It’s quiet on the cay save for the crackle of small fires set to burn uncollected trash, an intermittent chainsaw and occasional laughter wafting from small family gatherings outside the ruins of homes.
But the sound residents of the fishing capital of Grand Bahama want to hear is the churning of heavy equipment clearing hurricane debris that sits as if frozen in time, and the familiar chorus of hammer and nails putting life on their beloved settlement back together.
When Perspective sailed to Sweeting’s Cay over the weekend, we met a once picturesque shoreline dotted with relief tents amidst mounds of uncleared rubble nearly two months since Hurricane Dorian.
Groups of the cay’s approximately 100 residents are anxious to know when the government will secure resources to clear debris that is not only blocking progress but is hazardous to live around.
For the past three weekends, residents, about half of whom have had to relocate to Freeport, have travelled to the cay to join with those who remained to carry out cleanup of their properties.
But their bare hands and the occasional chainsaw are no match for tons of concrete, wood and interiors.
It can be difficult for some to appreciate why residents would want to stay on a cay under such conditions as opposed to moving into Freeport, but everyone we spoke to stressed that Sweeting’s Cay is home, and with that home comes a lifestyle that cannot be experienced in the city.
“Temporarily some are living in Freeport but it is almost like an act of desperation to be there because they are not adjusted to life in the city,” resident Kermit Feaster conveyed to us as we both awaited the ferry from the mainland to the cay.
“It is rough, especially for the older people, some of them are 70 or 80 years old and they still go in the boat diving and conching — the women too,” he continued. “It is rough going into the city with no funds and not much assistance from the government per se — people want to rebuild.”
Once there, we approached several tents on foundations near a shuttered Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) building with a cellular tower whose coverage, residents say, is limited to standing directly in front of it.
The tents are home to Wilton Duncombe who rode out the storm on the cay, and who is determined to start again from the loss of his homes and his fishing equipment that has left him with no personal source of income.
“Life is not like it used to be; it’s just a lot of debris to clean up,” he said, “but I am going to stay here, ain’t no where else to go. If a storm comes again I’ll evacuate but I want to rebuild – this is home.”
There is no electricity on the cay and with no running water, Duncombe remarked that life is reminiscently a blast from the past.
“There are no bathrooms now; you’ve got to go back to the old landmarks,” he jokingly disclosed. “You’ve gotta hang your butt someplace over in the bush somewhere.”
Off in the distance, the smell and smoke of a burning trash heap filled the air as we were welcomed into the storm-gutted two-storey home of Nolan Cooper who, along with his girlfriend and nephew, was trapped upstairs in a closet for three nights with no food or water.
“[The Department] of Fisheries has not been here as yet,” Cooper said while expressing concern about the replacement of fishing vessels and equipment. “They were saying that you had to come into Freeport and bring your passport and boat registration papers but for most of us, those papers are now gone.”
Cooper, who intends to repair his home and return to fishing, bemoaned the lack of government presence on the ground in Sweeting’s Cay, most notably that of the prime minister who has yet to arrive on Sweeting’s Cay.
“Boats are coming here much more frequently now since the storm so these officials need to come here on the ground and see exactly what the people need,” he insisted.
Bordered by concrete blocks and wood piles on either side of the shoreline’s main road, we walked a ways farther before meeting Jessica Pyfrom who was quietly and studiously removing what debris she could manage from her family’s damaged home.
“I’m just picking up the pieces,” she noted as she took a brief break to speak with us. “Just trying to be strong because I’ve got a lot to carry out from here; there is a lot of debris that needs to be cleaned up.”
Pyfrom would later invite us to walk with her as she filled several five-gallon water bottles at a solar-powered Katadyn desalination unit donated by U.S.-based relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, which supplies fresh water to the island as a stand-in for the Water & Sewerage reverse osmosis facility that is powered by a downed generator in need of parts for repair.
‘They are dragging their feet’
A stone’s throw away, a family was gathered under a tree enjoying a meal, with the matriarch calling out to the grandchildren to be careful of the nails within the ruins of their home.
“Our main concern up here is we need someone to get a heavy duty tractor to help,” Pandora Bethel stressed. “The cay really needs to be cleaned up. We feel like we are all alone now because we are not getting much help with cleanup.
“They said they would get a barge to bring the equipment but saying it and doing it is two different things.”
Damaged boats are among the large-scale debris that has come to rest in her family’s backyard, and without a generator and tents, they say they are unable to stay on the cay overnight to get more of the cleanup work done themselves.
“Nobody is looking for a handout, but we need help on the cay. We are trying to get the cay back,” Margaret Swain, Bethel’s daughter, chimed in. “Everyone is deciding to come home and try to do their own cleanup but there is only so much we can do.
“We want to come back and rebuild.”
In the opposite direction, a family who came up from Freeport was sitting peacefully under a white canopy tent in front of the foundation of what used to be their lifelong home.
“They are saying they are coming to clean up but they are dragging their feet on it,” said matriarch Winifred Mitchell. “I want to rebuild, through the mercy of the good Lord, and if I can get some help, I want to rebuild.”
Her brother, Oral Tate, 82, said he came just to look at his property to see what is needed to clean it up.
Tate evacuated ahead of the storm with his wife who is unable to walk, and returned to find his house swept off its foundation by Dorian’s merciless storm surge and battering waves.
“It’s a horrible feeling to have everything you made in your whole life gone in a couple of hours. You’ve got to have a strong heart to take it, but with the strength of God and my health, oh yes, I am coming back.”
James Pyfrom, another of the cay’s elderly residents, is also eager to return.
“If I could move back today I would move,” he affirmed.
“I am almost 70, and life is very sad now that you have to look for money to pay these bills in Freeport because my national insurance can only pay maybe half of the rent and help out with the foodstuffs, so it is very difficult.”
The fishing capital of Grand Bahama
The desire of homeowners to rebuild on the cay is shared by business owners there who are committed to re-start the services that were an integral part of the East Grand Bahama economy.
But according to Fritz Thompson, owner of the renowned Sweeting’s Cay Bonefish Lodge that was destroyed in the storm, getting a response from government as he seeks to acquire land to facilitate his efforts has been a challenge.
“The one thing I need now is for the government to cut my expenses by allowing me to purchase property I have requested in McLeans Town,” Thompson disclosed.
“I have written to the prime minister several times,” he said. “I’m not Ginn and I’m not Carnival Cruise Line, but I would like to sign a heads of agreement. They need to sign a heads of agreement with Fritz Thompson and I am prepared to meet any day.”
The land, which Thompson sought to purchase several years ago in order to expand his bone fishing business, is now being sought again post-Dorian to house several 40-foot containers of building supplies he needs to rebuild his business.
“Here is a Bahamian investor that wants to rebuild and all he is asking for is some land in McLeans Town and it is frustrating that it is being ignored,” he maintained.
Shervin Tate, Local Government councillor for East Grand Bahama, stressed that it is in the interest of Grand Bahama for the central government to move expeditiously to restore the economy of Sweeting’s Cay as opposed to leaving residents in Freeport who are unable to participate in their life’s trade.
“Every single week we exported thousands of pounds of conch and lobster from Sweeting’s Cay and this seafood also goes into the hotels and restaurants,” he pointed out as we boarded his ferry service bound for a return to the mainland.
“Would you want to shed a fishing village and make people move into an area to do things they have never done before?” he questioned. “You should want to empower them back into what they used to do because this is about 50 to 100 jobs right here.
“This fishing village is needed, so I say to the government, ‘let’s do a fast injection’ so that the economy can keep rolling on and the people in Sweeting’s Cay can be just as happy as others in The Bahamas.”
‘We want to know what is next’
With donations and assistance from local and international NGOs, residents in the east say they have enough food and water to live, but what they want now is to find out how the government plans to facilitate the rebuilding process.
A town meeting for East Grand Bahama residents scheduled for this evening in the settlement of Smith’s Point is where they hope to hear positive news about the way forward.
While making our way back on the 50 mile journey to Freeport, we stopped in the settlement of Rocky Creek where we caught sight of several relief tents pitched not far from the shoreline.
“We will make this tent our home until whenever we get a house because it is difficult in Freeport,” said Judymae Feaster, who had only just returned to the area permanently the day we spoke.
“Out here is so beautiful and peaceful and you can go out and get your fish and nobody bothers us. That is why we want to come back and rebuild though everything was destroyed.”
Her brother, Walter Reckley — a bone fisherman with the now destroyed East End Lodge — who several days after the storm built a temporary wooden structure on his foundation, said residents want to be able to bring their families back home.
“We are trying to get back in a real home and get my family back because right now they are scattered,” he expressed. “We need building materials because we want to get back to normal.”
As she sat near her family’s tent just steps away from her own, his sister, Janine Russell, said, “We really want to know what is next and when we can rebuild. I just want to hear something good so by Christmas time I can smile.”
“These tents are no house,” she conveyed jokingly. “The other night I woke up and thinking I am in my house I told my husband ‘go lock the door’, but Jesus Christ when I remembered, he said ‘but I den zip it up!”
In Pelican Point, home of the island’s famed annual Coconut Fest, a community organized distribution drive at the church hall of the storm-damaged St. Matthew’s Baptist Church, had just ended.
Paulette Thomas, who was present along with others at the gathering, advised that the purpose of the distribution initiatives was to ensure that everyone in the community gets an equal share of necessary supplies.
“Donations of relief supplies were good, so we are just waiting now to see what the next stage will be with building because we are doing a cleanup now,” Bursil Cooper informed us as we spoke in the hall with just a roll of tarp as its roof for now.
“We want to know what is happening with the temporary shelter and whether they will be building homes back for the senior citizens,” he added.
Not far away, Patrick Cooper was moving about in his tent pitched out front of what used to be his four-bedroom home.
An exterior door set atop a metal grill has become his makeshift kitchen countertop.
“There was so much devastation here,” he shared as he stared out into the distance of the Cocount Fest venue.
“I decided to stay in the tent because I did not want to go to Freeport,” he explained. “I’ve lived in this area for many years and yes, I want to rebuild.”