In mid-September of 2019, I returned from the Bahamas after helping with the early disaster relief efforts on the ground in Abaco, where the eyewall of Hurricane Dorian passed through the area with record-level winds and storm surge. Our team was able to make over 1,000 gallons of drinking water and nearly 5,000 gallons of clean water for hygiene and sanitation for a community of Marsh Harbour residents that lost almost everything they owned.
When we arrived, there were almost 250 people in a shelter set up at the local primary school that had not had access to clean water in several days. We were able to purify fresh water that was stored in a cistern located in a utility building next to the school, meeting an urgent need for those in the shelter and in the surrounding community. Over the days we were there, the population in the shelter dropped nearly to zero, but the people in the surrounding neighborhoods started coming to get water from us.
I can truly say that I have never seen such widespread destruction in all my life. The entire town of Marsh Harbour was destroyed along with other communities on Abaco. While some better-constructed structures were still standing, none escaped without at least some damage. Electric utility poles were snapped. At the town’s water treatment plant, one of the large water storage tanks was shifted off its foundation while the other had its top ripped off. The trees that were still standing were stripped of their greenery. Water made it all the way into the second stories of most houses during the storm. Cars, boats, and debris were transported by the high waters and deposited in places where they didn’t belong. Several poorer communities (primarily consisting of Haitian immigrants) where the houses were not necessarily built to withstand even moderate hurricanes were wiped completely off the map. The extent of the loss of human life will likely never be fully known. Bodies were still being recovered as I was departing.
Most people had a story involving the personal loss of a family member or friend. The most extreme case I encountered involved a pair of brothers (around ages 15 and 13) who had lost their father in the storm. Their mother was no longer around, either. They were trying to decide whether to evacuate with at least one younger sibling to Nassau (the capital city, located on another island about 100 miles to the south) or to stay in their home. While the answer seemed obvious to me, the shock of the situation, the uncertainties surrounding evacuation, and the boys’ relative lack of life experience all conspired against them to create confusion and doubt. I spent some time talking with them, encouraging them to consider their younger brothers’ and/or sisters’ health and safety. At the end of our discussion, they seemed convinced that evacuation was the right answer, but I was unable to confirm whether they made it out or not. I did not see them return to our water point before I departed.
Despite all the misery and suffering, I also encountered a number of stories of strength and resilience. People were generally helping one another in whatever ways they could. They talked about rebuilding and were hopeful for the future – even in the face of the total destruction of their community.
The trip was a swirled mix of contradictory feelings. It was heart-breaking and inspiring. Emotionally draining but spiritually filling. Exhausting and energizing, all at the same time. I am glad to be home, but I ache to be back there again, knowing that these wonderful people have a long road ahead of them in order to get their lives back to normal. Please don’t forget them as they will need continued prayers and support in order to rebuild and restore their communities.
Photos and videos documenting some of my experiences and in Marsh Harbour as well as links to selected outside resources with additional information about Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas can be found online at https://sites.google.com/view/marsh-harbour/home.