People who live in Freeport, Bahamas, are used to hurricanes. Every longtime resident has one or two stories of bad hurricanes they have lived through.
But no one has ever lived through anything like Hurricane Dorian which hit the island on Sept. 1 through Sept. 3.
“Nothing has ever hit Freeport like this, as a Category 5 and a hurricane which was basically not moving,” said Kim Anthony, a Bahamian from Freeport who now lives in North Carolina.
As of Sept. 6, the official death stood at 30, and the nation’s health minister predicted the count will rise to a “staggering” number, BBC News reported.
Residents are still reeling over the destruction, wondering how to rebuild their homes and trying to decide if they should leave the island or not.
As Debbie Lane, a Freeport resident who lost her home, told the Register, “I am still trying to come to grips with it.”
Though Freeport residents know how to prepare for hurricanes — stocking up on non-perishable foods, water, batteries, candles and moving to higher ground — there was no way to fully prepare for this hurricane.
There is also the issue of living on an island which is essentially flat. What makes for beautiful, crystal blue seas — level land and shallow beaches — is also what allowed a storm surge to race across the island.
Hurricane Dorian hit both Abaco and Grand Bahama in the northwest of the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm with winds in excess of 185 mph. This makes it the strongest hurricane on record to ever hit the northwest Bahamas. Gusts of up to 200 mph were recorded. Dorian also remained on top of the island for a shocking 40 straight hours.
“I have been through every hurricane to hit this island, but this was the worst wind I have ever heard,” said Joe Thompson, a Freeport resident whose family has been on the island for eight generations. “The hurricane just sat on the North shore for 32 hours.”
Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, a storm surge of 20 feet to 25 feet swept into Freeport. Because most houses are one or two stories high, these waters flooded and destroyed almost everything in its path.
Freeport’s population hovers around 26,000. It is believed that at the height of the storm surge, 75% of the island was under water. Freeport’s only hospital, the Rand, was used as a storm shelter during the hurricane. Unfortunately, floodwaters entered.
“Doctors stayed the whole time with their patients during the storm, even with the flooding that came in,” said Anthony.
The island’s two airport terminals for international and domestic flights were destroyed.
The downtown area of Freeport, where all the major shops and banks are, was also flooded as was the Catholic parish and school, Mary Star of the Sea.
Alongside the loss of human lives, it is the loss of countless homes — with some estimates of about 13,000 — which has devastated Freeport’s residents.
“Looking in from the outside there does not seem to be any one direct agency in charge of relief collection and distribution,” said Anthony. “Another problem will be housing as the island has still not recovered from Hurricane Matthew three years ago. People have been struggling and this will be another hill to climb especially for those in lower income brackets.”
As soon as the hurricane subsided and it was safe enough to venture out, the residents of Freeport began to save their neighbors in any way they could. Those who had motorboats and jet skis began to organize rescue trips to the worst-hit areas.
“The rescue was very long and very hard. We had people who were stuck in their homes,” said Mike Tucker, a Freeport resident who works for a local tugboat company. “The community had to come together and get jet skis, going from house to house rescuing families. A lot of homes were destroyed.”
Jamie Rose spent the duration of the hurricane in his home on the south shore — about 20 miles from the eye of the storm. His area was spared from flood damage. But his parents live in one of the areas which was hardest hit, on the east side of the Grand Lucayan Waterway. They hunkered down during the hurricane with another family and their four dogs.
“My parent’s house got destroyed. It was a one level house. They had 5 feet of water inside the house,” said Rose. “They ended up having to go into the attic.”
The problem with attics in the Bahamas is that they are not built as functional areas, with only 2 by 4 feet of space. If water comes in, there are no exits.
“Also, if you have no tools to cut out the roof, you cannot get out,” said Rose. This creates a situation where people can drown in their own attics, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Once the hurricane began to move away from Freeport, Rose got together with two friends, Christopher Cash and Kevin Waugh, and began to rescue people.
Rose had worked for 15 years as the director and chairman of BASRA, Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association Search and Rescue.
“I knew what I was doing,” he said.
Rose and his friends began to search for friends and ferrying them back and forth in a 19-foot boat to the Grand Bahama Sailing Club.
The utilization of social media was critical during and after the hurricane.
“A local network created a WhatsApp group of about 150 people who were posting information on people who needed to be rescued,” said Rose. “That’s how we knew where to go.”
A Facebook page called Freeport Friends has also become a clearing house for information on damage, status of missing persons, relief organizations and needs. It is also a place for locals to vent their frustrations and pain, as well as express their pride for local heroes.
Many organizations have been mobilizing to help Abaco and Freeport. Cruise companies have stepped up to bring relief supplies and food, as well as help Bahamians evacuate.
The Royal Caribbean Cruise Line delivered 43,000 water bottles and 10,000 meals on Thursday in partnership with the Bahamian government. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean donated $1 million each for relief efforts.
The Bahamian Paradise Cruise Line sent its ship Grand Celebration into Freeport with supplies, first responders and evacuees — and it is taking Bahamians back to Florida free of charge with proper documentation.
“We really need help,” said Frankie Williams, a Freeport resident who brought his mother to be evacuated on the Grand Celebration. “There is a lot of relief efforts which have begun, but we need so much more. There are really long lines at the fast food restaurants and gas stations.”
Bahamians know that right now they are at the very beginning of a reconstruction process which will take years and even decades.
In a country which is deeply Christian, many are turning to their faith. In some cases, it is literally all they have left.
“We are a family of faith and we all trust in God and His plan. That is what is getting us through,” said Debbie Lane, who is a Catholic convert. “When you go through something like this, it strips you to the core and nothing else matters but life. It brings people together, families hold onto each other tighter, express love deeper and you realize what life is really about, and how you should be living always.”
Debbie and her husband John, along with their three kids, have moved temporarily into a new house while they consider their options.
“God has a plan and even when we don’t understand it and it is painful, we have to trust it,” she said.
“We have to have faith.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.
Organizations accepting donations for The Bahamas
- Bahamas Red Cross
- Rotary Club for Grand Bahama Island District 6990
- Grand Bahama Port Authority Disaster Relief Foundation
- Catholic Relief Services