Fort Lauderdale Legates extend much-needed help to the Bahamas
Hundreds of people are still living in temporary homeless shelters, more than four months after Hurricane Dorian swept through the Bahamas. The Catholic schools on the two hardest-hit islands, Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, were nearly destroyed, as were entire homes and neighborhoods by the hurricane’s 185 mph winds and powerful storm surge.
“Abaco in particular, had just about everything wiped out,” said Jim Cavnar, the founder and president of Cross Catholic Outreach, a Florida-based relief and development ministry that provides supplies and emergency relief to the poor worldwide.
Cavnar, a member of Legatus’ Fort Lauderdale Chapter, and David Adams, the vice president of missions for Cross Catholic Outreach, traveled to the Bahamas in late November to meet with Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau, whose territory includes Great Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Adams, who is also a member of Legatus’ Fort Lauderdale Chapter, said he and Cavnar went for an “intense” one-day trip where they met with the archbishop and his staff to discuss the ongoing relief efforts and the islands’ long-term recovery needs, which include resettling about 450 people still displaced and living in a sports arena that has been transformed into a temporary shelter.
“At one point, there were over 2,000 internally displaced people,” said Adams, adding that many were housed in large tent shelters adjacent to the Nassau arena. Those who have left the shelters have moved in with relatives in the United States and elsewhere, or dispersed into the neighborhoods around the arena.
The vast majority of the internally displaced people were Haitians who had migrated to the Bahamas after fleeing the crippling poverty and political instability in their country. Many of them were living in rickety “shantytowns” made of scrap wood and tin.
“It’s not unusual to find that those who are the most impacted by natural disasters are people who are the poorest, and they have the least capacity to recover,” said Cavnar, who founded Cross Catholic Outreach in 2001.
“Like a bomb went off”
Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the northwest Bahamas on Sept. 1, and lingered for several days. At its most powerful, Dorian was listed as a Category 5 major hurricane, peaking with one-minute sustained winds of 185 mph and generating destructive gusts over 220 mph, along with a storm surge possibly as high as 23 feet.
Hurricane Dorian unleashed massive flooding across the Bahamas and destroyed as many as 13,000 homes, wiping out entire neighborhoods. The storm demolished utilities, airport landing strips, schools, hospitals, churches, pharmacies, and grocery stores, among other structures.
“It’s like a bomb went off there,” Adams said.
The hurricane displaced about 14,000 people, 10,000 of them being school-age children. At least 69 people were killed, though the actual death toll may be significantly higher. In total, the hurricane wreaked $7.5 billion worth of damage.
“They had to evacuate everybody on Abaco, and a lot of people in Grand Bahama, because there was no electricity. The water system went offline and there were no stores open where you could buy food or anything,” said Cavnar, adding that the government evacuated residents to the Nassau shelters.
Sent supplies within days
“We are not set up as an organization to be first responders,” Cavnar said. “We don’t send teams of people into disaster areas to respond. Instead, I would describe us as the first suppliers of the first responders.”
True to its mission, Cross Catholic Outreach has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies to the Bahamas to help the local Church and first responders with the overwhelming relief work, as well as basic food and hygiene goods to help displaced people get by.
Within days of the disaster, Cross Catholic Outreach sent $5,000 worth of hygiene kits to the worst-hit areas. In late September, the relief ministry sent more hygiene kits – more than 6,800 total – as well as dozens of pallets containing 544,320 Vitafood meals.
Cross Catholic Outreach also collaborated with the United Way of Broward County to send an additional 40-foot container of Vitafood to Nassau, and shipped three more containers in early October. Two large containers of food, medicine, and other assorted items were also sent in November.
“The archbishop couldn’t say thank you enough. He told us how some of the customs agents who had to inspect and clear the 40-foot containers told him they couldn’t believe how high a quality some of those goods were,” said Adams, a retired senior foreign service worker who joined Cross Catholic Outreach as its first vice president for missions.
Cavnar said his ministry has also secured a 40-foot container filled with roofing material. The container is in Miami, and will be shipped to the Bahamas when local officials give Cross Catholic Outreach the go-ahead.
Help rebuilding Catholic schools
In addition to teaming with the Archdiocese of Nassau, Cross Catholic Outreach is partnering with Catholic Charities of Miami to aid storm survivors. Cavnar said his ministry has provided a $5,000 grant to Catholic Charities of Miami to support its hurricane response efforts, and has donated space in its Florida warehouse for Catholic Charities’ relief supplies.
Cavnar also hand-delivered a $5,000 grant check to Archbishop Pinder for the Archdiocese of Nassau’s recovery efforts. In speaking with the archbishop and his staff, Cavnar and Adams said the local Church has placed rebuilding Catholic schools as a pressing need.
“The archbishop said education is his key priority,” Adams said. “He said parents have been telling him that they won’t go back to Abaco until the schools are reopened.”
Adams and Cavnar expected to make another trip to the Bahamas by late December, this time to tour the devastated areas on Great Abaco and Grand Bahama. Since the islands are filled with debris and many roads are impassable, they were expected to fly over the islands in a helicopter or plane.
Adams said Cross Catholic Outreach may also be looking to build some affordable housing units for the internally displaced people, especially as it’s unlikely that the government in the Bahamas will allow residents to rebuild the flimsy tin and plywood shelters that were destroyed in Hurricane Dorian.
Cross Catholic Outreach has experience building shelters in other countries in Latin America, East Africa, and Asia. The ministry has also collaborated with other aid partners to provide medical care, clean water, care for orphans, and self-help programs around the world.
“We’ve also done cash grants in other countries that help families to finance their school expenses,” Adams said. “The grants help families to pay fees for school, for uniforms, and books. They also go toward scholarships.”
Cavnar said his ministry might allocate some money to help families in the Bahamas to send their children to Catholic schools. He and Adams expect to continue having conversations with Church leaders there about the ongoing needs in the Bahamas.
“Everything we do is to empower the local Church, whether it’s recovery from natural disasters or responding to poverty,” Cavnar said. “In some ways, the serious poverty we have all over the world is like a daily disaster for those who live in it. So our whole philosophy is to empower the local Church to respond to that disaster in an ongoing and effective way. That’s what our ministry is all about.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.