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Just over a month after Hurricane Dorian slammed into the northern Bahamas, parts of the island nation are still in ruins, thousands of people remain displaced and rebuilding has only just begun.
“We are moving as quickly as we can to get up and running,” says Michael Jones. “But when that will be is anyone’s guess.”
Jones is standing in front of the business he’s run in Marsh Harbour for the last eight years. It’s the largest town on Great Abaco Island and before the storm was the commercial hub — the only place with grocery stores, building supply stores, pharmacies and banks.
Before Dorian struck, Jones operated a combination laundromat, tire repair shop, gas station and convenience store. Five weeks after the storm, there’s still no roof on the simple, single-story convenience store. The storm surge flooded his shop. He’s still cleaning out the debris and rotted drywall. The cold drink coolers have been wiped down but sit empty. The washers and dryers are drying in the sun. Plywood covers most of the windows of his store.
But he’s open for business again.
Using a generator, Jones is doing a brisk business fixing flat tires. He also had a fuel tank on wheels shipped in on a boat so he can sell gasoline. “Those pumps are destroyed,” he says pointing to the battered gas pumps that sit under the tattered remnants of an awning in front of his store. “They’ll have to be replaced. I’m looking at bringing in new equipment. But I know that a lot of the shipping companies are really backed up with a lot of freight right now.”
Jones has a great deal of work to do to clean out his store, patch the roof and get his business functioning again. But so many people have left Great Abaco Island that he’s having trouble finding workers.
“Labor is beginning to be very expensive,” he says. “It’s difficult trying to find persons to work right now. That’s a frustrating part of this for me. My brother- in-law from Nassau came just to help me put the roof over the washhouse.”
The Wrath Of Dorian
Hurricane Dorian first made landfall on Abaco on September 1 as the most powerful hurricane ever recorded to hit the Bahamas. It hit Marsh Harbour as a Category 5 hurricane with wind gusts of up to 220 miles per hour. It then slowly moved west, shoving a 20-foot wall of water into Freeport on neighboring Grand Bahama.
The massive storm system stalled, buffeting Grand Bahama for more than a day. Much of that island’s east side ended up underwater. Several large industrial oil storage tanks were damaged, spilling 5 million gallons of fuel.
Exactly a month after the storm, Frankie Campbell, the national minister of Social Services and Urban Development, says things have stabilized on Abaco.
“I can report that there’s no one starving, no one dying of thirst, no one walking around naked,” Campbell said during a visit to Marsh Harbour.
The minister says people are surviving due to “an incredible outpouring of love and support” from people around the world. “Food and water is coming in. Those that are in need are being served. But there’s a sense of urgency to get people into their homes or some form of housing that is airtight and watertight.”
In the short term that housing may be in a tent city or mobile homes, he says, or some other temporary solution while homes are rebuilt.
On both Abaco and Grand Bahama, shantytowns were turned to fields of rubble. Concrete commercial buildings were flattened. Seaside restaurants where tourists used to drink Goombay Smash cocktails and Sands beer were flung inland. Nearly every building in Marsh Harbour was damaged or destroyed. Some disappeared entirely. Dorian left Abaco and parts of Grand Bahama with no electricity, no running water, no banks, no grocery stores or gas stations.
“There is zero commerce,” says local businessman Vado Bootle, Sr about Abaco. “There’s nothing. You can’t buy water. You can have as much money as you want, you can’t buy anything here.”
But amid a landscape of rubble, Bootle describes himself as a glass-half-full type of guy. “At this point, everything is wiped. So we are basically going to rebuild an entire city from the ground up.”
Repairing The Islands
That process is slowly starting. Ships from the Bahamian Defence Force are ferrying heavy equipment and supplies into the port in Marsh Harbour. Soldiers from Jamaica are renovating the Central Abaco Primary School. International aid workers and teams of volunteers have flown in to help.
Sylvan McIntyre, who’s been running the Emergency Operation Center for Abaco, says the top priority right now is to get rid of the rubble.
“The removal of debris is critical,” says McIntyre, the national disaster coordinator for the nation of Grenada. He’s been deployed to Abaco as part of CDEMA, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s something that helps the psyche of people. It gives you a sense of greater hope and that there are things happening,” he says. “And we are beginning that process. The government has signed some contracts with some waste removal people. So that process is going to happen.”
Most of the debris has been cleared form Marsh Harbour’s main streets. Dozens of dead bodies that had been bloating amid the wreckage have been extracted and hauled out in white body bags. Buildings that survived the storm are slowing being cleaned and patched.
But that cleanup is being slowed by a lack of people. The government policy immediately after the hurricane was to evacuate any of Abaco’s 17,000 residents who wanted to leave. Thousands did. There’s no exact calculation of how many people departed but government officials say the majority of the population departed.
Parts of Marsh Harbour feel eerily silent. But that too is starting to change as aid crews arrive and former residents return to begin the rebuilding.
Crisscrossed With Rubicon Volunteers
“I didn’t even know this was a driveway when I walked up to it,” says Jason Roberts, a volunteer with a Texas-based veterans group called Team Rubicon, which has 50 volunteers currently on Abaco and another 50 on Grand Bahama. Most volunteers fly in for two weeks at a time and camp next to the projects they’re working on.
Roberts’ crews are working to clear the Parish of St. John The Baptist Anglican/Episcopal Church in Marsh Harbour. One of his teams used chainsaws and small bucket loaders to remove a thicket of downed trees from the driveway.
Another group of Team Rubicon volunteers is cleaning the main chapel. Another is gutting the pastor’s house to prepare it for renovation.
Other crews from Team Rubicon in their gray t-shirts are all over Marsh Harbour.
Some are down at the docks unloading supplies from a boat. Others are building a fence in front of a food distribution point. A team is fixing a roof on a house in a devastated residential area.
Bob Bledsoe, a former Air Force F-15 pilot, is the division supervisor for Team Rubicon on Abaco. He’s taken time off from his job with FedEx to volunteer.
Bledsoe says that initially Team Rubicon deployed medical teams but now they’ve moved on to in his words “mucking and gutting.”
They’re focusing on salvageable communal spaces.
“We started with schools, churches, community centers,” he says. “We are still doing that now, trying to build areas that people can come back to and create central distribution points for food, water.”
Colin Bethel, the deacon of one of the churches that Team Rubicon has been working on, says he was brought to tears when he saw what they had accomplished. They’d ripped all the moldy drywall and carpets out of the church school that serves 300 students. They cleaned the chapel and patched the roof.
“It was like somebody performed magic or a miracle here,” he says. So many of the church members have left that Bethel says there’s no way this work could have been done without the volunteers.
“Yeah there was no manpower here for gutting and doing the job,” Bethel says.
Clairzulia Michel Frederic is hoping to get one of the Team Rubicon crews over to her house.
The Haitian immigrant used to earn a living by renting out three rooms in her house in the Dundas Town section of Marsh Harbour, but Dorian ripped much of her roof off. Everything inside her house is soaked. Mushy wet drywall that used to be part of the ceiling now covers her floor.
But she says she has no plans to evacuate to Nassau or move out. “I have nowhere to go,” she says.
“That’s why I’m trying to cover the roof … to stop the wind from coming into this house.”
She’s in her 50s and says she can’t fix the roof herself. While she waits for help from Team Rubicon or another aid group, her young nephew is nailing a tarp over the biggest openings in her roof to try to keep the water and wind out.
The other aid group that appears to be practically everywhere on the two hard-hit islands is World Central Kitchen, the charity project of celebrity chef José Andrés. Sam Bloch, director of field operations for the group, works out of a massive field kitchen set up nest to the port in Marsh Harbour.
“We’ve got about 3,600 meals going out to about 70 locations throughout Abaco islands,” Bloch says as he points out their food distribution locations on a map that’s pinned to the wall of a shipping container. “We are going down as far south as Crossing Rocks and out to the [northern] tip of Little Abaco Island in Crown Haven. We are still hitting Moore’s Island and the Cays up here via helicopter from our kitchen in Nassau.”
The 3,600 hot meals he’s talking about are just lunch. The charity will deliver almost as many meals at dinnertime. In Abaco, where there are no longer any grocery stores or restaurants, World Central Kitchen has become the primary source of cooked food.
Bloch says they’re trying to do something more than just provide calories. Getting a warm meal in disaster zone, Bloch says, is comforting and “can make you feel like a human again. That’s why for us doing it on time and regularly is really important so that there’s some stability and normalcy in such a chaotic situation.”
Green Dreams For The Future
Even as the focus of many residents in the hurricane-ravaged parts of the Bahamas is simply getting enough food, water and roofing materials, some people are dreaming big.
Ken Hutton, head of the Abaco Chamber of Commerce, is leading an initiative called Project Resurrect to build back in a smarter way.
“Basically we’ve got a clean slate here,” Hutton says as he stands on a pile of boards that used be the entry to Calypso Coffee on Front Street, a shop owned by his daughter.
“Are we really going to go back to fossil fuels? Really? In a place with 320 days of sunshine,” he asks. “Or are we going to use this opportunity to make this the most incredible green island in the world?
He’s advocating for renewable energy as well as more storm resilient buildings and underground power lines that won’t be destroyed in the next big storm.
But the challenges remain immense. Hutton owned a lumber yard and a building supply store prior to the storm. Several of his trucks were stolen by looters after the hurricane. He’s now driving around in a storm-damaged Chrysler PT Cruiser. The flood waters messed up several of the car’s sensors so the seat belt warning buzzer beeps constantly as he drives.
Hutton says this is a chance to turn Marsh Harbour into a visionary, eco-friendly Caribbean resort.
Yet as he rolls through the streets, there isn’t a single functioning business anywhere in sight. “It looks like bomb went off,” he says.
And then, as if to underscore that nothing in this recovery is going to be easy, steam starts to pour out from under the hood of his car.