‘The needs are so great’
It has been 134 days since Hurricane Dorian and in East Grand Bahama, one of the areas hardest hit by last year’s killer storm, the quiet resilience of survivors is juxtaposed against a stubborn inertia in on-the-ground reconstruction initiatives.
Since Perspective’s last visit in mid-November, little movement has taken place with repairs to many homes that are still standing though having sustained varying degrees of damage.
Electricity has yet to be restored to the approximately 50-mile stretch of settlements, a critical factor that not only impacts the ability of homeowners to return to a sense of normalcy, but also impacts the willingness of displaced residents to return to their properties on a permanent basis.
From steady employment, to housing, to building materials, to answers on the government’s way forward for these seminal communities, there is a loud cry for progress nestled within the humble demeanor of residents we spoke to.
And while strong and present family connections are providing stability and support for some, we encountered others whose current living situations suggest that they are slipping through the cracks.
During our drive through Freetown, we chanced upon Randy Reckley, 21, who was walking aimlessly outside a roofless yellow house with a gray relief tent and a red and white moped out front.
“The hurricane brought significant changes and things ain’t really lookin good,” he told us when asked how life has been for him since the passage of the storm.
Reckley lived miles east in Rocky Creek where all the homes were destroyed, and said he now lives in the tent on his grandfather’s property.
“Ain’t really nothing happening for guys like me, you know, guys on the streets hustling every day trying to make a dollar,” he shared.
“I was doing on and off work before the storm by the fish house in McLean’s Town but that got destroyed.
“I need a job.”
The young Rocky Creek native pointed out that the potable water station established in the area by South Carolina NGO Water Mission had been inoperable for some time, a sentiment echoed by Alexander Cooper, 74, who was observing our interview from across the street on the steps of the St. Cleveland Baptist Church which he now calls home.
“My house got damaged, I can’t live inside that no more,” he shared as he came over to chat with us, gesturing in the direction of what used to be his beachside home a short distance away.
“I live inside the church,” the spirited patriarch revealed.
“The church is alright but the floor is ramshacked so they had to re-plaster it and they put tarp on the ground so you don’t mess up your shoes.”
A resident of Freetown for over 40 years, Cooper lived there with his wife, now deceased, and wound up at the church after the St. George’s high school gymnasium shelter designated for East Grand Bahama residents was decommissioned.
Asked what his most pressing needs are at this stage, he replied, “We don’t have power here yet so in the nighttime we’ve got to use some little lamps to see; what we need most of all is light.”
Given that residents had not been given permission by Water Mission to attempt to fix the potable water station themselves, Cooper said bottled water is provided at the church and though the church is not an official shelter, the pastors have allowed him to stay there.
“The pastors know we are here, but the only thing is I don’t want to be around here because some of these young fellas around here are smoking dope and I can’t tolerate that,” he said.
As we spoke, the second resident of the church, Pelican Point native Marvin Gardiner, emerged and disclosed that he too found refuge there after leaving the St. George’s shelter.
With a quiet yet pensive composure, he said of his immediate needs, “I need some money in my pocket.
“I was working on and off for people before the storm but I need a solid job, I need something to do.”
Asked if he has relatives in the vicinity, Gardiner reticently offered that some were still in the area while others had relocated to Freeport.
Miles away in the settlement of Bevans Town, Rodrico Mitchell, a single father and welder by trade, was on the property of what used to be his home preparing steel for his planned reconstruction as his son, Rodrico Jr., looked on.
He came over to greet us and in response to our questions stated that, “We are still trying to pull through; you know we’re starting from the beginning and my home is all gone.”
Mitchell and his son have been back and forth from Freeport since the storm, and he too expressed a desire for steady employment as prior to the storm he worked on short-term projects and performed yard work to make up the slack.
Just then his son ran over and fell into his father’s embrace.
“We need everything right now,” Mitchell Sr. added, “because before we had everything and now we have nothing, no roof over our head, no normalcy.”
Temporary power ‘within the next few weeks’
Late last year, Deputy Prime Minister and area MP Peter Turnquest railed in Parliament against the Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC) for failing to restore power to the eastern end of the island outside of Freeport.
Last week he mentioned to reporters that the power company had sought population density information from government to craft a power restoration plan for the district where the company’s infrastructure was severely damaged.
Perspective contacted GBPC to inquire on what the company needed from government to establish its generation and distribution strategy moving forward, what of its requests to government had been provided and the company’s temporary power plans.
GBPC spokesperson Takia Taylor advised via email that, “We will have temporary generation units in the East End – right by Equinor – within the next few weeks.
“These units,” she explained, “will provide enough power to support the needs of Equinor as well as all communities in the East End on a temporary basis until all transmission and distribution infrastructure is repaired, then energy can be provided from Freeport.”
Taylor added that GBPC has commenced the rebuilding of its main transmission to the East End communities and “will continue this work, including repairs to the distribution infrastructure that brings power to streets, until it is fully complete, which we expect to be by May 2020”.
As for a “resettlement plan” GBPC requested of government in order to develop a suitable power restoration plan post-Dorian, Taylor said such a plan has not been forthcoming though GBPC understands that it is “under development”.
“We haven’t received the resettlement plan or anything akin to it,” Taylor pointed out, “which should have given us valuable information on populations in East End communities (who is gone and not returning, who will return, whether homes were insured and owners will rebuild, etc.).
“We also wanted to understand where and when government was rebuilding their facilities (clinics, schools, police stations, community centers) in order to target them for early restoration.”
The GBPC spokesperson noted that the company’s initial plan was to “build back better in order to be more resilient during and after future storms”, involving solar and battery power custom-fit for community needs.
This plan, she indicated, would have required funding from donors and the government “which has not to date been forthcoming”, though she acknowledged that funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is expected.
“Following a conversation with government ministers DPM Peter Turnquest and Kwasi Thompson, GBPC has started rebuilding transmission and distribution in the conventional manner – essentially the same as prior to the storm – in order to provide power as soon as possible for returning residents and businesses,” Taylor indicated.
“We understand that funding is now forthcoming by IDB but that will take time and we and our customers can’t wait any longer.
“Having said that,” she continued, “we are looking forward to working with IDB and other partners and stakeholders to explore opportunities for clean energy solutions in the east in the future.”
‘The needs are so great’
Intermittent rain dotted the landscape as we visited the home of Shaniqua Bartlett, who along with her mother, her sister Jennifer Pinder and brother-in-law Barry and the couple’s two-year old grandson Trent Jones, were enjoying family time outside Bartlett’s flood-gutted home.
The family is continuing to mourn the loss of four family members in Dorian who are missing and presumed dead.
With a lightheartedness that betrayed her loss, Bartlett said, “We’ve been coping quite well and trying to do all we can for ourselves.
“The house inside is gutted and roof and ceiling is damaged but you’ve got to do as best as you can and try to see if you can get your own materials because we haven’t seen any materials coming into this area.”
She opined that many have yet to return to the area because they have no materials to repair their houses.
“Thank God for the help from Samaritan’s Purse,” the lifelong High Rock resident stressed, “but as for the government we have not seen anything from them – you’ve got to fight your own battle here.”
It’s a consistent refrain.
For her part, Pinder recalled that the Christmas season was hard without her loved ones whose presence at the family’s annual holiday gathering was deeply missed.
Superintendent Brian Rolle, head of the island’s Central Detective Unit (CDU), told Perspective this weekend that his team of officers is regrouping to continue drone searches for human remains in the east “in a few weeks”.
“We are also still awaiting the DNA results from the two persons still awaiting identification in the [Rand] morgue,” he said.
Howling winds and an angry sea greeted us as we drove through Pelican Point en-route to McLean’s Town; the weather a jarring reminder that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is but a few months away.
There was precious little activity in the settlement once we arrived, save for brothers Cecil and Kendal Leathern who were completing last-minute home repairs before returning to Freeport.
Cecil is confident that residents would return once power can be restored, but without running water, his desired return will have to be delayed.
“I’ll wait for the water to come back permanently because one of my daughters has cerebral palsy so I’ve got to make sure everything is good for her – my first priority is making sure she is straight,” he conveyed.
Next door, his brother Kendal paused from his repairs to tell us with a deep sigh, “The needs are so great.
“You don’t really know where to start from but most people are just trying to get their houses back together to try to move back into the community,” he added, “and so many people have not even tried to do anything on their house because they have so much damage and they don’t have the funds to do it.”
With area schools destroyed, Leathern asserted that it would be difficult for some residents to return home from Freeport.
“Water lines were being put in here but that seems to have come to a halt,” he bemoaned.
Over on Sweeting’s Cay, residents are trying to “stand up strong” according to cay native Kermit Feaster, who told Perspective that government assistance “has been kind of stagnant and slow”.
“Everyone is still in tents and to be honest with you the people there feel left out,” he said.
According to Feaster, U.S.-based NGOs such as Convoy of Hope and others have been invaluable for residents on the cay and have “been sticking with us and giving encouragement and it has been helping a lot with the depression, especially with the elderly folk and those who lost everything and don’t know where they are going to get the first dollar”.
Regarding what had been a protracted wait on the acquisition of a barge to bring heavy duty cleanup equipment to the cay, Feaster confirmed that the equipment has been barged over, maintaining that the cleanup process has been piecemeal thus far though an improvement over what existed during our visit there last October.
“The government has a few people contracted to do cleanup there and I’m not sure if it was planned properly, but they have the machinery to heap up the stuff but there’s no dump truck that they can put stuff on to take it to a dump site,” he pointed out.
“I know it’s a lot of pressure on the government because a lot of areas were affected,” Feaster said of the overall pace of storm-recovery, “but if only they could take a bit of a better approach for persons who are so interested in their communities and so willing to help, and they can hire the young men in the communities.”
Kendal Leathern, in the meantime, expressed a feeling of neglect by government authorities in McLean’s Town, while recognizing the work and donations of local Rotary Clubs and international NGOs.
“People in the east are, I guess, the most pious people in Grand Bahama,” he reasoned, “because if this was elsewhere they would have been up in arms making noise, but the people on this end try to do what you could do.
“If you don’t have it, you do without it and hopefully a good samaritan comes along and tries to help.”