“It’s my faith in God that gets me through.”
Such is the refrain of Hurricane Dorian survivors in the ground-zero settlements of east Grand Bahama where many of the island’s 33 confirmed and presumed deaths occurred, and where the majority of those who live to testify, are still working to rebuild their homes and their lives.
A scorching Saturday with a heat index hovering near 100 degrees was respited only by the welcoming resolve of residents, who spoke to Perspective about their paths to restoration ahead of tomorrow’s one-year anniversary of Dorian’s ruinous landfall.
Once the morning rain gave way to clearer skies, east Grand Bahama’s ever-resilient homeowners emerged to continue whatever external repair work they can manage on their own, and to beautify yards in anticipation of one day returning full-time to the place they swear they will never leave.
Cleanup at ground zero has progressed well save for Sweeting’s Cay, but the process of reconstruction has been painfully slow over the past year, and is further hampered by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
When we last visited back in January, single-father Rodrigo Mitchell and his young son, Rodrigo Jr., were on the grounds of what used to be their Bevans Town home that was swept off its foundation in Dorian’s onslaught.
This weekend, there were signs of progress as Mitchell came to greet us, taking a brief break from the stud work of his replacement structure while his son and another young boy kicked a basketball around the rocky grounds.
Like many east Grand Bahama residents, Mitchell is doing as much reconstruction work as he can on his own and with the help of friends, and is still back and forth between Freeport and his property until he can make his home livable again.
On his state of mind as the Dorian milestone approached, he said, “We’re still alive and we’re thankful that God gave us life, and we are still getting things done as slow as it is.
“I’m just taking it day by day.”
“I LOST SEVEN COUSINS”
The main roadway through the east remains a maze of dangerous potholes, and is bordered with pine forest marked hauntingly by thousands of flood-injured pine trees broken and bowed, as though paying their respects to the fallen.
As we drove toward the settlement of High Rock where the majority of east Grand Bahama’s presumed storm-deaths took place, the “End Title” score for the soundtrack of the motion picture “Changeling” — a film about a mother whose missing nine-year-old son was never found — began to play on the radio.
In that moment art imitated life, as the score’s bridge of a moaning trumpet crescendoing to a climactic and punishing wail of a high note reminiscent of a grieving mother’s screams, jolted us into the reality that loved ones who traverse this roadway must contend with the anguish of not knowing whether the remains of their child, spouse, sibling or other relative lie unrecovered within the pine forests.
Carlton Roberts was busily weeding and planting grass cuttings outside his home still under repair, and soon took a break from the sweltering heat to speak to us, revealing that he lost seven family members during those fateful days last September.
He paused reflectively and recalled, “I lost seven of my first cousins.
“It ain’t easy, because every time you really think about it, you just…” Roberts offered as his thoughts seemingly trailed off toward the memory of his loved ones.
He began again, “We were close. Through it all God promised to never leave us, so that’s all I’m really relying on, that’s how I’m making it.”
His wife, Melinda, who was inside at the time, spoke to us through a bedroom window echoing her husband’s sadness, and expressing hope that they can soon complete repairs and return to their home.
She shared, “How the anniversary [of Dorian] is approaching, it gets you a little nervous again, because you came so far with the repairs, and you’re wondering now if you’re going to go through the same thing again.
“You just have to hold onto your faith.”
It is that same faith that Ruth Roberts and her husband, Harrison, are holding onto, as they work to repair their flood-damaged two-story High Rock home where they previously rode out other major hurricanes over the past 15 years.
Her husband suggested his wife speak; she was at the time tending to the family garden a ways off.
When she asked lightheartedly from the distance, “How come you did not want to speak?”, he replied, “Because I might end up crying.”
We retreated to the front porch, where stood an ocean-brined organ with broken keys frozen in time, and atop it sat a salt-stripped typewriter that undoubtedly told no more harrowing a tale than the family’s survival on snacks for two days, having fled to their second floor to escape flood waters that burst open their front door and grew chest-high in seconds.
Recounting the psychological toll, Ruth disclosed, “There was a time I toted a backpack everywhere with all our documents because that was our identity, and that represented a foundation for us to start again.
“They laughed at me and called me the bag lady, but everything that was of value to us was in it.”
The year’s journey to a sense of normalcy has been tiring, she admitted, pointing to the difficulty with finding honest and competent laborers, and the loss of funds they have suffered due to laborers refusing to show up to do work for which they had been paid.
As an escape, she finds comfort in restoring her garden that was flourishing prior to Dorian.
“It’s an escape from the sights on the inside of the house,” she noted, “and it also gives you a sense of accomplishment because what you can do inside is limited, so the plants are a sign of progress.
“It’s life, it’s green, it’s hope.”
“You can’t give up”
A steady stream of cars headed down to the renowned Bishops Beach Club, which together with its bonefishing lodge in High Rock owned by proprietor Ruben “Bishop” Roberts, were destroyed by Dorian’s storm surge.
Having rebuilt the beach club restaurant that reopened just last week, Roberts was in good spirits, while at the same time concessionary about the reality of rebuilding all of what he had lost.
“I’m optimistic that things are going to happen,” he assured, “and everybody is trying to do the best that they could do. But everything is looking up.”
When asked if he planned to rebuild his lodge as he initially indicated in the immediate aftermath of Dorian, Roberts heartily smiled and reckoned, “I’m an old man; I’m 80 years of age, so I’m just going to do a gazebo out on the water there, and lay off and say, ‘It was nice while it lasted.’”
Inklings of movement toward re-establishing businesses were evident as we drove just east of Bishops, where a backhoe operator was preparing the grounds for what construction workers said would become a bakery on the foundation of what used to be a snack shop.
When one visits the east, what is readily apparent is that family is important to residents, and that the strength of family is what has bolstered the spirit of perseverance for those who have lost everything.
A heartwarming example of this was found as we continued our travel eastward toward the settlement of Pelican Point, where Natalie Laing, 79, was sitting under the portico of her storm-gutted home, as her children and grandchildren shared laughs and helped to do what they could to restore the family home.
Laing turns 80 on September 2, and recounted the pain of Dorian; last year’s unwanted birthday event.
“When it first happened I was very depressed because everything I had was gone, but thank God I am still alive and I’m feeling good.
“I feel good to see that the children are getting the house back in shape for me.”
Miles away, in the settlement of Rocky Creek, police search teams recovered the remains of a little boy last year, thought to be one of Dorian’s victims from McLean’s Town.
Not far from the site of the child’s remains is a small community, where residents have built temporary wooden structures until they are able to rebuild their homes ripped apart by Dorian’s Category 5 winds.
As we drove through, Paul Russell, a native of Abaco who has lived in Rocky Creek with his wife for almost 13 years, came out to meet us, and began busily covering stacks of plywood sitting on his former home’s foundation with tarp to shield from the threat of more rainfall.
Of his current state one year after Dorian’s passage, he said, “I don’t feel good about it, but ain’t nothing you can do. You’ve gotta take one day at a time.”
Russell was the lone Rocky Creek resident who chose to ride out the storm — a decision he said he regrets.
Though floodwaters remarkably stopped a good distance away from his community, he plans to rebuild farther inland on the main road, but the process of rebuilding has been slow-going.
“I’m getting there slowly,” he noted, “but ain’t no money making so you’ve gotta peck, peck, but you can’t give up — no time to give up on yourself.”
“THIS IS MY ROCK”
The easternmost settlement of McLean’s Town is still without electricity a year since Dorian’s passage, and according to Jeremy McIntosh, 20, who is anxious to return to his family home, residents are only given a three-hour window daily to access running water for sanitation.
Cleopatra Russell, corporate communications manager for the Grand Bahama Power Company, told us yesterday that the company initially planned to restore McLean’s Town by the end of August, but it is presently two to three weeks behind schedule due in part to COVID-19-related delays.
Without electricity, significant reconstruction and a return to normalcy remain an afar-off notion for residents.
As we drove through the once bustling settlement, we observed that many homes are in much the same state as they were in the immediate aftermath of Dorian.
McIntosh noted, “My home now is alright, but everyone around me is down, so even though I’m home, it still doesn’t feel good in my spirit that I’m here living good, and my neighbors are still down.”
The young McLean’s Town native still lives in Freeport for now and returns home on the weekends, a situation he is eager to bring to an end.
Gesturing proudly to his community, McIntosh said, “I call this my rock.
“I get homesick; sometimes I tell my mom I want to move back home, but coming up and seeing the house empty puts a toll on me. After Dorian every time I came up, I would start to cry.
“But I am hoping to return home for good before Christmas.”
A boat ride away from the mainland is the settlement of Sweeting’s Cay, which we revisited back in June to follow up on concerns expressed by residents who are still living in tents one year later, and who bemoaned inadequate heavy-debris cleanup on the cay.
They are also still without electricity and piped running water.
Following our report in June, the Disaster Reconstruction Authority advised that portable housing trailers would be sent to the cay, but according to resident Eleanor Tate, only portions of trailers have arrived and none have been erected, with no communication from officials on what is to happen next.
She told us by telephone from the cay, “They started to bring something across here and it stopped; only parts of it came over and they placed it in the schoolyard, and nobody is saying anything.
“We are humans. Let us know something so we can have some kind of hope. We are desperate.”
Fishing is the livelihood of Sweeting’s Cay residents and in order to make a living, Tate said, she needs to return to the cay to go out to sea, but doing so is not without its share of constant challenges.
“When the weather comes and my tent comes down I have to run to Freeport because there is nowhere else for me to be,” she explained.
“To be honest with you, it has been very depressing. A couple of days ago, I started to go into a depression stage, and it’s a good thing I have God in me because the devil was putting things and thoughts into my mind.”
Tate continued, “You could be in Freeport but after a while you have to come back because if you are not working down there, you can’t stay in nobody’s house or apartment; you have to pay bills.
“You have people who have been here since the hurricane and you can see sometimes that their heart and mind are troubled. It feels like no way out.”
Her niece, Neceva Adderley, who also spoke to us from the cay on Saturday, pointed to the special and prohibitive circumstances Sweeting’s Cay residents face in the rebuilding exercise, because they must pay hundreds of dollars to get their materials shipped from the mainland, and labor costs on the cay are consequently higher than elsewhere in east Grand Bahama.
She stressed, “I’m fighting for survival to try to pay a little something on my mortgage so I won’t lose my house in Freeport.
“After the hurricane, and I never shared this with nobody, the devil came to me many times to poison myself because the burden is really too heavy.”
That both she and her aunt alluded to thoughts of self-harm due to states of depression, raises the alarm about the psychological impact of a disaster the magnitude of Dorian, and the extent to which awareness exists about what storm victims should do to protect their mental health.
Adderley added, “I come to the cay every day. We try to catch some fish and some conch and I take it back into Freeport and make the best out of life; you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to try to make it on your own.”
When asked what she wants the country to know about the state of Sweeting’s Cay, she pleaded, “We need help and support for what we are going through.
“Please help the residents to get back home, and get back on their feet.”