Tikkun Olam in the Bahamas: A Disaster Expert Reflects on Hurricane Dorian
After Hurrican Dorian devastated the Bahamas in 2019, Yaron Lief helped to rebuild the island nation. Here is his story.
By Yaron Lief - JDC Disaster Response Expert | August 6, 2021
When Yaron Lief went to the Bahamas in 2019, Hurricane Dorian had just struck, completely devastating the island nation. Lief was prepared, though. With more than 20 years of experience, Lief is part of JDC’s team of disaster response experts and worked with local organizations, working to serve the immediate and long-term needs of the Bahamian people. Here, Lief describes his experience in the Bahamas, and what motivates him to do humanitarian work.
The destruction was enormous.
Hurricane Dorian had just hit the Bahamas, and I was about to land in Nassau, the capital. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Yes, I’d read reports, watched the news, even talked to partners on the ground. But once I witnessed it myself, the gravity of the situation was truly shocking.
Jewish humanitarian relief is my life’s passion. Many years ago, when I was backpacking through Central America, Hurricane Mitch — the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded — hit the region. When that happened, I didn’t hesitate: I started a relief organization that still operates today in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. That’s how I began this work.
Fast-forward 20 years, and I’m driving through the Bahamas with JDC. JDC arrived so soon after Hurricane Dorian that wreckage still littered the landscape. I looked around me. Abandoned vehicles lined the street in front of the airport, and open suitcases, some crammed with clothes, lay open. People had just enough time to grab their things and escape.
And then there were the trees. The wind had twisted them round and round, like screwdrivers, and snapped the electric poles in half, leaving open wire lying in the wet street.
The damage was great, but it was time to get to work. JDC received an urgent request from their long-term partner, a medical aid organization. They needed gas. They were trying to treat patients — wash them, clean their wounds — but they didn’t have any clean water. Without gas, the generator that powered the filtration system couldn’t work, nor could they keep their medicine cold or transport doctors to patients, and there was no nearby gas station.
So we built one.
Yes, we built a mobile gas station. Still in Nassau, we bought a gas pump, hoses, some electric components, and basic tools, and with a tiny plane we flew to Abaco where I was able to find a trailer, get a truck, and pack everything together.
In Marsh Harbour, we waited in a seemingly endless line at the only place that was pumping gas. Then, we drove north to Treasure Key, where our partner was operating.
Now their generator could work, the water could be desalinated, and the patients, many of whom had serious injuries and medical conditions, could be treated. Instead of waiting for help, JDC acted immediately, creating a lifesaving solution for vulnerable people in the direst of circumstances.
More than any other organization I’ve worked with, JDC listens and responds to the needs of local people.
More than any other organization I’ve worked with, JDC listens and responds to the needs of local people, tailoring our relief efforts to the particular circumstances of the devastated areas in which we work. Our response is always based on local efforts and local people.
Because of this, we’ve been able to adapt and expand our response during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping the Bahamians achieve not only short-term relief, but work toward long-term resilience.
That’s what makes JDC unique. The pandemic abruptly stopped relief efforts in the Bahamas, because all of the international aid workers were required to fly home. This disrupted relief efforts, of course, and froze ongoing projects. But not JDC’s. Our commitment to working hand in hand with local organizations and partners meant that we could still help, even when we weren’t on the ground.
So what are we doing now?
Right now, we are in the middle of shifting our work away from immediate relief to long-term support, with a focus on sustainability. How do we make the community more resilient? How do we help contribute to food security, livelihoods, and disaster preparedness? These questions animate our ongoing work.
One major priority is food sustainability, helping Bahamians become less dependent on foreign goods, if and when another hurricane disrupts supply routes.
We also promoted food security with IDEA Relief, an on-the-ground partner. In one week, we supported the distribution of over 3,500 food packages in 20 locations, feeding nearly 17,000 people (and more than double that number over a 2-week period).
Now we’re working with IDEA Relief to form a disaster preparedness program that will provide first-aid equipment and training to the southern Bahamian islands.
Helping others, no matter who they are, is at the core of my life. I want people to know that there’s a Jewish community out there that cares about you, whether you’re Jewish or not, and that we’re here to stay. Jews have always helped non-Jews. You can see it here in the Bahamas and throughout the world.
And this work is also personal. Sometimes, my son will ask me, “Abba, where are you right now? What are you doing?” And I tell him that we’re helping people. I think that response impacts him a lot; it plants the seed of tikkun olam (repairing the world), a Jewish value I know he will carry forth as he charts his own path.
If nothing else, that’s what makes all of this so worth it.
Yaron Lief was born and raised in Haifa, Israel to a Shanghainese Jewish mother and South African Jewish father. Lief founded the Israeli National Scouting Center and served in the IDF with the Golani infantry brigade. Lief founded and currently serves as the CEO of Orange Restoration, an insurance disaster restoration service out of San Diego, CA. For the past 20 years, Lief — now a JDC consultant — has worked to lead responses to natural disasters around the globe