full. Others are crammed into the homes of friends or family. The arrivals represent a small rise in a city of 275,000, but their presence is putting new strains on the system and raising questions about housing, employment, schooling and integration of evacuees, many of whom are Haitian and lack legal status.
“New Providence is 21 miles long and 7 miles wide, and it holds 80% of the population,” said Christopher Curry, a historian at the University of the Bahamas. “The challenge is you have people being evacuated from these communities to a saturated island.”
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To address part of the newcomers’ needs, the government on Thursday began registering evacuated children for public school. Some 10,000 children were enrolled on the two affected islands, and officials estimate that about 5,000 of them may seek to register in New Providence, said Zane Lightbourne, an education ministry coordinator overseeing the process with assistance from UNICEF.
As he spoke, displaced parents and children sat behind him on chairs arranged outside a large stadium, waiting to be called inside for registration. Across a parking lot, a gardener zipped around on an orange ride-on mower, trimming lush grass beneath palm trees.
Inside, health workers checked immunization records – those that survived the hurricane – and administered required shots. Parents sat at tables, filling out forms. Children wore new backpacks, tags still dangling, that held composition notebooks and pencil pouches. If all went smoothly, families emerged with a letter that would allow the kids to attend a specific school.
But many public schools here are overcrowded already – some with classes of nearly 40 students, according to the teachers’ union. Lightbourne said officials will assign them to the least packed campuses, which might not be close to where the children are staying.
“We’re trying to avoid chaotic situations. We’re trying to avoid burning out teachers,” Lightbourne said. “Not just to be a body in an environment, but to be a body in a room with furniture and learning, that’s the ultimate goal here.”
Government officials have said they are exploring housing options that are more permanent than shelters. But Prime Minister Hubert Minnis has said Nassau cannot accommodate all the displaced, and Lightbourne said education officials might try to “entice” some evacuees to move to another of the 30 inhabited islands in this archipelago nation.
That might be for the best, said Belinda Wilson, president of the Bahamas Union of Teachers.
“In those islands, the class sizes are very small,” she said. “This natural disaster that we face is going to call for leadership and for extraordinary thinking.”
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Sheneka Thompson’s and Lavonne Stubbs’s minds were already there. Their townhouse in the Murphy Town area of Great Abaco was ruined, their jobs in tourism now nonexistent. After stepping off the evacuation boat that deposited them in Nassau’s port, they were lucky enough to meet a good Samaritan who put them up in a hotel for several days.
But this night would be their last, and now their sights were set on Eleuthera, an island famous for pink sand beaches. Stubbs, 30, grew up there. He had a lead on a place to stay. There might be tourism work.
“I don’t think there’s enough jobs for everybody here,” said Thompson, 34, who was outside the shelter trying to reach a friend inside.
She’s right, Curry said: Unemployment in New Providence was already above 10%, and youth unemployment was around 20%. “A lot of people are living below the poverty line, basically just surviving from meal to meal and with the assistance of social services,” he said.
Nicola McIntosh tried to get a job. Just a few days after evacuating from Grand Cay, off Great Abaco, she spotted an ad for an office assistant in the Tribune, a local paper. She gathered her documents and went to apply. But the employer wanted a police record and references – things she didn’t have yet.
McIntosh and her three children stayed one night in a Nassau shelter, but it was “so horrible,” she said. Now they were staying with her brother in his studio apartment – they on the bed, he on the floor. It wasn’t sustainable, but renting would require income.
“I need to get a job, get on my feet, get an apartment,” she said, waiting at the stadium to register her children for school. “But we just started from scratch.”
Government officials have emphasized that accommodating the displaced is a priority, but also a slow and evolving process. Registering schoolchildren is expected to take about an hour per student, and a month total.
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Shakira Lightbourne exited the stadium holding the hand of her 3-year-old and glowering. The mother of six boys, whose souvenir shop in the Grand Bahama city of Freeport was flooded, was already tense from temporarily residing in a small house with five other relatives.
Even though she hoped to return home in a few weeks, she wanted stability for her children. So she borrowed a car and waited three hours to enroll them in school. Instead, officials told her they were prioritizing kids in shelters, she said, and she needed to bring all six to the stadium. She’d brought three.
“They don’t know when they can process me. They say they’ll call me,” said Lightbourne, who is not related to the education ministry official. “I said, how long? They don’t know.”
A few feet away, Veronne McKenzie sat on brick steps, waiting her turn. She had an option if Nassau didn’t work out: A U.S. visa. She’d long used it to travel to Miami, buy clothing, and then sell it in the now-destroyed Great Abaco town of Marsh Harbour. America might be better than here, she said.
There was a problem, though, one shared by other evacuee families. Her three children didn’t have visas. “I can’t leave them,” she said.
The friend they were staying with had kicked them out that morning, McKenzie said. From her pocket, McKenzie, 55, pulled a crumpled scrap of paper that someone inside the stadium had given her. It listed the names of two shelters. Maybe she’d try them.
“Maybe we’ll sleep in the car,” she said softly.
Did she have a car?
She waved her hand.