About two weeks ago, Hurricane Dorian swept into the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm and wreaked havoc on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island. The full extent of the damage is still unknown; 50 are reported as dead, 2,500 are reported as missing, and an estimated 70,000 are homeless. Some people are trying to reach the United States—specifically, Florida—by boat to stay with family. Others, as reported by NBC News, have been trapped in isolated areas waiting to be rescued.
Yes: They’d been waiting for weeks.
Justin Johnson, a volunteer helicopter pilot, and his wife, Angela Johnson, discovered up to 40 people in a decimated part of the Bahamas. The couple was in the Bahamas as part of a volunteer group called MEDIC Corps which provides humanitarian aid after natural disasters.
The couple, in addition to a news reporter and another volunteer, first noticed the decimated area while flying over Little Abaco. The reporter, Vic Micolucci from Jacksonville, Florida, pointed out the field covered in debris and suggested that people might still be down there.
Angela Johnson explained to NBC News that they originally brushed off the suggestion because it appeared to be just trash. The next day, while on a supply run, intuition kicked in. Her husband went back.
Up to 40 people crawled out of the debris around him as soon as he landed on the site. From there, he went back to his partner and working alongside MEDIC Corps, they gathered supplies, including food, tents, and water.
“Pack up everything,” the pilot said. “That place [the reporter] found has 30 to 40 people living in it.”
Why were so many people there for so long? According to MEDIC Corps, there are a few reasons. First, this particular village was initially passed by because it was far from the main roads. Many residents didn’t speak English and don’t have their own vehicles. This meant leaving to get help, or somehow calling and seeking help, became impossible.
Why stay there while the storm hit? First of all, many people can’t evacuate for a variety of reasons including disabilities, pets, and a simple lack of access. But for this particular group, there’s another reason. Many of those rescued were undocumented immigrants who had come from Haiti and feared being deported, according to MEDIC Corps. Because they feared deportation, they were left to make a terrifying decision: Stay and try to brave the hurricane without support, or evacuate and risk being kicked out of the country?
This particular story has a relatively happy ending. Angela Johnson tells NBC News people were “dancing, hands raised up to the heavens” upon being rescued. That’s lovely, but this story speaks to a bigger issue and one that is easy to conceive happening in the United States.
When deportation hangs over people, they’re less likely to seek help, whether that means not evacuating during a disaster or not reporting crimes committed against them. Some might call this volunteer pilot locating these survivors a miracle, but it’s also simple luck. And no one’s lives should be left up to luck because of their immigration status. Facing a natural disaster—or abuse, or robbery, or discrimination, or what have you—is stressful and frightening as it is. Fear of deportation on top of that is nothing short of inhumane.