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The International Military Humanitarian Response to The Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian

10th October, 2019

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

Part I: The Storm

Saturday 31 August, 2019; prior to the devastation Hurricane Dorian would leave behind on the island-chain nation of The Bahamas, the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, RFA Mounts Bay, is stationed near the British Virgin Islands, waiting for the order to deploy and provide disaster relief to countries post-storm. Every year the Royal Navy deploys ships to the Caribbean in anticipation of hurricane season, and this year the Mounts Bay’s destination is The Bahamas.

Many Armed Forces have unique capabilities to solve logistical problems and provide quick initial support to managing natural and man-made disasters world-wide. Hurricanes such as Dorian are no exception. Despite the destruction left behind on The Bahamas, predominantly on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, the Category-5 storm provided a stark example of how Armed Forces from the Caribbean, and larger regional and global powers, can come together to provide initial relief and helped set the stage for civilian organizations to follow on and provide long-term humanitarian aid.

Hurricane Dorian

350km/h winds and six meter storm surges have led to property loss estimated at $7 billion with thousands of homes destroyed, at least 53 people dead and more than 1,300 missing. This is the strongest hurricane to hit The Bahamas in modern record. The United Nations estimates some 70,000 people are in need of food and shelter with 30,000 people being on the two most heavily impacted islands; Abaco and Grand Bahama.

While international organizations scrambled to reach the islands, the damage suffered by airports and harbors initially made reaching The Bahamas a logistical nightmare. In addition to civilian organizations, some countries made their Armed Forces available to support the relief effort, including ships and aircraft not otherwise operated by civilian organizations.

Part II: The Response

Landfall and Mounts Bay

Hurricane Dorian made landfall on The Bahamas on Sunday, September 1, 2019 at Elbow Cay on Abaco Island. For two days the storm hit Abaco and Grand Bahama islands the strongest. RFA Mounts Bay was already deployed in the area. The Bay-class landing ship dock had previously been deployed in Operation Ruman, the humanitarian response to Hurricane Irma in 2017 and has been in the Caribbean since June 2019. The amphibious operations vessel delivered shelter kits, ration packs and water while its attached Wildcat helicopter flew evacuations from outlying, cut-off, communities. The ship’s helicopter was airborne on September 3 conducting assessments to help coordinate relief efforts. While the efforts of RFA Mounts Bay can continue to be listed, crucial is that this ship was, to this author’s knowledge, the first international support to arrive to The Bahamas. As it was perhaps the first, it was crucial for the ship’s personnel to gather intelligence needed for civilian actors to play their long-term role in providing humanitarian aid.

Further British military assets later arrived to support the relief operation. HMS Protector, which was in Bermuda, took aboard food, water and clothing to deliver to The Bahamas on September 9. The ship was en route to Antarctica when the Bermudan government asked them to transport the supplies they had collected domestically.

The American Sphere of Influence

Only about 100 km separate the shorelines of the United States (West Palm Beach) and The Bahamas (West End), while some 200 km stand between Homestead Air Reserve Base and Grand Bahama International Airport, making it possible for the United States to deploy its Armed Forces by air without necessarily needing to rely on naval vessels. Being the regional hegemon with seemingly endless resources, the United States also deployed military assets as soon as weather conditions permitted, beginning with the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

The West Indies is within the US military’s Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) sphere of influence, and the organisation led the American military relief response to Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas. As with the British response, the American effort was concentrated around enabling civilian experts to carry out humanitarian assistance, with Coast Guard helicopters supporting USAID and the DoD by flying aerial assessments and airlifts.

In order to clear the way for international actors to fly in, the American priority was clearing the airfield on Abaco Island, permitting aircraft with supplies to land. In order to re-fuel after the flight from the US to The Bahamas by helicopter, USCG helicopters were supported by RFA Mounts Bay, providing an example of interoperability between national Armed Forces.

Aerial assets departed from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Southern Florida with the purpose to re-open airfields in The Bahamas. One United States Navy ship, the USS Bataan, was also deployed. The USS Bataan carried MV-22 Ospreys with Air Force members to assess if C-130 and C-17 airlifters would be able to land on the affected islands. While over 1,000 military personnel were involved in the initial relief effort, the USCG remained the primary provider of relief with eight cutters and twelve helicopters running everything from aerial assessments to evacuations. Over twenty cutters were pre-stationed in Key West in anticipation of the storm, ready to be deployed when available.

The USS Bataan, like the RFA Mounts Bay, is an amphibious assault ship that also carried personnel from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. By September 9, USNORTHCOM had delivered 72 metric tons of supplies, search and rescue equipment, 183 responders and four dogs.

While The Bahamas has to request aid from foreign governments, the United States, despite carrying out disaster response in its own country after Hurricane Dorian made it past The Bahamas and onto the south-eastern shore of the US, was able to assess Grand Bahama International Airport and Marsh Harbor Airport on Grand Abaco. Search and Rescue efforts were led by the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency and Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF), which was supported by the USCG.

Following the initial response, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship, the USS New York and a Harper’s Ferry-class dock landing ship, the USS Oak Hill, also arrived on scene with air traffic control operators to help monitor the Bahamian airspace. Their shipboard fresh-water making capabilities were used to fill pallets of water and transport them to Marsh Harbor, Treasure Cay and Moore’s Island. Humanitarian supplies were flown from the US mainland by MH-60 Seahawk, heavier CH-53E Sea Stallion and MV-22B Osprey helicopters. On scene, American aerial assets transported USAID and UN personnel to their areas of operation.

A combined EU effort

Aid from across the ocean arrived in the form of Dutch, French and German military personnel. Just as the Americans looked into bringing aerial traffic back under order, the European nations, arriving on two Dutch Navy ships, first focused on cleaning up the ports while providing transport vehicles and supplies for hospitals. The 40-some vehicles permitted supplies to be brought to remote areas and, in cooperation with the RBDF, cleared debris from critical public works and infrastructure while engineers began reconstruction.

The two Dutch ships in question are the Zr.Ms. Johan de Witt and the Zr.Ms. Snellius, which arrived in The Bahamas with 550 soldiers from the navy, air force, army and military police. However, the ships were not sent from the Netherlands, rather they were already in the region participating in a large Caribbean coast emergency relief exercise and were diverted when The Bahamas requested help through the Caribbean Emergency Management Agency. The 50 German and 50 French soldiers were on board of the Johan de Witt. Like the RFA Mounts Bay and USS Bataan, the Zr.Ms. Johan de Witt is also an amphibious transport ship and includes an aerial asset. The Zr.Ms. Snellius on the other hand, is a hydrographic survey vessel. In addition to the forces present on the ships, 84 additional marines were flown from the Netherlands to Sint-Maarten on a KDC-10 transport aircraft where they joined the two ships before heading to The Bahamas.

Jamaican and Canadian Tag-Team

Support also came from the Bahamas’ Caribbean neighbors. Early on, the Jamaica Defense Force (JDF) requested help from Canada to airlift a response team, including relief supplies and equipment to sustain the team for one month. They were to support the Bahamian Coast Guard, assist in logistical distribution of supplies and help the local police ensure safety and security on Abaco and Grand Bahama. The team in question, a Disaster Assistance Response Team, was transported by the Royal Canadian Air Force for an initial deployment of 30 days.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aircraft used was a C-130J Hercules sent on September 6 to provide the airlift. Along with the aircraft, the Canadian government donated $500,000 and also deployed a Canadian Disaster Assistance Team to Nassau, all before the remnants of Dorian reached Canadian territory, and where the Canadian military supported domestic relief efforts just as the Americans did within their homeland.

Caribbean solidarity

Hurricanes have devastated other small island nations in the Caribbean in the past, and all those un- or slightly-affected by Dorian knew very well; it could have been any of them. This realization in no way escaped the sentiments of government or citizenry and despite having far fewer resources than far richer European and American countries, some of these Caribbean island nations contributed to the relief effort for The Bahamas with both civilian and military assets.

Trinidad and Tobago sent 100 military personnel to support the RBDF. The members of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Forces (TTDF) contributed by distributing food, clearing debris and repairing public buildings. Barbados sent members of the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) and the Barbados Coast Guard, while also deploying personnel from its Light and Power Company to help The Bahamas with restoration of power. The BDF set up a hotline for the public to make donations which they would then distribute in The Bahamas. The Dominican Republic sent a team aboard the Almirante Didiez Burgos with relief supplies which was set to arrive on September 20.

Part III: The National Interests

Assisting in cases of natural disasters and providing humanitarian aid is mandated by Armed Forces around the world. What makes them efficient are their capabilities to deploy at a moment’s notice with well-trained personnel that have specialized equipment to reach remote areas at times and under conditions civilian organizations may not be able to. “Speed is of the essencesaid one Red Cross official, making a quick reaction necessary, even when airfields and ports may be inoperable. These obstacles, which may delay civilian actors, are a priority for military responders to overcome in order to allow for long-term relief and humanitarian aid to flow in. In The Bahamas, civil-military coordination meetings have been taking place every day in the capital Nassau since September 7 to best combine assets in the most efficient manner.

Tomorrow, it can be any other of us

The Caribbean community is small in comparison to the large territory it encompasses. The way the island nations are spread out on a map also resembles the trajectories of hurricanes year after year. The Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis said in response to Hurricane Dorian, “As we are all one and we are all vulnerable. Today it may be Bahamas, tomorrow it can be any other of us.” This sentiment was echoed through the region. The Cayman Islands, with experience from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, donated medical supplies to The Bahamas while Dominica, with experience from Hurricane Maria in 2017, contributed financially, with public works and civilian personnel. As hurricanes are a constant looming threat over these island states, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) coordinate joint efforts to support islands hit by these super-storms.

The Prime Minister of Barbados admitted, “we were fortunate enough to have been spared the wrath of Dorian, but we are no less touched by what has occurred in The Bahamas than if it had taken place right here in Barbados.” It is only a matter of when, not if, another hurricane plummets another of these nations. A regional response to supplying relief and aid, with both military and civilian means, is a show of solidarity individual Caribbean states know they will one day be grateful for receiving as well.

Europe

Solidarity is undoubtedly a factor when considering the response by the greater international community. Many countries which did not deploy military assets for a multitude of reasons may have contributed to the relief effort by other means, such as India, which donated $1 million to the recovery effort as it did to Antigua and Barbuda in 2017, and Switzerland, which sent a team of humanitarian experts to help provide potable water to affected communities.

The European states which responded to Dorian all possess territories in the Caribbean and the 2017 Hurricane Irma provides a backdrop from which to analyze Hurricane Dorian. While the United Kingdom deploys ships to the region every year, it received criticism in 2017 when responding to the effects of Hurricane Irma on its overseas territories in the Caribbean despite RFA Mounts Bay also having been present. While it appears this ship is part of the standard preparation the UK makes every year, since UK overseas territory was hit, an additional 500 troops in a variety of functions were deployed by air while the then Royal Navy flagship, HMS Ocean, was diverted from the Mediterranean towards the Caribbean. This makes the UK’s 2017 Caribbean territories response a much larger one than the response provided to The Bahamas in 2019. The responsibility to a state’s own population and territory can explain this while unknown availability of ships in 2019 may be a factor as well.

The French and Dutch also possess overseas territories in the Caribbean and deployed military personnel in 2017 as well. It is unlikely then that the Caribbean coast emergency relief exercise the two Dutch naval vessels participated in was coincidentally during hurricane season. If no hurricane hit, the planned exercises would prepare the ships and crews for future hurricanes, but if a hurricane did hit, as Dorian did, then the exercise could be turned into an operation, as it appears to have been. Since The Bahamas is not territory of any European nation, no large amount of additional forces were sent, however the European Union as a whole did contribute financial assistance and humanitarian experts.

North America

The Canadian C-130 Hercules was deployed after a request for help from Jamaica. However, is not known if military assets would have also been provided had Canada not received the request from Jamaica. Geographic distance and the current locations of Canadian naval vessels would also have to have been considered while larger transport aircraft would not have been able to land in The Bahamas shortly after the storm passed for a variety of technical reasons, not least due to the conditions necessary to host a large airlifter such as a C-17 Globemaster. Even then, the deployment schedule of these aircraft would have possibly been needed to be altered and a C-130 provided for the most cost-efficient and practical solution that was available for the request made by Jamaica when Canada perhaps never intended to deploy military assets, just financial and civilian response. This begs the question, why Jamaica approached Canada as opposed to the United States, which has more transport capabilities and is much closer to the island-nation.

As the regional hegemon, the United States was quick to respond with military experts and equipment ranging from ships to aircraft. Solidarity undoubtedly played a role here as well, as Dorian hit the continental United States, a far larger and richer country with vast amounts of resources, after having pummeled The Bahamas. Politicians and the Coast Guard surveyed the devastated islands and made calls for international support while civilian actors, including USAID, deployed their assets as well.

Where the American response differs from the others however, is the realization that the lack of ability or lack of will to help its smaller neighbors means leaving gaps that can be filled by foreign influence. In modern geopolitical terms, this means China. While the growing superpower is known to be expanding its influence in Africa and attempting to in the Arctic, doing so on the United States’ doorstep can very clearly be interpreted as a political and economic threat, resulting in long-term security implications for the United States. The thought of a potential Chinese naval base in the Caribbean would surely be enough to cause the USA to increase support to hurricane-hit islands as a way of maintaining hemispheric control and regional influence. To counter this, a quick relief response made available by the military and a long-term commitment to reconstruction fulfilled by civilian actors are necessary. However the United States cannot and will not do everything by itself and Chinese aid, though not militarily, is on the way.

Part IV: Hope

Students of international relations will be more than familiar with the idea that states always act out of national interest. While it is certainly true that national interest has driven the military humanitarian response by states regionally and globally, solidarity and the knowledge that a natural disaster can affect anyone anywhere also played a role. As for the Bahamians trying to find a way to deal with the loss imposed on them by Hurricane Dorian, a ship carrying a foreign flag and filled with much-needed supplies, ready to be brought ashore by brave men and women in uniform willing to lend a hand, is surely a sign that the world is watching and is here to help, a sign that The Bahamas had not been abandoned. On the contrary, brought nations together; a sign of hope.

Image: a Dutch soldier surveys the damage (Source: Dutch Defence Ministry)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin has a dual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Anthropology from Washington College and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for an international NGO. As a Specialist Officer in the Swiss Armed Forces he recently returned from serving with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali after having been on mission with the Kosovo Force. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.