Photos by Maria Alejandra Cardona
GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND, Bahamas ― Philip Thomas Sr. had tried to convince his oldest son to bring his wife and three children to Thomas’ house in McLean’s Town, a fishing village on the eastern end of Grand Bahama. Hurricane Dorian had already zeroed in on the northern Bahamas, and Thomas, a boat captain, felt it would be best if they all rode out the storm together.
But Philip Jr., a fishing guide and harbor pilot, decided to stay at their house on the other end of the village. When the surging waters brought in with the Category 5 storm inundated the town, the family, including Philip Jr.’s wife and 16-, 8- and 6-year-old children, attempted to escape by boat and was ultimately swept away.
“I guess it was too late,” Thomas said this week as he stood in his driveway against a backdrop of splintered homes and calm turquoise water. His oldest son and grandchildren are presumed dead.
The details of what happened aren’t entirely clear. On a GoFundMe page created for Barri that has brought in more than $100,000, Matthew Arnold, a friend and former classmate, wrote that her husband “fought to rescue his family, but only succeeded in saving his wife, before heading into the sea after his children.”
Philip Jr.’s wife, Barri, was found after the storm in another village several miles away, Thomas said. She survived ― miraculously ― and was flown to a hospital in the capital city of Nassau to be treated for injuries.
Thomas and his younger son spent the storm hunkered down in a walk-in closet as the water rushed in. It reached three and a half feet inside the home. The sound of the wind, which reached as much as 185 miles per hour, was deafening.
Three weeks after the storm, Thomas was one of a handful of locals working to put things back together in the obliterated village of McLean’s Town. He’s been busy cleaning out his flooded, crumpled home and keeping an eye out for looters, even as he struggles with the loss of four family members.
“I stay busy. I trust in God. That’s all I can do,” he said.
Dorian walloped the island of Grand Bahama with such force that residents here have a hard time grasping what they witnessed. After making landfall Sept. 1 on the nearby Abaco Islands, the storm ― the most powerful on record in the Bahamas ― stalled over Grand Bahama for some 30 hours. An astonishing 70 percent of Grand Bahama, where 50,000 people live, was under water.
The storm, said Terrence Williams, 53, “had a mind of its own.” Williams was outside a supply distribution point in High Rock, one of the communities on the island’s east side that the storm hit hardest. At least 17 people from the town are missing and feared dead, according to Williams and other residents. Williams is related to eight people that all went missing from a single house, he said.
“A lot of people refused to run,” he said. “They got to face death.”
Climate scientists say above-average ocean temperatures fueled Dorian, which is “a preview of the climate crisis to come.” Residents HuffPost interviewed on Grand Bahama agreed that this storm was a monster, different from the many that have impacted the island in recent decades.
As of Thursday, the official fatality count stood at 53, including 45 on Abaco and eight on Grand Bahama, but the consensus from people on the ground is that the number is drastically higher. Property damage is estimated at $7 billion and tourism, an industry that accounts for roughly 50% of the country’s gross domestic product, has taken a serious hit. Recovery will likely take years and the island nation is calling on foreigners to visit unaffected islands so it has the revenue to rebuild.
The east end of Grand Bahama is like something out of an apocalyptic movie. The storm crumpled cell phone towers like candy wrappers and snapped trees and telephone poles in half, felling their tops to the south. The trees that are still standing have sections of bark ripped from their trunks at uniform heights, which creates a bizarre visual for those driving past the splintered forest. Furniture, roofing materials, boats and other debris litter the landscape. Plastic bags and tarps hang from trees and fences. A giant steel barge once anchored at Deep Water Cay was swept away in the 20-plus foot surge and now rests next to homes 10 miles away in Pelican Point.
At an oil storage and shipping terminal at Riding Point, dozens of workers in plastic jumpsuits attempted to mop up thousands of gallons of oil that the hurricane sucked out of giant tanks and spewed across the facility and a vast swath of trees to the northeast. The smell of crude oil hung heavy in the sweltering afternoon heat. Several miles from the spill, clouds of white smoke billowed from a wildfire that raged alongside the only road in and out of the island’s eastern settlements.
In the tiny community of Pelican Point, a church was reduced to nothing but a few standing walls, the exposed interior resembling a box of discarded matchsticks. At one home, only a toilet and a few cinder blocks remained on the foundation. Another was sliced in half by the angry ocean, leaving waterlogged books still standing in perfect rows on a bookshelf. A third home with its roof blown off featured a sign on the front window that read: “Just another day in paradise.”
Rachel Rolle, a 59-year-old resident of McLean’s Town and a nurse for the communities on the east end of the island, evacuated to Freeport before the hurricane and encouraged many of her neighbors to do the same. She returned home Sept. 5, four days after landfall, to find total devastation. On Sunday afternoon, Rolle was removing debris from what remains of her oceanside home, a dust mask dangling from her neck and her hands covered in dirt.
Many McLean’s Town residents have yet to return home, in part because Rolle has urged some not to.
“Ain’t nothing to see,” she said. “I tell ’em, ‘If your heart ain’t good and your heart can’t take tragedy, don’t come.’”
Facing the destruction and an uncertain future has taken a toll on Rolle. She has a pacemaker and fell ill in the days after the storm. She’s struggled to sleep. And with few building supplies making their way to the island, she has no idea when her home will be habitable again. Like 50% of all homeowners on Grand Bahama, Rolle has no home insurance, meaning she’ll have to find a way to rebuild on her own.
“Before it’s all over, we’re all going to need psychiatric evaluations,” she said.
In Freeport, the island’s only major city, furniture, drywall and mounds of ruined clothes were piled outside hundreds of homes and businesses. Desks and waterlogged textbooks sat forlornly outside schools that have yet to reopen. The putrid smell of rotting food emanated from a grocery store.
At Grand Bahama International Airport, the surge ripped through buildings and tossed small planes like toys. Passengers flying out of the airport now wait for their flights in tents. Electricity remains down in much of Freeport and communities to the east.
East of the airport sits the quiet oceanside community of Queen’s Cove, a few dozen homes sprinkled in a maze of mostly empty streets. Raymond Simozne, a local pastor, and his wife bought their home here in 2002. It is a place of tranquility ― “heaven on Earth,” he said ― that for years also served as Simozne’s ministry.
But repeated flooding has plagued the property. With each major hurricane, the sea swelled and inundated the family home.
“Every time it floods, it continues to get worse and worse,” Simozne said.
The couple has rebuilt five times, but Dorian appears to have delivered a final blow.
“I think emotionally it would be too much for my wife,” said Simozne, 54, holding back tears. “She went through this now six times. I don’t know if I could carry her through the next one.”
The couple met HuffPost at their ravaged home on Monday afternoon. At one point, the surge reached above the roofline. It ripped apart the walls and ceilings and sucked furniture out of windows and a gaping hole in the back of the house. A giant tree pierced a side window and was left inside the gutted home. The family’s three minivans, which had been parked across the street when the storm hit, are now mangled in the front yard.
The couple has no insurance and 10 years left on their mortgage. After hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, insurance companies refused to cover homes in Queen’s Cove, Simozne said. Now nearing retirement age, he can’t imagine taking on a second mortgage.
“We are hoping for a miracle right now,” he said.
Many residents of Grand Bahama, particularly those in rural towns, are frustrated with the government’s response. They say the vast majority of aid had come from U.S. organizations and volunteers going door to door. Officials have swung back at criticism.
At the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, who early on said the storm is “the greatest national crises in our country’s history” and will require a massive and prolonged response, called on world leaders to take urgent action to combat the global climate crisis.
The Bahamas and other island nations, he said, “are on the frontlines of being swallowed into an abyss created initially by human activity and increasingly by inaction.”
The residents of Grand Bahama say they will do what they can to be resilient ― clearing debris, checking in on one another and, once again, starting to rebuild.
Many said they were simply grateful to be alive.
“It’s a strong community. We will survive,” said 51-year-old Yvette Patton as she stood in front of her flooded Freeport home. “We’re going to pull through. We’ve done it again and again and again.”