“Bahamians are some of the most resilient people I have ever seen in my life,” beamed Jo Brown, area director for Baptist Global Response of the Americas, as she spoke with Perspective this weekend, taking a brief break from assisting Pelican Point homeowners with debris removal.
Her testimony of their resilience was as sure as the blue Saturday skies over east Grand Bahama nearly three months after the passage of Dorian, where residents were busily working on what home repairs they could manage, wearing smiles that betray the pain of loss they have all experienced.
The landscape out east has benefitted from heavy-duty cleanup initiatives, with backhoes parked strategically for ongoing work.
Recent gale force winds on the island made victims of several relief tents crumpled where they were once pitched, prompting some to make unplanned, temporary departures to Freeport.
This as ever-present volunteers with various U.S.-based NGOs delivered meals, materials and support residents say have been invaluable in their efforts to return to a state of normalcy.
What was clear during our return to the east was that residents are determined not to give up on their settlements no matter how challenging the present conditions, and though many do not have the resources to rebuild, they are nonetheless fixed on tending to yards and tractor-scraped environs until they are able to make a new house their home.
As we drove through the settlement of Freetown, we stopped at the home of Wilfred Higgs who, hammer in hand, was soldiering through efforts to repair the interior of his storm-gutted home where four boats were stored out front together with a grey relief tent.
Higgs sleeps in his tent at night to safeguard his building materials and goes to work in Freeport where his family currently stays, he said, though he has been unable to convince his wife and children to share the nighttime experience of tent life.
Commenting on the mammoth task of repairs ahead of him, Higgs reminded himself that it is a task everyone in the east is now forced to bear.
“The one or two people who are doing a little work to their homes they are trying to do the work themselves,” he pointed out.
“I was saying that even if some plywood and peel and stick could be provided some people could have dried out their roof, fix a room in their home instead of living in the tent because a lot of people are not used to being in a tent so it is hard to get comfortable there.”
As we left to allow Higgs to return to his work, a couple drove up and out stepped Andrew Conway, asking if anyone in the area was in a need of a hot meal.
Conway and his wife, Paula, who live in San Francisco when they are not on Grand Bahama, were volunteering with World Central Kitchen which has been providing meals to storm victims on Grand Bahama since shortly after Dorian’s devastating landfall.
“We have been living in Grand Bahama either full time or part time for the past 15 years,” he said.
“We really love the people here and I was saying to my wife the other day that my personal morality is look after your family and don’t be a jerk to anybody else and I realize that right now these people are family and they are people I want to look after.”
Conway disclosed that he was considering transitioning into retirement at the end of this year but has chosen to continue working so that he can have more money to spend on relief supplies and the relief effort on the island.
He was later joined by other members of the volunteer group who made their way through the communities en route to McLean’s Town.
Putting residents to work
As we entered High Rock, we noticed in the distance a number of people dressed in white protective suits.
Curious as to what they were working on, we drove a ways and met with Richard Phillips of the non-profit Global Emergency Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction, based in Virginia.
Teams first arrived on Grand Bahama on September 8 and first carried out gutting work at the flood-damaged Rand Memorial Hospital before also providing repair and reconstruction assistance to several of the island’s flood-damaged schools.
“I have hired a local crew from here in High Rock,” he explained. “I door knocked the town and I hired literally every man and woman able to work, so that does a couple of things: it puts them to work so that they are now making a reasonable salary and every day they are working together as a community and I think in some ways it is actually helping people to heal.
“Plus,” Phillips continued, “it is giving them cash in their pockets. They can start buying sheetrock, peel and stick and whatever they need for their homes. I have a very energetic crew here and I am very proud of the work they’ve done, I feel like I am part of the community now.”
The spirit of togetherness that is indicative of these communities shone through, Phillips recounted, as residents joined to select an elderly couple and a family with physical and mental disabilities for whom his team would make homes fully liveable again.
So far, 18 homes in High Rock have been made ready for necessary repairs through the Virginia-based NGO.
“We are strong people”
Miles away in Pelican Point was where we met up with members of Baptist Global Response along with members of the Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee who were lifting debris away from homes and to a dumping site across the street for collection by cleanup teams.
For resident and skilled tradesman William Humes, recovery has been a struggle at times but he has persevered.
“To be honest with you, for the first month or so after the storm I had been driving out here from Freeport to work on my property and on my friend’s property but every time I came out here serious depression stepped in,” he shared as the smell of lighter fluid from a nearby grill wafted in our direction.
“I found myself not getting any work done but I am coming around pretty good now and it is not bothering me as much anymore.”
According to Humes, the residents are in need of skilled workers who can assist with necessary repairs.
As we continued our travels into McLean’s Town, we met Helen Moss, who was studiously raking the soil near the roadside of what used to be her home.
“You have your down days some days, but we are coping,” Moss assured. “We are strong people and I definitely am hoping to rebuild.”
A short distance away, the sound of the gospel group the Cooling Waters blared through the ruins of a house owned, according to Eulese Cooper, by her mom and which was home to her mother’s grandchildren before Dorian reduced it to a shell of its former self.
Cooper is recovering from a head wound she suffered during her return to the area in the storm’s immediate aftermath and lives on the property where she feels more at peace than being in Freeport.
She, like Joyce Russell steps away, are resolute in rebuilding.
Russell spoke to us against the background of a drill operated by her son, who she said was trying to do what he could to repair the damage to their home.
“There have been many tears and heartbreak, but I give God thanks because I am still here,” she said with a grateful smile.
“Thank God for life.”
As we wrapped up our visit and started a return to Freeport, we were awestruck by a stunning skyline where amber rays of the evening sun pierced the clouds.
It stood as a metaphor of the spirit of the people, that in spite of the clouds of uncertainty and devastation that have covered them, they are standing as beacons indestructible, ever-shining like the sun.