On 1 September 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane on Abaco Islands, The Bahamas, before moving over Grand Bahama Island, The Bahamas. As of 28 October, the official death toll stood at 67, and is expected to rise given that over 200 people were still missing. The hurricane left a trail of devastation, with destroyed buildings, uprooted trees and significant disruptions to basic services on both islands.
Key environmental concerns in the aftermath of Dorian included: i) the management of large quantities of disaster waste generated by the hurricane; ii) the confirmed inland spill of crude oil and any potential spills at sea from Equinor’s oil storage facility on Grand Bahama Island; and iii) any potential secondary and cascading impacts resulting from damages to the numerous hazardous operation facilities located on Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands.
To support the government-led response to Hurricane Dorian, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team was deployed to The Bahamas from 8 to 28 September. The team embedded an environmental expert from the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit (JEU). The expert moved across New Providence, Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands to equally support efforts in Nassau, Marsh Harbour and Freeport. In Grand Bahama, the expert was joined by one representative of the Ministry of the Environment, two oil spill experts mobilized by the JEU through the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) and a UCPM liaison officer to specifically address oil spill concerns, in liaison with the United States Coast Guard.
The main objective of the overall mission was to provide technical advice to national and local authorities to rapidly identify, assess and mitigate any negative environmental impacts following the event, with an emphasis on those that posed immediate life-threatening risks to humans (both local communities and responders); advise on required follow-up actions; promote the early integration of environmental considerations in assessments and overall response efforts; facilitate knowledge sharing and information exchange among national and international counterparts on environmental matters; and deliver recommendations accordingly.
The mission outcomes showed that special considerations on hazardous waste should be incorporated in a comprehensive disaster waste management strategy and any ongoing clean-up efforts should be linked to this strategy. Acute environmental risks on Abaco Islands deriving from some of the worst impacted hazardous operation facilities have been rapidly mitigated to prevent cascading negative humanitarian and environmental impacts, but timely follow-up by the operators at all sites of concern is required to restore safety. There is no evidence of the presence of crude oil at sea resulting from the damage on Equinor’s oil storage facility. Response to the inland spill will require an agreement between national authorities and the operator on the endpoints of clean-up efforts. This should aim at minimizing the generation of waste by promoting reusing and recycling to the extent possible, while ensuring adequate removal of contaminated products. The incident further highlighted the opportunity to strengthen existing capacities and enhance readiness for any similar events in the future.