‘It’s lonely out here’
It’s been over three months since the passage of Hurricane Dorian, and the silence of vacated Freeport communities ripped apart by its torrential storm surge is almost as imposing as the extent of the structural damage therein.
On par with destruction visited upon east Grand Bahama is that wrought upon sections of Lincoln Green and homes over the Casuarina Bridge, where five of the island’s eleven storm deaths occurred.
Home after storm-shuttered home remains unoccupied and since most of these houses are without power, most homeowners have yet to return save for initial post-storm visits and cleanup.
Over the bridge, downed power lines make for a risky trek through some streets while in Lincoln Green, orange Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) placards affixed to widows of heavily damaged homes are a reminder that for now, many do not have a place they can safely return to.
It was the force of the floodwaters that pummeled concrete and steel, leveling structures, gutting others and mangling vehicles, some of which still sit lodged in the earth as if planted as seeds of an unwelcome harvest.
Water weighs approximately 1,700 pounds per cubic yard and extended pounding by frequent waves can demolish any structure not specifically designed to withstand such forces, according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Storm surge and battering waves, NOAA advises, work together to increase the impact on land because the surge makes it possible for waves to extend inland.
As one drives through these impacted neighborhoods and views the awe-striking damage to well-built homes, little convincing on the science is needed.
During Perspective’s visit to these communities this weekend, we paused just off the Grand Bahama Highway that separates the over-the-bridge neighborhoods from the flood plain northern shore, and shuddered to think about the sight of an unstoppable wall of ocean barreling toward its victims.
Many of the homes in these Freeport communities are on canal-front properties popular with middle class families, but these properties are also in low-lying areas that in recent years have been prone to flooding.
Though Charles King elevated his over-the-bridge home eight feet, he was unable to escape significant flood damage to his house, now under repair.
He is one of just a few who are living in the community at the moment, and the sound of a power saw piercing the afternoon air was the breadcrumb that led us to his home.
Of his empty neighborhood he told us, “It’s a little bit depressing but I am hopeful that persons will return.
“In fact I have spoken with a number of persons who are in the process of rebuilding, but one of the problems is the insurance that is taking too long,” he added, noting that his home is fully insured.
“It is now December, we haven’t heard anything as yet and we need to get back to a semblance of normalcy.”
Expressing concerns about when electricity will be restored to the area that is plunged into pitch darkness at nightfall, King revealed that his home and those of two of his neighbors had been burglarized in recent weeks.
His family evacuated to Nassau ahead of the storm, and he is anxious to have them return.
“It’s lonely out here,” he shared.
“It’s amazing, you know, all my neighbors are great but I told someone the other day that you can be living next to people and they might be nice people or not too nice people, however, you still need people.”
Cleopatra Russell, corporate communications manager for the Grand Bahama Power Company, in response to our query on power supply to the area said, “Our teams have replaced key transmission and distribution poles and infrastructure in that area to allow customers to be reconnected once approval from GBPA is received.
“We’ve connected some homes and are aware the customers continued to remediate their properties.”
Russell said approximately 2,000 homes and businesses on Grand Bahama—excluding those in east Grand Bahama—are without electricity post-Dorian.
‘Residents intend to rebuild’
Lynton Campbell and workers with his trucking company Campbell’s Trucking were hard at it collecting debris of a demolished home a short distance away, and as he oversaw the progress he briefly fixed his gaze to the north where his home used to be.
“My house is completely gone right down to the tiles, nothing is left,” he said with a hearty disposition considering his losses.
“I don’t think anybody is really checking for this area in terms of assistance, but if power was back here I think more of the people would come back.”
There is a view on the island that residents in these communities do not need assistance because they live on the canals and presumably are well-situated financially, but looks can be deceiving.
The reality is that some longtime homeowners in the area are pensioners, while others are victims of the same sluggish employment landscape on Grand Bahama that has plunged many others into financial vulnerability.
Retired residents recently shared with us that though their home in the area was paid off, they did not have insurance and were now looking to cut their losses because, among other things, their home’s foundation had shifted due to the extensive and prolonged flooding.
Homes over the bridge were underwater for at least two days.
Campbell pointed out that “plenty of the people over here did not have insurance because a lot of the people here don’t owe the bank, so only if you owe the bank you’ve got to have insurance”.
It’s a rationale the area’s member of Parliament and Finance Minister Peter Turnquest bemoaned in the storm’s aftermath, but he has since conceded that the cost of home insurance is out of the financial reach of many Bahamians.
Given the location, homes over the bridge on average can be subject to higher insurance rates.
Campbell, who has lived in the area since 2005, said he will not live in fear because of Dorian’s impact, and will rebuild.
“I was not insured, but I am going to build what they would call a maid house first and then when I am finished that I will build the main house.
“What God does is well done,” he reasoned about the loss of his home. “If I had stayed here, me and my family would have been dead.”
Over on Dagenham Lane, Pastor Lloyd Rolle and his family made the decision to stay during the storm, resolving that his home’s second floor would have been a safe enough escape for the level of storm surge he assumed would have occurred considering the five storm-surge events he previously experienced.
Dorian shattered his assumptions.
Rolle, the owner of Brickhouse Construction, was busy with his company’s workers, carrying out repairs to the first floor of his home he built 20 years ago.
“Things are still kind of dead over the bridge,” he offered. “I spoke to many homeowners and it seems as if 90 percent of the homeowners intend to rebuild and stay.
“In the beginning,” Rolle continued, “shortly after the storm it was like 100 percent saying ‘no way, we are not coming back’; I spoke to two or three yesterday who were adamant about not coming back.”
The pastor of Bethels Deliverance Center in Jones Town, Eight Mile Rock, acknowledged that given his ability to carry out his own construction work, he is in a better position than many in the area, and though his home is fully insured he has chosen to expedite the work ahead of the insurance company’s final assessments.
We spoke with Rolle about the concern of shifted foundations expressed by some residents.
“We’ve had engineers that have come in the area and some things that appear bad from the naked eye might not be as bad as they appear to be,” he indicated.
What appears in many homes is busted concrete walls, compromised and failed roofs and interiors gutted from ceiling to floor.
Gleaning from his experience as a builder, he noted that some homeowners will have to demolish their structures and start over from scratch, but others “can manage to rebuild from what is left”.
The rebuilding process on the island is sporadic given that many uninsured homeowners cannot afford to purchase materials and pay for skilled labor even with the government’s tax incentives established as part of the island’s Special Economic Recovery Zone designation.
It’s a challenge Rolle and his church family plan to address early in the new year.
“We have a program that’s going on, starting in January, to assist as many people in the Grand Bahama area as possible with free materials and free labor,” he informed us.
“It’s a partnership program with our sister churches in America and here, and we are thinking around the second week in January we will start our reconstruction program.”
His decision to ride out Dorian in his home led to the rescue of his neighbors who were trapped in their attic, but the storm’s impact has prompted him to start construction in Colony Bay, a section of the over-the-bridge community that is farther inland and at a higher elevation.
“I’ve had enough of the flooding, I can’t take any more of that,” he said.
“Nothing to come back to”
For some homes, debris remains scattered and frozen in time, while, for others, their unsalvageable contents sit in solitary piles at the roadside for eventual pickup.
Empty neighborhoods provide an open opportunity for scavenging.
And that is precisely what we happened upon during our drive through the decimated Lady Lake section of Lincoln Green a few minutes’ drive from the Casuarina Bridge.
A man and woman were in a vehicle while a second man was rummaging through damaged household items left at the roadside by homeowners.
When we asked them if they lived in the area, one of the men replied sheepishly, “No, we are just passing through.”
Seemingly unnerved by our presence, the three eventually left the area.
Further away we visited storm-ravaged communities off Fortune Bay Drive and drove through just in time to meet a mother and son leaving their home which is one of several deemed unsafe by the GBPA’s Building and Development Services Department.
Though she did not wish her name to be published, she candidly shared her feelings about the community she has lived in for 19 years.
“I don’t plan to come back here,” she said matter-of-factly. “My son just came back from college so we just brought him down to see.”
Pointing to the tell-tale orange placard on her entryway window, the Morecambe Drive resident explained, “if you see that little sign there that means the Port Authority has said this house is not habitable so we can’t really come back anyway but there’s nothing for us to come back to.
“I think some people may have to come back because they don’t really have a choice,” she opined. “There were some people around here who didn’t have insurance.”
As she and her son were preparing to leave, she granted us permission to go into the home to take photographs.
Sobering was our entrance into the flood-stripped shell of the place a family has called home for almost two decades.
Wine-colored wall-to-wall drapes still hang in a room overlooking the canal and warped steel studding exposed by stripped-out sheetrock is evidence of the force of floodwaters and the Category 5 storm that drove them miles inland.
Upon leaving the area we pulled over near an undeveloped lot to take in the day’s experience.
Before Dorian, these were communities filled with productive, energetic Bahamians and residents who were proof that hard work can pay off in one’s dream of homeownership in some of the island’s more sought-after locations.
Today the solitude of the neighborhoods in east Freeport is a painful juxtaposition.
As Charles King remarked earlier, “You need people.”
He is quite right.
It is hoped that in time, the lifeblood of these communities, which is the people of the communities, will return in larger numbers to build stronger if they can.