GRAND BAHAMA — The video started to spread across his Facebook groups, a blurry cable news clip someone recorded on a phone, showing President Donald Trump on Monday saying he was wary of Hurricane Dorian survivors coming to the US for refuge.
Vida Hepburn watched Trump use the same fearmongering language he unleashes to whip up his supporters against immigrants from Central America: People from the Bahamas could be “very bad,” or “gang members,” or “drug dealers.” Trump, and the agencies that report to him, offered zero evidence for his claims.
“Everybody needs totally proper documentation because the — look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” Trump said. “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers. So we are going to be very, very strong on that.”
Hepburn, who has run the Bootle Bay Fishing Lodge in the West End here for about two decades, was left speechless. He just shook his head.
“He’s an idiot,” Hepburn said about the president. “Whatever. But we just went through a Cat-5, he can’t bother me.”
“I need another beer,” he said, reaching into a cooler he just filled with rain that burst down about an hour earlier.
A few other Bahamians gathered around his iPhone to watch. They too had spent the day setting up water filters and talking to church pastors, trying to find ways to bring supplies into areas now without many passable roads. Cars and gas are becoming increasingly more valuable as volunteers try to shepherd people and resources along the long, winding stretches back and forth from west to east.
Damp from sweat, they watched Trump and could only yell in exasperation.
“Gang members?!” the men laughed. “Tell him he can come here and see for himself.”
Hepburn and his friends spent the past week helping deliver food and water to neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Dorian where people now have nothing left — their homes obliterated to shreds of lumber.
“I drove through some of those areas and it brought tears to my eyes, to see the conditions,” he motioned, pointing down the road toward Freeport. “Everything is brown. People are just sitting in their yards, deflated. Like they just want to give up.”
He’s seen people desperately trying to find water for their families, a place to stay, or a way to get off the island. His friends are still waiting to hear from loved ones. People he knows are helping look for bodies.
Dorian parked over Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, lashing residents with powerful winds and sending up to 25 feet of storm surge into low-lying neighborhoods still trying to rebuild from Hurricane Matthew three years ago.
Hepburn, his wife, and two of their youngest of six children rode out the storm hunkered in a friend’s abandoned villa. He said he’ll never forget the sound, the pressure. Luckily, his business and home survived.
“I don’t know how much more we can take. The economy was always bad,” Hepburn, 48, said. “People are hurting for a bottle of water. They’re hurting. They’re hurting that bad. It’s hard to see.”
The US response to the Bahamas has included Coast Guard rescues and USAID efforts to provide “food, water, hygiene, and shelter assistance” — though the Washington Post reported that the US military presence on the islands is expected to remain “relatively small.”
The response by immigration authorities has been confusing — especially after a US-bound ferry evacuating hundreds from Grand Bahama announced that people needed US visas to depart. It was a contradiction of US policy, and 119 people, including children, got off the ship.
Customs and Border Protection rules say Bahamians do not usually require a visa to enter the US by air as long as they have a clean police record and are only planning to visit for a short time. When traveling by sea, the rules state people need a visa — but officials told BuzzFeed News that officers in the US have discretion to let people in without one. The ferry company blamed CBP for the miscommunication; CBP blamed the ferry company for not coordinating the trip with authorities in advance.
Many people staying on Grand Bahama are doing so because they feel they have no other option. Hundreds of people are clustered around Freeport’s airport, trying to get on any vessel they can. The issue of documentation has been stressful and infuriating for many who have lost everything — while the government is waiving passport fees to renew or replace lost documentation, citizens still have to bring two passport photos, which they may no longer have.
Hurricane Matthew struck three years ago. A previous version of this story misstated when it hit.