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Marsh Harbour always rises

Dear Editor,

Marsh Harbour has been here before. Pericles Maillis, in an excellent piece just a few days ago, wrote about the 1932 hurricane that devastated Marsh Harbour. But just six years before that, in the hurricane of October 1926, Marsh Harbour was so completely laid to waste that public officials, journalists and townsfolk alike had proclaimed it the end of days: Marsh Harbour was not just devastated, it was destroyed, completely finished and done with. Gone.

Just how bad that late-season hurricane was for Abaco generally, but Marsh Harbour in particular, was detailed in a report from Roy Russell who was, at the time, a representative for Abaco in the House of Assembly.

In his heart-rending account about the hurricane and Marsh Harbour, this is what he wrote:

EXTRACT FROM THE REPORT OF ROY RUSSELL MHA, REPRESENTATIVE FOR ABACO IN THE BAHAMAS HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY, FOLLOWING HIS TOUR OF ABACO IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE HURRICANE OF 20th/21st NOVEMBER, 1926 (reported in full in The Nassau Guardian of November 3rd, 1926).

(Re: Marsh Harbour)

“It is impossible for me to describe conditions here, but I will do my best to record my impressions. I have seen towns destroyed by shellfire and bombs, but never during my stay in France did I see such appalling and indescribable conditions as here. There is absolutely nothing left. What had once been a pretty little town covered with fruit trees and nice homes is today nothing but a wilderness and a swamp. No human heart could look at those people without shedding tears, the little boys and girls that (we) saw were bare-footed and had on all that they have in this world. I should deem myself unworthy to adequately describe conditions here.

“This town passed through the centre of the storm, and the same thing occurred here as at Hope Town; darkness or nearly so was upon the land. The wind blew from the southeast and then from the northwest, when all the damage was done. By a merciful providence it was daylight when this took place; or I am afraid all would have gone. For the information of those who have never visited Marsh Harbour let me say that this town stretched along the sea-front for about 1-1/2 miles. At the present time there is nothing left except two houses which stood on high ground. The streets are completely destroyed and only in some places can one see where the original street was. The Methodist Church stood on this street and it is totally destroyed. Before detailing any more I wish to say that the people are stunned and very few can realize what has happened. You find them in groups, cooking out of doors, gathered together crying. We met another group trying to wash out clothes which had been dug from the building and mud. Others can be seen with a can, going for water, as there is only one well in which good water can be found. The cemeteries are destroyed, and coffins washed out of graves. The school building and residency were damaged. The public library and post office, which was one of the finest buildings in this town, was taken about 1,000 feet from its site and deposited in a low swamp. To get this back will mean pulling down and rebuilding of same.

“The house of the wireless operator has been carried about a half a mile inland and this was a large house consisting of 9 rooms. Not one particle of a store remains or a toilet or kitchen. This of course means the people have no cooking utensils, nothing to eat from and the sanitary conditions are very bad. I impress on the commissioner and people the necessity of getting the place clean and an effort has been made to get all the drains working properly, as the water still covers a considerable amount of what had been the town. Hundreds of chickens, large numbers of cats, dogs, and hogs are dead and decaying, and as this filth is in the swamp, it can not be got at. Thousands of fish were carried inland, and they also are decaying.

“I wish right here to digress from the town conditions to relate a few personal experiences. The commissioner endeavored while the center of the storm was over the town to save his boat, but before he reached the anchorage the wind came down from the northwest and caught him about one mile from his home. He fought for dear life in the water and trees and eventually got to the top of a tree, and as the water rose he went up until he reached the top of the tree and there during the hurricane he stayed. When the water subsided, he tried to get home, but his home was gone, and for a time he could not find his wife, but thanks to Providence she had got into the top story and was seen by two girls who were up in a tree, and one of them being a good swimmer reached her and supported her until she could be rescued by some men. Mr. Roberts’s son-in-law lost his house and Mr. Van Ryn lost his baby while fighting to save himself, wife and child. The baby was washed from his arms and for hours after the storm he and his wife were jammed under the roof and had to be got out by cutting away a point of the gable which was still attached to the roof. Thanks is due to Mr. Stratton, who not only assisted in saving lives, but as his boat was afloat, left as soon as he could for Hope Town and got food for the people. He has used his own money for this work and I feel that government should vote him thanks for his work. Innumerable tales of heroism could be told, but the most heartrending of all was the fight made by Mr. Van Ryn to save his family. Some of the best homes on our Out Islands were here and numbers have disappeared with everything these people possessed and they are left barefooted and without a change of clothes. I might say Commissioner Roberts had neither shoes nor a change. Dr. Todd sent him a pair of shoes and his shirt and pants dried and today he stands with just that – no coat and a picked-up hat. Homes that resounded to the joyous shout and laughter of children are no more, and the poor infants today are crawling over rocks, as there is no soil left – digging under collapsed homes for a piece of clothing. Only by the mercy of God are they there. As I write these words my eyes are blinded by tears as I picture these poor infants struggling in the water, sustained by fathers and mothers, and I most humbly ask the Government as soon as this report is made, in the name of God and humanity, that clothes and shoes be sent to these children. It is impossible to exaggerate the conditions at this town. All but a few homes are destroyed and people are living 20 and 30 in a house. It seems impossible, unless seen, for one to believe what has happened. Orchards that have taken years to produce were swept away. The loss from fruit at this place is enormous and years will elapse before trees planted even now can bring forth fruit. If these people could be persuaded to leave this spot and build further inland results could be obtained much quicker. The loss to buildings can be replaced, but the loss of the contents of some homes, never. Only by wholehearted cooperation can this town ever be the same; this will take years. “

(From Report of Roy Russell MHA, Oct 1926.)

As a postscript to that, the acting Governor at the time, A.C. Burns, pleaded with the property owners of Marsh Harbour to re-build their homes on higher ground, even offering to make Crown land available to them for that purpose. Thanks, but no thanks, they responded, re-building instead on where they had built and lived before.

No surprise then that six years later, in the 1932 hurricane that Pericles Maillis wrote about, the same tale of complete and appalling destruction was to repeat itself – as indeed it had so many times before and will no doubt do again.

Marsh Harbour always rises. Is destroyed. Then rises again.

Until the next time.

– Sean McWeeney, QC

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