The long road home
It’s a place of security and safety where a person is both psychologically and financially invested, and has a foundation from which to weather life’s triumphs and tragedies.
Over five months ago, that foundation for thousands of Grand Bahamians was either destroyed or left as a gutted shell that many are now in the slow process of trying to repair even as they struggle to pick up the pieces from shattered emotions and financial loss.
As reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian continues on the island, Perspective visited three of Freeport’s hardest-hit subdivisions — Regency Park, Hudson Estates and Heritage — which make up approximately 1,000 homes where hundreds of Grand Bahamians fled potential death into their roofs and where floodwaters left behind emptiness that only time, perseverance and critical assistance can fill.
For residents in these communities, life is a mixture of hope, uncertainty, frustration, intense need and a determination not to allow Dorian to be the end of their story.
It is also a willingness to live in houses with unfinished walls, stripped ceilings, little to no furniture or appliances and damaged roofs because there is either nowhere else to go, or nowhere else they would rather be in their quest for normalcy in the aftermath of disaster.
Regency Park is on low-lying land near Freeport’s north shore, and experienced significant storm surge flooding during Hurricane Frances nearly 15 years to the day of Dorian’s landfall, which brought flooding residents were not forewarned to expect.
Some residents have since returned to their unfinished homes, while other homes remain either shuttered or are unoccupied and under repair by tradesman who were busily working on the calm, sunny Saturday of our visit.
Lillian Walker, a displaced homeowner we met as she and police officers of the National Neighborhood Watch program canvassed the area, said, “It has certainly been a life-changing experience and an adjustment for me, [but] there is no place like home.
“You look around and it’s not the same,” she continued, “because there’s a house across from me that I haven’t seen the family since the storm but the neighborhood spirit is still there with concern for one another in the community, and I think that is what has been encouraging.”
Walker is living with her parents until she is able to make her home livable again.
For Thea Outten, being able to return to her home is a psychological boost she and her children are happy to finally experience.
“I used to come here every day and do something, even if it’s just to throw the garbage out the road,” she shared, “because being in other people’s home ain’t nothing like being in your own home.”
Outten, whose home was underinsured, added, “I thank God I’m home, though; it’s not yet completed because once you ain’t home, your heart ain’t there.
“Every day you are crying and you are trying to get back to normalcy which is hard mentally and physically and it is very, very draining, and once you have your children you can’t mope, you have to get up and make it happen.”
Making it happen is what Sergeant Terrance Thompson and Corporal Jennifer Hield are working to help communities do, and according to Thompson, the Regency Park neighborhood watch program has, among other things, been gathering information on skill sets in the community that are needed in the reconstruction phase.
“Most of our neighborhood watch groups were impacted by Dorian and in fact this group was using the neighborhood watch WhatsApp chat group to help with rescue from these areas during the storm,” Thompson told us in between houses visits.
“Neighbors helping neighbors is what we want to achieve.”
As we continued through the community, we met Donna Cartwright busily sweeping her front step and expressing joy that she was able to return to her home shortly before Christmas.
“My home was insured and we’re still trying to do things bit by bit,” she noted. “Some people in the area wanted to give up but they realize that they might as well come back home.”
Her next-door neighbor Eleanor Saunders was also displaced for several months, and lives with her daughter who she said had to use her savings to effect ongoing fixes to her home as repair costs exceeded her insurance payout.
“Repairs might take another four to five months,” she estimated.
“If there is a next hurricane headed in our direction we are definitely out,” she stressed, “because when this hurricane came we kept calling the people to the met office and asking them if we should vacate this area and they told us ‘no’.
“And by the time they started telling us to vacate there was no power and no sunlight or communications and when we woke up the water was already up here (a level about three feet high), and it was eight of us in here with two small children.”
As Saunders relived her family’s harrowing tale of survival and expressed frustrations about the quality of assistance provided by government-run entities, her tile layer, West End resident Jeff Pinder, chimed in about what has been the insufferable wait for details on home repair assistance.
His home, like many others in West End, is uninsurable due to its location.
Of the government’s Small Home Repair Program through the Disaster Reconstruction Authority set to launch today, Pinder questioned, “Are you going to get a quick turnaround? Because if I apply today do I still have to wait a month or two months for you to come and give me assistance?
“I need results now, because once you get past repairing the house you can bring back family members and put the pieces back together.”
Remarking on the mental toll for storm victims visiting the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the Department of Social Services only to encounter inexplicable turnarounds, delays due to lost applications and promised callbacks that never take place, Pinder expressed worry that some storm victims simply cannot take the pressure.
He pointed out that, “I’m in my house and it’s not in the best condition, but I have to be in the house and a lot of us are in that position because where do you go? You patch your house as best as you can.
“If I don’t need the assistance from government I’m not going to try to get it, but if I ask for it, it obviously means for me that I can’t do it. So if I apply for it, I don’t want to wait two months, man, for you to come back and tell me you are just getting around to me.”
“I need help”
The community of Hudson Estates is so far inland that residents who slept for days in their roofs and almost drowned trying to escape Dorian’s storm surge are still in shock.
Monique Robinson, who is displaced and trying to repair her home, said, “It is hard and when you go home you be so depressed, like Lord, you have a house and you can’t even move into your house, so we try not to go home every day.
“Thank God for the little insurance I did have; if I can’t eat I pay that.”
Her statement gave us pause, because Bahamians should not have to be in a position where they have to decide whether to eat or find money to insure their homes — but this is precisely the kind of dilemma in Grand Bahama’s stagnant economy that has contributed to high numbers of uninsured homes.
Robinson mentioned with her head bowed in her car, “We lost everything and you’ve got to be strong when you have young kids; you have no other choice — you’ve got to bear with it until you can do better.
“My son says, ‘Mummy, could we go to Canada? Could we just move off this island?’ I say, ‘No, we can’t run.’”
As we navigated through the subdivision’s flood-damaged streets, we stopped at the home of retiree Charity Johnson, whose distress was palpable as she led us through her flood-damaged home now furnished with little more than air mattresses in rooms with unfinished walls and a leaky roof covered in tarp.
“I need help, I need help,” she urged as she stood with her hands clasped in front of her chest.
“I’m trying to do my best,” Johnson affirmed. “When I first moved back in the house I used to have all the trouble to sleep. I used to get up in the night waiting to see when the water coming.
“I don’t go nowhere,” she told us, “I just stay home because I does be so depressed, sometimes I just feel like breaking down crying.”
Her displaced brother, Sweeting’s Cay homeowner and fisherman Hulan Davis, now lives with her after Dorian left him homeless with a destroyed fishing vessel and only the clothes on his back.
A local group assisted Johnson with mold remediation and sheetrock replacement, and as she tossed her hand in frustration about going to government agencies for assistance, she reasoned that a Monday morning trip to the government complex to apply for housing repair assistance will be her last attempt at trying to get the help she desperately needs.
“That is my last straw,” she conveyed. “I will go down there, and after that I don’t know because I tried NEMA and social services and Red Cross and got no assistance.”
A short distance away, Ivan Butler was outside his home painting his decorative gate and outdoor planters as his wife, Janette, talked about losing her job in Dorian’s aftermath while their grandson sat and listened in.
“We’re just trying to survive,” she replied when we asked how they managed in their ceiling-to-floor gutted home during the recent dip in temperatures.
“It was so cold,” Butler said with wide-eyed recall.
Her husband, a Crown Haven, Abaco, native who works as a tradesman, is adamant that, with assistance, he could get his home back to where it needs to be.
“Somebody needs to get serious, man. All I need is a check and I can do the work myself. Minnis says we are gonna go to Miami with the money?” he said, in reference to a previous concern expressed by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis regarding giving cash-in-hand to storm victims.
“Well, I don’t have my passport so I’m not going to Miami. Just give me the check and I can get it done; I’m an Abaco man, I can do anything, ain’t nothing I can’t do.”
“It’s not easy”
Miles away, in the Heritage subdivision, Terrance Cooper and several of his friends were busy erecting the framing for interior walls of his storm-gutted home as his wife, Christal, looked on.
The couple has lived in Heritage for 12 years, and were among scores of homeowners who were forced to flee for their lives during Dorian’s onslaught.
As she sat in the corner of their home, just off the doorway, Cooper said, “It’s been very rough. We are renting now and trying to get this done and hopefully someone will come along and assist.”
Pausing from his work to speak to us, her husband echoed the challenges, adding that, “It’s been hard but you just have to keep pushing through.
“The main thing is being able to purchase the materials; that’s where the difficulty comes in. We heard about the intended assistance and hopefully we will see how that turns out because our foundation has shifted, so that is where all the problems came in for me.”
Shifted foundations has been a consequence of the massive flooding experienced in homes from East End to Freeport.
Their neighbor, meanwhile, who wished not to be named, bemoaned her financial struggles as a client of the Bahamas Mortgage Corporation (BMC), echoing sentiments previously expressed in media reports by fellow clients about delays in receiving insurance disbursements paid to the corporation.
Floodwaters destroyed everything in her home where she is caretaker to her bedridden mother, and since she is an at-home cook, she is now also unemployed due to the damage.
“It’s not easy,” she said with a deep sigh.
“I just started repairs on Monday because it’s been difficult getting the funds.
“What’s so sad about it is from three weeks ago, BMC told me I would have gotten that first check and my mummy is bedridden so I had to put her in the old folks home so the work could get done.
“I’ve gone and put her in the home and I still haven’t gotten the check yet so now I have to come up with another $600 to pay for the old folks home.
“I told the lady at the office that I thank God for the little bit of Jesus I have.”