They descended the cruise ship’s gangplank at the Port of Palm Beach looking like refugees from a war zone. Some carried babies and small children; others clutched small bags of possessions snatched hastily from the rubble of their ruined homes; most had just the clothes they stood in.
For the 1,435 weary Hurricane Dorian evacuees from the Bahamas who disembarked the Grand Celebration liner and stepped on to the dockside at the weekend there were the pressing concerns of where they would find immediate shelter.
But while the Red Cross spoke of how they had received offers from across Florida to help accommodate them, their longer-term situations and the willingness of the US to offer shelter to more of the tens of thousands of homeless survivors have quickly become politically sensitive questions.
On Monday, Donald Trump weighed in, claiming without evidence that “very bad people” including gang members and drug dealers were probably among evacuees seeking entry to the US.
The president’s comments also followed an episode on Sunday in Freeport, the capital of the island of Grand Bahama that was torn apart by the category 5 hurricane just days earlier, in which dozens of Bahamians without US visas were ordered off a boat to Fort Lauderdale even though they were admissible on humanitarian grounds without one.
The political temperature rose further on Wednesday after the Miami Herald reported that immigration authorities detained a 12-year-old Bahamian girl on arrival at Palm Beach international airport, separated her from her godmother and placed her in a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Miami.
“Trump’s cruelty against black and brown people knows no end,” Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of Families Belong Together, said in a statement demanding the girl’s immediate release.
“This little girl came to the US fleeing Hurricane Dorian with her godmother at her parents’ direction only to be classified as an unaccompanied minor and ripped away from her loved ones. Now, her family has to start the long process of becoming the child’s sponsor.”
The majority of those newly arrived from Freeport on Saturday to the Port of Palm Beach on the cruise liner slipped quietly away, collected by family members already in Florida, or to hotels or private accommodation that friends, relatives and benefactors had secured for them.
Of the 857 Bahamian nationals aboard, barely 60 got on buses for a Red Cross shelter set up at a recreation center in nearby Lake Worth on Saturday.
Red Cross officials spoke of how they were focused on their immediate needs.
“The county asked us to open the shelter temporarily for the people who are coming on this ship, but there is no rolling process, no ongoing process for additional people to be processed this way,” Craig Cooper, national spokesman for the American Red Cross, told the Guardian on Tuesday. “We need to dispel any belief or assumption there is going to be an ongoing situation or absorbing people who are coming over from the Bahamas.”
‘Not looking for handouts’
The humanitarian evacuation to Florida so far has involved just a few thousand of the estimated 70,000 islanders made homeless by the most powerful storm ever to strike the Bahamas.
Those who have made it to Florida, however, have little time for politics.
Some, like Areesha Marshall, 24, have more important concerns as they start to think about how to reconstruct their lives, such as caring for her three- and four-year-old children in a new country. “No one really knows when it’s going to be OK to go back home,” she told the Sun-Sentinel. “The situation is dire.”
Cooper, of the Red Cross, said the common theme among those at the shelter was a desire to rebuild. “They’re not looking for handouts,” he said. “Almost the first thing out of many of these people’s mouths was, ‘I need to get to work, I need to find a way to find a job here in the US. My family needs the money, I need the money, I don’t want to sit in the shelter.’”
He pointed to “the amazing response” to the crisis by the residents of Florida, itself still recovering from two major hurricane strikes in two years, Irma in 2017 and Michael last year.
“We had a call from someone in Jacksonville, a property owner with 150 available places for people to stay, and other calls, individual homeowners who say they’re not going to be in their house for the next three months, that type of thing,” Cooper said.
Support for the evacuees, who have arrived in Florida every day since the hurricane on relief flights, and on an armada of smaller private boats whose captains ferry supplies in and take victims out, has come from many quarters.
For example, the Mastroianni Foundation, established by a family of prominent south Florida hoteliers, has provided rooms for dozens of displaced Bahamians in two hotels in Jupiter. “These people have been through the absolute worst days of their lives and have lost everything,” chief executive Nick Mastroianni said in a Facebook post. “They will have a place to rest their head until they get their feet on the ground.”
Hurricane Dorian relief and support sites have also popped up on social media, with Floridians posting offers of accommodation in private houses or on Airbnb.
Mostly, however, those who have arrived in Florida from the Bahamas have joined family members already living here, proof of the strong bonds and history between the Sunshine state and the Caribbean island nation. An estimated 20,000 Bahamians live in Miami and its suburbs.
“Bahamians practically helped build Miami and Broward county back in the 1930s and 40s, so they have a deep connection,” said Shevrin Jones, a Democratic state congressman of Bahamian descent.
“Outside of just being a vacation spot, Florida is a place where the Bahamian community migrated years ago for a better life for their families. They found that and now they call Florida their home. They’re now looking for Florida to help build the Bahamas.”
Jones has been lobbying the Trump administration to waive visa requirements and open an easier path to admission for hurricane refugees. “I’m almost sure if we would do our research the amount of people who would want to come here is not as many as probably going through the mind of so many,” he said.
“The Bahamian people do not want to come to Florida to stay, it’s like your nextdoor neighbor helping you after an ordeal with a place to sleep for a while. I’ll keep saying it until I’m blue in the face, this is a humanitarian effort and we have to think about if it was us, what would we want?”