MARSH HARBOUR, Abaco — After four weeks, Barbara Johnson, 66, finally built up the courage to return to her storm-damaged home in Little Orchard, Marsh Harbour.
“I couldn’t face it,” she told The Nassau Guardian on Monday.
The primary school teacher, along with two young men, entered the home and began to remove everything.
Johnson only wanted a few items — chief among them the only photo she has of her late father.
In a few short hours, she managed to assemble a pile of items — a porcelain angel, the outfit her infant granddaughter wore for her christening, photos and old furniture.
“To tell you the truth, it feels like it’s a dream; it’s not real,” she said.
“You want to wake up.”
The last time she saw the home was after she crawled out of a hole in the roof to escape the rising floodwaters, clutching her granddaughter.
She’s staying with a friend now. She’s getting her meals from Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and her drinking and bathing water from a team at Central Abaco Primary School, or CAPS as the Americans call it.
Johnson eventually found her father’s photo. He was a former police officer, she said. She clutched the photo, beaming at his image.
With a hole in her roof and muck still in her home, it will probably be months before she can move back in.
Not much has changed in these last four weeks since Hurricane Dorian ripped through Abaco.
The roads have been cleared but there is no electricity, no running water, no commerce and no one has an idea when any of that will return. Thousands of people have been displaced by the storm.
For many lifelong residents of Abaco, there is a new normal, a new reality as they try to survive.
On September 1, after dancing in the Atlantic for days and intensifying into a Category 5 hurricane, Dorian struck Abaco.
It was the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in The Bahamas.
There are no food stores open. No restaurants. No pharmacies. No liquor stores. No banks. No schools. Nothing.
The island is a wasteland in Dorian’s wake.
Trees stripped of all their greenery rest on every street, near every damaged or destroyed home.
Keith Morris of World Hope International, a Christian charity that helps communities in need, said the group distributes roughly 2,000 gallons of water per day to folks from Marsh Harbour, Dundas Town and Murphy Town and surrounding communities. Morris said they have given out about 60,000 gallons of drinking and bathing water.
On Monday, Morris said his site at the school was, until recently, the only place to get water on the island.
World Central Kitchen has distributed approximately 500,000 meals on Abaco, according to Andres. When added to the meals provided by Hands for Hunger, Samaritan’s Purse and other groups, over 750,000 meals have been provided to residents on Abaco alone.
A Shell gas station recently opened, so now residents have a reliable way to get fuel — a valuable commodity on an island as vast as Abaco. Before that, getting fuel was a struggle, residents said.
The once busy main road of Marsh Harbour, Don McKay Boulevard, where all of the major banks, stores and other businesses sat, is now a string of empty buildings with rusted debris everywhere. Boats and containers have washed inland.
Scores of businesses are gutted, wiped out, destroyed. A Scotiabank ATM appeared to be missing, sucked out from the side of the wall.
While many have left the island, others have embraced the struggle.
Perry Thomas, 55, a resident of Royal Harbour, Marsh Harbour, said he won’t abandon Abaco.
After riding out Hurricane Dorian in a local hotel, Thomas said, he and his wife went to the United States for 10 days.
“We came back because we love Abaco,” he said outside the shell of his home.
“If the Abaco people don’t come and take care of their homes, no one is going to do that for you.”
Thomas is one of the thousands of people on Abaco and Grand Bahama who lost everything in Dorian.
When he and his wife returned to their home it was “heartbreaking”, he said.
“You spend all this money to put this place together [and now] everything is gone,” he said.
“The house has been totally gutted. Then you have the insurance company telling you because you have the walls they only want to give you 50 or 60 percent of your insurance.
“This is a total catastrophe.”
But he said he’s not giving up.
Thomas and his wife, along with workers from Fox Town and Cedar Harbour, were cleaning out his home.
Inside, only the walls and the wooden ceiling beams remain. Muck covered the floor. One worker, with shovel in hand, was raking it up, another had a wheelbarrow full of debris.
“We are going to put our community back together,” he said.
“We have a trailer coming in and we are going to move and put it on the property right here.
“We are going to stay on the property.
“We are in it for the long haul. I don’t have no scary wife. She’s willing to thug it out.”
Thomas said he isn’t depending on the government for help.
He has supplies, and with the help of the World Central Kitchen and other NGOs, he’s surviving.
Searching for hope
But it’s another story in Dundas Town.
Julie Wallace, 45, is living inside her parents’ home with her family. Both parents died well before Dorian, she said. When Wallace’s home started to crumble during the storm, she fled next door to her parents’ house. It kept her and 15 other people safe, she said.
Now she’s searching for hope.
“I’m like the old people; if I don’t have gas I’ll go on the rock,” she said, referring to the rock oven method of cooking that people in many Family Island communities relied on for decades.
“Mama always used to tell us plan for hard times. [These are] hard times right here. When people come around and they give food and stuff we look out for each other. So, I’m here and there is a next guy across the way and my brother up on the hill. So we just tell them where they [are] so they go and carry stuff to them.”
Wallace gets water from World Hope International, like everyone else. She depends on assistance to get food. She has a generator, which she uses at night. She has a propane tank, a portable burner and a frying pan. She also has a small deep freeze, but no refrigerator.
She said she’s still haunted by the screams of a neighbor who lost her son.
“When the eye passed over we heard the screaming, the crying,” she said.
“We listened for a while and then I say, ‘That ain’t nobody crying right?’
“Come to find out her child must have washed out of her hand and when the eye passed over that’s when they found him. He was dead. He drowned.
“There are so many stories. There’s a gentleman I know from Dundas Town — he was family to me too — he got knocked on his head with a piece of plywood. He died.
“I don’t even know if they found his body. [Another lady I know] in Dundas Town, I understand she got washed away too. They never found her. There’s a next gentleman who used to [work in a bank], his wife, they were walking in an area and the wave just carried her.
“They never found her.”
Wallace paused, fighting back tears. Her nine-year-old son Julius was on the ground playing with his toys.
“I try to stay strong,” she said, losing the battle to withhold her tears.
“I look at everything. You’ve got life. So I try to stay strong [to] rebuild… This is home.”
Dorian left at least 60 people dead. Most of them were from Abaco, according to authorities. However, at last report, only six bodies had been identified. More than 400 people are still missing. Some may never be recovered.
While Minister of National Security Marvin Dames has touted an increased police and defense force presence on the island, The Nassau Guardian only saw a handful of officers on the ground on Monday. They were either stationed at the seaport or the airport.
Johnson said she’s very disappointed with the government.
“I expected a quicker response from the government,” she said.
“I’ve received assistance from all of the other agencies, international agencies, but I’ve yet to see anybody from the government. No NEMA, no nothing. Nobody. No social services, no nothing.
“I’m really disappointed. It’s like we have to fend for ourselves. We are taxpayers. We send good monies into Nassau into the treasury and to receive this kind of treatment, I don’t think that’s nice at all.”
In 2018, Abaco had the highest number of visitor arrivals to the Family Islands — 437,835 tourists, by air and sea, visited the island.
When the sun goes down, the light goes out and the generators start to hum.
All across Marsh Harbour, the sound of generators pierces the silent night. There is no nightlife and many residents told The Nassau Guardian that looting remains a serious concern.
Ivan Mills said when the lights go out, the looters come out.
As we moved through the Haitian shantytown, The Mudd, Amos Weatherford flagged us down.
“How come you all aren’t reporting on all the looting that’s going on?” he asked.
Weatherford, who said he had a shotgun in his truck, said he doesn’t leave his home empty for long. He and his father stay at the home and they alternate who stays on the property, he said.
“If I go to church, he stays home,” he said.
Residents claim that if you don’t lock your door, “they’ll take that too”.
Weatherford, who lives in Sweetings Village, said no one stole from them because “we had guns”.
In Pelican Shores, a community in Marsh Harbour, a steel line rests in the road, one end tied to a palm tree and the other to a utility pole. At night, the residents raise the line to prevent cars from entering — an ad hoc blockade.
At the base of the line sits a sign: “Not tonite.”
A home not too far away has a sign: “If you loot, we shoot.”
As for talks of going independent, seceding, Weatherford said he doesn’t believe it will lead to anything.
“Everyone I know wants Abaco independent, but we just know that it will be turned into a racist thing,” he said.
“We know that it can’t work. We all want it.”
Many Marsh Harbour residents have to ride, walk or catch a ride to Central Abaco Primary School, a designated NEMA distribution center.
At the school, NEMA is distributing canned food, baby diapers, hand sanitizers, bottled water, tarps and even clothes.
That’s where we ran into Pastor Silbert Mills, who is also a media personality.
“It’s tough,” he said bluntly.
“If I told you otherwise I’d be lying. This has been a journey that no one saw on the horizon. Nobody thought that on September 2 our lives would have an abrupt end and an uncertain future.
“Today, I’m back in Abaco. I’ve been here since Friday. I’m sharing a two-bedroom apartment that was damaged but it’s manageable now. We still have to shuffle around. One night I’d sleep on the couch, the other I’d sleep on the floor. It’s tough. There are five of us in this apartment.”
Mills said he lost everything.
“I got out of there with the shirt on my back,” he said.
“I wore that for five days before I could get to Nassau to take a bath. I lost my house, three businesses — income stopped. This is a major adjustment.”
He isn’t confident about bouncing back.
“I’m not 30 years old,” he said.
“I’m five months from 60. Bouncing back is a relative term right now. As much as it lies within me I will do what I can.”
But he survived.
“I had to move my family out,” he said.
“They are in Nassau now. They can’t take this. There is no way they can take this.
“You’re having to take a gallon of water to bathe in. I have to tote water from there. If you can’t go back in time don’t come. Not right now. This is not an Abaco that you want to be coming to.
“If you want to come and check on your property and see what you can salvage, come in the day and go back in the afternoon.
“It’s tough. It’s really tough to look out at the door at night, stand at the door at night where everything is black.
“We saw lights everywhere before this.
“Now it’s like going way back in time.”
While Mills spoke with The Nassau Guardian, he was greeted by friends. He was polite as ever. His chain said it all: 100 percent Bahamian.
“You wake up in the morning and your routine is no longer,” he continued.
“You want to call or drive to the restaurant to say ‘I want some boil fish.’ Boil who?
“You got to make it the best way you can. You can muster to get some hot water to make some tea or coffee.”
But Mills, like many others, is hopeful that Abaco will come back.
“We had a church service in my church yesterday (Sunday),” he said.
“It withstood the storm. It was the only one standing. We had a church service there for the first time since the storm… Twenty-five people showed up, but the good Lord said where two or three are gathered — he doesn’t need a megachurch. So we are grateful for that.
“I say simply that if God kept the church standing, I have no right to keep it closed.”