House of refuge

When the Maurice Moore Primary School shelter in Freeport began to flood during unprecedented inundation caused by Hurricane Dorian, Wayne and Marsha Stubbs, whose home is just across the street, became the unwitting but willing hosts to 128 desperate evacuees — the youngest being a newborn just a few days old.

In what was a chance encounter, Perspective learned of this incredible story that unfolded in the inland community of Arden Forest, and so we set out to find the house, thinking it must surely be quite large to have held that many people fleeing the wrath of Dorian’s storm surge.

To our surprise, we came upon a modest, two-bedroom home with several flood-damaged vehicles parked out front.

It is to this home that frantic parents passed their young children over the back fence as the others braved flood waters in a race to what appeared to be the safest location in their quest to escape a potentially deadly outcome.

“It started with two people walking in the road,” Marsha Stubbs told Perspective during an interview at their home she called a “house of refuge”.

“My husband was banging on the back window saying ‘somebody help me, the people are passing me the children!’”

Not long before this, Mr. and Mrs. Stubbs were deliberating their own need to evacuate as they feared the incoming surge might prove too dangerous to remain in their home.

But Stubbs said her current disability would have made an evacuation attempt too arduous, so they decided to stay and have faith that God would protect them — a decision that very likely saved the lives of those who would later find shelter at their home during Dorian’s unrelenting 48-hour assault on Grand Bahama.

One by one, then in groups at a time, the numbers at the house grew.

“When it first started I thought it was five people, then I thought it was 10, and then I said, ‘Okay, 50 people are in the house,’” she recalled with wonderment as if it had happened only yesterday.

“We started singing some songs and a police officer came with them and he started to take a count of everyone in the house,” Stubbs continued. “At first he started saying ‘88, 89’ and I was like, ‘What?’ And he finally came back and said, ‘128 plus you and your husband makes 130.’”

Among the evacuees were a five-day-old baby, a 94-year-old man, a leg amputee, four blind people and another blind man with dementia.

“He stayed up all night telling us he was ready to go home,” she recalled. “The police had to actually handcuff him to get him to stay inside because he kept trying to get up and leave the house.

“In my bed there were literally seven persons, three people on the floor, two on the other side, and in one of the rooms we have a double bed with a single bed and that had 10 babies and their parents in that room.”

When asked what it was like braving the storm with that many people at the house, Stubbs reckoned, “We just made it. I just said to myself that it was God’s will for us to be here for such a time.

“The rain came and the water came right to the back of this truck and stopped,” she said, motioning to a near halfway point in her driveway.

“It was a lake out here but it came right up to here and stopped, and I used for my song ‘My Redeemer Lives’ for there is a line in it that that says ‘God, who told the ocean you could only come so far’.

“So he said, ‘You are only coming this far because I need to preserve the people in this house.’”

Inside, many took turns for two days standing

and sitting, sharing cupcakes divided among the group and crackers topped with tuna, corned beef or cheese. Old hymns rang through the house as seen in a cellphone video Stubbs shared with us.

Everyone took care of each other, she pointed out, and this was most poignantly seen when the group came together to help name the newborn among them.

“The father brought the baby from the school in his jacket,” neighbor Sharon Stanford recalled in tears during an earlier interview that first made us aware of this remarkable story of rescue and refuge.

“When he came in he had on a black windbreaker and it was zipped all the way to his neck and I just thought he was taking it off having gotten to safety but when he unzipped it I saw the pink blanket and the baby.”

Stanford and Stubbs said the baby did not yet have a name, and so some of the evacuees came together and helped the parents choose a name for a survivor.

They chose the name Zoe, which means life.

“The mother kept running low on breast milk because she had no water to drink, so we kept giving her water,” she added. “And I know people were saying on Facebook that Freeport did not get affected but that is a lie.”

Once the winds died down as Dorian made a painfully slow turn northward, most of the evacuees were eventually relocated to a new shelter with the exception of a grandmother, mother and baby who stayed at the Stubbs’ home for two more days.

But the season of refuge at the Stubbs’ house was not over yet, as just as the group made their exit a family of five who was rescued from having spent three days in the roof of their home, walked there barefoot through floodwaters from an at-capacity, compromised shelter they found closed to additional entrants.

Their story of survival was as heart-wrenching as it was miraculous.

‘I thought we were going to die’

When floodwaters quickly engulfed the home of Clarence and Latonia Cash and their three children, the family had little time to decide what to do, with the only option being to make a terrifying dash into their roof.

“We came together as a family and found creative ways to survive,” Clarence Cash said, shaking his head as he relived the chain of events.

“We put parts of the cabinets across the rafter and we used some of them to break the waves because by that time the water was crashing above the roof. We just tried to hold on and we came across a material that we used to break the water from wetting us so that hypothermia would not set in.”

When we asked how they managed with what we assumed might have been no water or food, Cash revealed an amazing occurrence we could only conclude as divine.

“While the water was coming up there was a very thick bunch of brown leaves and seaweed that came in and things happened to have been floating on top of that and we spotted it, walked through the rafters and grabbed the food that was on top of it.

“A box of cornflakes and a few of the little bottles of water,” he declared, “that is what we survived on and my wife made it last — it was like time stood still.”

As the father of three marvelled at the way his wife rationed the little food and drink they had, Latonia Cash walked over to us.

Her trauma was palpable.

We sat quietly together for some time as she worked to gather her thoughts, an effort speaking to a woman fighting to find closure in having come face-to-face with what could have been her and her family’s demise.

“Well, we’re alive,” she began heavily with a fixed, conflicted stare out into the distance.

“There was fear, not knowing if you were gonna come down. There was nowhere to go; it is a feeling, as a mother, that you don’t want to have, and even though I was afraid I tried to stay strong for my children.

“To be honest I thought we were going to die,” she continued after a long, pensive pause, “so I prayed and sang some good old hymns to keep my mind sane. I cried up there. We didn’t think we were gonna come down out of there.

“And then it was like the weather just wouldn’t go, it was like it just wouldn’t stop — it just kept beating and beating and beating.”

When asked how life has been since their rescue and the loss of their home, Cash, who happens to be a co-worker of Marsha Stubbs, replied, “It’s been hard because on a regular day you push but now every day you have to push for something, every day you have to wake up and see what’s next.

“Before, you could be home and get up and carry on with life and go to work and take the children to school but now, now it’s an everyday process,” she pointed out.

“And it isn’t just about material things because they can go and come, but you take 17 years to put something together and in a split second, it’s gone.”

For a moment we all fell silent in the driveway as if paying our respects to the loss, when Borrow, the rambunctious dog who made his way into the Cash family’s life just a day before the passage of Dorian, decided to make his presence known.

It was a welcomed diversion that cut the sadness as Cash explained the reason for the dog’s name.

“My husband brought him home the day before the storm and we named him Borrow because we didn’t know if he was going to be able to stay,” she said with a warm smile. “Now we really call him Borrow because he is borrowing his space here!”

It was then that Stubbs told us of a cat who was brought to the house by one of the evacuees, but in the rush to escape her owner did not bring food.

“Ate my sardines,” Wayne Stubbs mused longingly as we all erupted in laughter.

We asked for permission to speak with one of the Cash’s children, to which they unanimously recommended their precocious eight-year-old son Clashawn, who his parents say will be the prime minister one day.

After just a few seconds of talking with him, it was easy to see that they just might be right.

“Well I felt scared ‘cause, you know, when the water was hitting the roof and coming in I felt scared and I wanted to get out so bad, I just really needed to get out because it was getting too scary,” he replied when asked how he felt during the storm.

“As long as we were together, family is stronger as long as we work together,” Clashawn said confidently.

“Family is the most important thing and we had to keep everyone safe,” he added. “We had three cats and a dog; how did we make it out of there alive?”

It’s a question many will no doubt be asking for a long time to come.

“We started to feel a little bit sad when we left the house,” he mentioned with a momentary glint of sorrow in his eyes, “because when I looked at it I started to cry because we had so much memories of our house.”

“Well, you still have each other, so you can make new memories now,” we offered.

“The memories are actually still here,” Clashawn assured, “and the house’s spirit is still inside us.”

As we wrapped up our time with the Stubbs family and their now extended family, we reflected on how Marsha Stubbs summed up what can only be best described as an extraordinary chain of events that led to her home becoming a sanctuary for so many.

“My take from the experience is God preserved them and now that we have done it, some of them have asked ‘what can I do for you’, but I simply say, ‘Pay it forward,’” she urged.

“If you find that you need to be able to help someone, help them. Teach your children how to pay it forward so that in the end we have a caring country.”

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