‘Opening the Door to Hell Itself’: Bahamas Confronts Life After Hurricane Dorian

‘Opening the Door to Hell Itself’: Bahamas Confronts Life After Hurricane Dorian

GREAT ABACO ISLAND, Bahamas—The storm surges that topped 20 feet have long since receded, and the 220-mile-an-hour wind gusts are gone. But thedevastation Hurricane Dorian left behindis staggering.

On Great Abaco, rubble stretches as far as the eye can see. Some 1.5 billion pounds of debris is strewn across Marsh Harbour alone. In one neighborhood, a deflated basketball, a waterlogged Bible and a sodden teddy bear lay among flattened cinder-block buildings and wood-framed houses. Total property losses have been estimated at $7 billion.

An eerie silence hangs over the leveled neighborhoods. There is little chattering now from the parrots these islands are known for.

TheCategory 5 stormdestroyed thousands of homes on Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, and was the strongest hurricane on modern record to hit the Bahamas. The damage, now coming into view, appears calamitous.

At least 53 people are dead and more than 1,300 still missing—many likely swept to their deaths. The stormaffected some 75,000 residents, many of whom evacuated.

“There’s nobody that hasn’t lost somebody,” said

Pete Colling,

a builder who lives on Elbow Cay.

Some of the buildings still standing are marked with a spray-painted “C,” a signal that a search team has been there and found no one inside. Places where dead bodies were found are marked with a “D.”

Health Minister

Duane Sands

said he fears many of those killed will never be found. “Some of those bodies washed into the ocean—and they may drift back, they may not,” he said. “It is hard to imagine that persons in unprotected, unreinforced structures could have survived that massive storm.”

Local leaders aren’t yet sure how long the recovery will take. Prime Minister

Hubert Minnis

warned early on that it would require a “massive, coordinated effort to rebuild,” and that international help would be needed.

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Before Dorian, the Abaco Islands helped power the Bahamas tourism industry, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s GDP.

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Residents of a shantytown called the Farm divvy up supplies from aid organizations.

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The storm damaged a cemetery in Marsh Harbour.

The biggest challenges will be on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island—skinny strips of low-lying land on the northern edge of the island chain—whichtook the worst beatingwhen Dorian struck three weeks ago. The storm’s slow movement drew comparisons to Harvey in 2017, and the damage, to Katrina in 2005. Initial estimates put the cost of removing debris in the Abacos and Grand Bahama alone at about $74 million.

The government is contemplating how best to get temporary housing with clean water and sanitation facilities up and running. About 1,600 remain in shelters, some of them at capacity or beyond. Officials are considering housing survivors in tent cities, ships and cruise liners, but cost is an issue. Education officials are trying to figure out how schools will absorb the 10,000 children who had to be evacuated to New Providence, where Nassau is located.

The storm halted the tourism industry, which the government says accounts for nearly 50% of the country’s GDP and employs about half of all residents. Even the islands and towns that Dorian spared are taking a financial hit as they struggle to lure tourists.

Thousands of residents evacuated their homes before or soon after Dorian hit on Sept. 1. Many headed to Florida and shelters in the capital, Nassau. But some didn’t have the means to leave the islands, officials said.

The government doesn’t know how many survivors remain on the Abaco Islands, which had a pre-storm population of about 17,200. Many of those remaining are eking out an existence in storm-damaged buildings. In the worst areas, there is no steadily running water, no power without a generator, and fuel is in short supply.Connectivity to the outside world is spottyas telecommunications companies work to repair networks.

“Maybe like Katrina, maybe worse,” said family physician

Keith Rivers

of the destruction. Dr. Rivers, who once lived on the island and came back to help after the storm, attended the few patients trickling into the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre. In the days after the storm, it was overrun by people with broken limbs, deep lacerations and other injuries. Most were evacuated.

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“I can’t even navigate myself to where I used to live because all the landmarks and things that used to navigate me there are all gone,” Dr. Rivers said.

In addition to luxury resorts and vacation homes, the Abacos were home to more than 3,000 Haitian immigrants, at least 20% of them undocumented, according to a 2018 government report.

Many worked in the tourism industry and lived in makeshift homes in shantytowns called Sand Banks, the Mudd, Pigeon Peas and the Farm. For some, the prospect of evacuating to a government-run shelter means risking deportation. Many stayed behind.

Haitians make up the largest immigrant population in the Bahamas. Migration dates back hundreds of years, driven in modern times by employment opportunities in the tourism industry and political unrest in Haiti.

The damage is so bad that the Mudd—identified in the 2018 government report as the Bahamas’ most densely populated shantytown—now resembles an enormous junkyard. Just weeks ago, it was home to hundreds of Haitian immigrants. On a recent morning, the breeze carried a stench of death.

When Dorian’s storm surge washed over Marsh Harbour, it disturbed graves in a small cemetery and carried a number of large metal cargo containers several hundred yards inland.

Elinair Petitphait,

a 46-year-old Bahamian citizen of Haitian descent, works at the Abaco Club on Winding Bay, a private club that remains partially operational. He said he lost many friends and his home in Marsh Harbour to the storm, while his mother lost her home in the Mudd.

Mr. Petitphait said he was swept up in the storm surge and spent a couple of hours floating atop debris before paddling to safety. While in the water, he said, he saw two bodies—one floating by and the other caught in a tree.

“A lot of the illegal immigrants were afraid to go to a real shelter because they were afraid of immigration raids,” he said. “It lost them their lives.”

On nearby Treasure Cay, some 200 people sought shelter during the storm inside the pink concrete New Haitian Mission Baptist Church. As floodwaters rose, many took to the rafters, where sheets of plywood had been laid for them. As the wind shook the building and sheared pieces off the roof, the sanctuary door burst open.

“It was like me opening the door to hell itself,” recalled 12-year-old

Nathan Joseph.

He and his twin sisters, Brittneka and Brittanie, 10, lay in the rafters for hours as those around them prayed.

Some residents criticized the speed of recovery efforts. Mr. Sands, the health minister, said work to search the Mudd and Pigeon Peas for additional bodies would begin soon. “That is obviously a logistical challenge, some would say a logistical nightmare, given the depth of the rubble,” he said.

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The government has ordered no rebuilding of any kind in obliterated shantytowns.

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United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination officials brief aid groups in Marsh Harbour.

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Ten-year-old Brittneka Joseph at the Full Gospel Assembly of God church in the neighborhood of Sand Banks.

Stephen Russell,

a captain with the National Emergency Management Agency, said the enormous amount of debris that search teams must pick through makes it challenging to recover bodies. Cadaver dogs were used in an initial sweep of many areas, he said, but to go deeper, heavy equipment will be needed to lift cargo containers, cars and other large items.

Jermaine McIntosh,

a mortician for the past six years, sat behind the health center in Marsh Harbour, within sight of a refrigerated Tropical Shipping Co. trailer where the dead were being kept until they could be flown to Nassau. Dorian left his house intact but destroyed the funeral home where he worked.

The number of those killed, he said, has been overwhelming. “I dealt with a lot of bodies,” he said. “It was not easy for me.”

In shantytowns, many Haitians wondered what kind of long-term aid they would get from the Bahamian government if they stayed.

Some Haitians questioned how they would be treated if they evacuated to Nassau. Some feared they might be sent back to Haiti. “You can’t find who is illegal now because everybody lost documents,” said

Yougentz Alexandre.

Residents of Elbow Cay who were coordinating relief efforts for their island said more than 200 Haitian immigrants in the community were keeping to themselves after the storm, fearful of their future.

Prime Minister Minnis has emphasized the need for accountability, fairness and respect in recovery efforts. “All residents of Abaco and Grand Bahama affected by Hurricane Dorian have access to social assistance, regardless of country of birth, nationality, or immigration status,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

A recent government directive ordered no rebuilding of any kind in the obliterated shantytowns for at least six months to “allow for recovery efforts and the removal of storm debris.”

“That is not to happen at this point, not at all,” Capt. Russell of the emergency-management agency said at a recent news conference. Officials planned to designate shelters in areas where they could set up connections to water and sewer systems, he said.

At a remote shantytown near Treasure Cay, a group gathered around a local woman distributing supplies from aid groups including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Samaritan’s Purse. She handed out plastic combs, paper towels, bars of Irish Spring soap and plates filled with a hot-pasta dinner sent in by another aid group, the World Central Kitchen.

Their plywood homes lay in pieces, though some locals had managed to cobble together temporary shelters from the remains.

Poliana Foadin

recounted how her roof blew off and her home collapsed, forcing her and her 18-month-old child to seek shelter with neighbors whose own homes were splintering apart. Residents said a tornado roared through with the storm.

In the aftermath, Ms. Foadin surveyed the destruction. She and her child were living in a small shack tacked together from pieces of pink and blue plywood and covered with a tarp.

“What happens to me and my family?” she wondered. “What people will think about us now?”

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The hurricane flattened the settlement of Hope Town on Elbow Cay.

—Talal Ansari contributed to this article.

Write toErin Ailworth at[email protected]

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