It’s pitch black at night.
There is rubble, there is ruin, and the scornful vermin it attracts.
A solitary shoe, a mangled car and a child’s bicycle are among remnants of what used to be, monumented amidst salt-stripped mangroves and steps away from the scorched earth of trash heaps burned, in part, to smoke out “intolerable” mosquitoes and sandflies.
There is still no electricity.
With no running water, days consist of long, early morning treks to the reverse osmosis plant to fill containers toted on wheelbarrows and carts.
Buckets of sea water are stored to flush the few operable toilets left, weather-worn tents are the only place most residents have to call home and cradled within their self-determination is gnawing angst over the ongoing state of their once picturesque cay.
Almost 10 months have passed since Hurricane Dorian swept homes and businesses off their foundations, and battered educational and health facilities on Sweeting’s Cay.
Heartbreakingly, very little has changed.
Dubbed the fishing capital of Grand Bahama, Perspective first visited the cay last October to find residents pleading for the government to begin the cleanup process so they could begin to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Since that time, the commencement of cleanup work was announced, but upon our return on Saturday, we were shocked to see that much of the scenery was as we left it nearly seven months earlier.
Residents we spoke to decried as woefully inadequate the
contracted cleanup, bemoaning that the cay’s recreational park for its children which sits in the center of the cay, was turned into a dumping ground by the contractor.
They want to move on with their lives, but imposing rubble and mounting debris are roadblocks to progress and peace of mind.
“It is terrible here”
A generator’s hum and the squawks of seagulls filled the air as we approached what used to be the home of Winifred Mitchell, 70, and her family, who were gathered under a shade as a pot of boiled fish simmered in a tented makeshift kitchen atop their foundation.
With a sigh, Mitchell said, “It’s like we’ve been forgotten. It is terrible, terrible here. When the weather comes, the tents fall down and you don’t have no place else to go, and you can’t stay in Freeport all the time because you have got to come back and try to come and clean up and see about your place.”
Her son built her a two-room wooden shed, similar to structures others are seeking to build until they are able to rebuild their home.
Just a stone’s throw away, Tyrone Duncombe, 54, sat cleaning fish as his wife Michelle looked on from underneath the shade of an adjacent coconut tree.
For him, life on the cay is stressful because there is still no electricity or running water, and homes that managed to survive remain damaged.
Like Mitchell before him, he offered, “We feel forgotten and it still feels like the hurricane just left.”
Duncombe continued, “That’s what keeps you so depressed because you don’t see no progress on the island. Now and then I go out on the boat and make a couple of dollars but right now things are slow. Even before the lobster season closed, the hurricane carried all of the traps so that’s the stressful part.”
Just then, the laughter and noise of revelry cut through the afternoon breeze as youngsters who travelled over by ferry joined residents for a get-together.
Daphne Cartwright, 27, who was born and raised on the cay, proudly asserted that, “We always come back to the cay because we don’t want to allow anyone to think we forgot where we are from, and we don’t want people to think that we just forgot our cay and we’re going to let it go, so today we just came home for a day of fun and to enjoy what we know was home.”
Speaking to us steps away from where her family home once stood, she shared that city life in Freeport is taking a toll on those from the cay who are longing to return.
Cartwright noted, “When you come home and you see that a lot of the dirt and debris is still here from Dorian it hurts you, so we are asking the government to come in and bring some help.
“What I want for my people and for me is for the cay to be cleaned up.”
“Rats as big as cats”
As we continued our walk of the cay we came upon the home of Sweeting’s Cay Local Government Chief Councillor Gladstone Russell, who sat on his front porch fixing a lawn mower as his wife Ruth sat quietly nearby.
Echoing the sentiments of residents on the cay, Russell stated, “As you can see, the cay is in a terrible condition. I spoke to the DPM (deputy prime minister) concerning it; he promised that there is a contractor that should be coming soon, and I’m still waiting to see the contractor.
“I had environmental health here because we’ve got rats on the cay as big as cats. I’m just surprised you all have not run into any as yet.”
As if on cue, a rat suddenly emerged, peeked at us and quickly scampered away, as if uncomfortable with the attention.
Russell and his wife questioned why cleanup could not continue on the cay during the COVID-19 shutdown, given that hurricane repair work was permitted in Freeport heading into the easternmost mainland settlement of McLean’s Town.
As for the lack of electricity which plunges the cay into darkness at night, he expressed concern that none of what he was told was over 800 solar lights donated for Grand Bahama, had made its way to the cay.
Corporate Communications Manager for the Grand Bahama Power Company Cleopatra Russell told Perspective the company anticipates connecting Sweeting’s Cay after working toward restoration of McLean’s Town through to the end of July.
“Every day is rough”
The cay’s member of parliament, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Peter Turnquest, recently advised Parliament that close to $80 million has been spent thus far on hurricane restoration on Grand Bahama and Abaco.
The condition Bahamians are forced to live in on Sweeting’s Cay raises questions on how Grand Bahama’s portion thereof has been spent.
Meanwhile on the cay, fishermen work together to assist those who have been unable to restore their vessels lost in the storm.
Lifelong fishermen Robert Tate and Wilton Duncombe were waist deep along the bayside skinning conch, with both pointing out that despite having received no assistance from the government to restore their vessels, they are continuing to do what they can to feed their families.
A walk bordered by yards of rubble and gutted homes brought us to the property of the Feaster family, where a long red pathway bordered by hibiscus trees led to a bare foundation with a silver tent we soon discovered was the family’s bathroom.
On the bayside, the family sat underneath a makeshift shade built to hold a mattress on which Janet Feaster lay, staring out at what used to be.
Matriarch Remilda Feaster, 84, told us she came to the cay to see about “a little shack” they are seeking to build until they are able to rebuild their home.
Of life in Freeport, she said sadly, “I feel bad I can’t get home. I was in Freeport since September and I [used to] only go to Freeport if I go to pick up something and come back home; I don’t stay in Freeport, and now there weeks into weeks sitting down is making you weak.”
She conveyed, “I can’t hardly make it, man. It’s terrible, but I still thank God for Jesus.”
Seated on the grass nearby, her grandson Eugene Hepburn chimed in, “Every day is rough. I don’t see any coming out of it; it is inhumane at this point, the rats and everything and the garbage piled up from the east to the west.”
During our last visit, the family home lay in ruins atop its foundation; ruins Hepburn said the family cleared off mostly by hand.
“I feel sad and bad,” he indicated. “You can’t do anything with mother nature but by now 10 months later, there should have been some progress to give someone some type of hope. It’s very depressing.”
His sister Heather Feaster-Ferguson, founder of the Sweeting’s Cay Heritage Association, explained that delays in receiving promised rental assistance from the Department of Social Services have made living in Freeport that much more difficult, pointing out that she and others had to wait six months to receive their first check.
She divulged, “They are saying that you are approved and the landlords could understand [the delay], but nobody has to understand, so having someone harass you for money every day when you are literally powerless because you do not have the money, it is very stressful.”
As we continued to the west of the cay, fisherman Nako Brice shouted out that he needs the road to his home fixed and running water to avoid long wheelbarrow journeys to the water depot.
We eventually met Cleora and Austin Duncombe, who were sitting alongside the ruins of their home that provided shade from the afternoon sun.
They, too, are building a wooden structure until they can rebuild their home.
Being “tired of life in Freeport”, the middle-aged couple spends more time on the cay, but tent life has been harrowing.
“That’s the third tent we’ve had now,” Austin told us. “They’ve fallen on me a couple of times, but we are a strong people; that is why we are surviving.”
His wife agreed, stressing that, “We would like to see the land cleaned up, so you can get your life back to some normalcy.”
She affirmed, “This is home, so we are trying to get our little home there to live in while we work on our house. It is rough and it is hard, and you see in that tent I’ve got to be in every day, it’s hard.”
The couple said promises of dome homes for the cay never materialized, but they are remaining steadfast.
“We are strong and we are not giving up,” Austin declared, “and we are not going anywhere.”
Turnquest, who voiced his “disappointment” to us with the previous cleanup effort, said re-commencement should start “soon”.
This can be “our rebirth”
Deputy Chief Councilor for the east Grand Bahama township Shervin Tate reminded us that Sweeting’s Cay was on a positive touristic trajectory prior to Dorian, and could return to that course with necessary support from government.
Attractions including a turtle farm he established over a decade ago have, according to Tate, created job opportunities for tour operators, ferry owners and restaurant owners.
Projects envisioned, including a conch and lobster farm, are opportunities he is confident Bahamians can thrive in, if they get the tools they need.
“If Sweeting’s Cay gets back on the roll again, we can help The Bahamas,” he maintains.
Dorian destroyed Heather Feaster’s honey production farm, takeout eatery, tour company and her mother’s convenience store which had been a staple in the community since the late 1970s, but she still sees the destruction caused by Dorian as a chance for a “rebirth” of the cay.
She stressed, “Sweeting’s Cay residents are independent and we are not looking for a handout; we just want what’s due.
“We are calling this our rebirth. We have already made it clear that we are not going anywhere.
“We are going to stay here and we are in it for the long haul.”