by Debbie Scott, with Mark Lacey
‘We’re getting updates that Hurricane Dorian has completely devastated the island of Great Abaco and its cays in the northeast. All communication has been lost with the islands and all utilities destroyed. Until winds and seas subside it is impossible to reach these outlying islands to deliver aid or assess damage.’ Mark Lacey, The Bahamas, 2 September 2019.
Bahamas, and many others, watched as alarming meteorological reports predicted the intensity of the fourth Atlantic storm of the 2019 season. Inhabitants of the low-lying northeastern islands either evacuated to safer ground or battened up their homes with what resources they had. Families huddled together, waiting to see what damage the next few hours would bring. As the
Category 5 hurricane approached, the Prime Minister, Hubert Minnis, sent a heartfelt message imploring these islanders to evacuate and use the storm shelters, saying, ‘May God keep them safe.’
Dorian delivered. With wind speeds exceeding 185mph, tidal surges above 23ft and a width of 280 miles (the distance between London and Newcastle), Hurricane Dorian slammed first into the Abaco Cays on the afternoon of 1 September 2019 with a ferocity unmatched on record. Islanders were tormented by unrelenting screeching like jet plane engines, tornados, heavy rains of up to 35 inches, flooding and terrifying rising water levels, as the ocean overtook the land. Unusually, Dorian moved extremely slowly towards Grand Bahama, subjecting these ordinarily tranquil islands to a relentless pummelling lasting over 48 hours. Much devastation followed.
As the survivors emerged, nothing prepared them for the devastation they faced. Initial reports were sketchy, but all painted the same picture of obliteration: airports flooded, docks and harbours destroyed and access severely hampered. Many braved the storm to find alternative shelter and it was impossible to confirm whether family and neighbours were alive and safe as communication networks failed. Survivors had to wait for hours to see what remained of their homes and communities. Memories of this terror still haunt them.
Within hours, response from the US coastguard and British Navy was cited. Churches, cruise operators, hotels and other groups within The Bahamas and neighbouring US states rallied to assist as they could. Relief services in Nassau struggled to cope with the numbers of injured and displaced persons, and soon became overwhelmed. Assemblies on the islands of Spanish Wells and Current (Eleuthera), as well as in the capital, also provided shelter for displaced residents. For those who stayed, supplies of water, food and necessary materials were brought in by helicopter and small boats, as the airports and main docks were inaccessible. Many decided to leave their island homes, carrying what few possessions they could.
While the initial number of fatalities seemed small, days afterwards the search for bodies and missing persons continued. A month after the storm, up to 60 deaths were officially recorded and 424 persons were unaccounted for. In Abaco alone, 13,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, estimated at a cost of US$7 billion1, and 70,000 islanders were rendered homeless2. Hubert Minnis described Hurricane Dorian as, ‘The greatest national crisis in our country’s history.’
Samaritan’s Purse (NGO) is now coordinating relief efforts from centres in Marsh Harbour and Grand Bahama, extending to the outlying island communities. Islanders not only face extensive rebuilding, but most are now jobless as their places of employment have been destroyed and few could afford hurricane insurance. Schools due to reopen for the new academic year lie in ruins. Fresh water supplies are contaminated, with many areas declared a sanitary risk. Utility services are unlikely to be restored within a year. Many people have no alternative but to relocate to other islands, where children can attend schools and a sense of normality can be recovered.
On Great Abaco island, entire settlements have been destroyed, displacing its population of immigrant Haitian workers. The town of Marsh Harbour now lies in pieces, leaving the smaller island communities isolated and vulnerable. This was a vital transport network hub providing resources and employment for many of the smaller cays. Damage to Grand Bahama, home to the nation’s second city, Freeport, a centre for tourism, has also wiped out much needed employment.
Survivors had to wait for hours to see what remained of their homes and communities.
These islands have been receptive to the gospel message for many years. Assembly work was established on Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, towards the end of the 19th century by American evangelist, Charles Holder3. Building on this foundation, many from the USA and the UK, as well as local Bahamian brethren, strengthened these isolated assemblies. Today, there is an assembly presence throughout the Abaco islands and two further congregations in Grand Bahama.
Mark and Carol Lacey, based in the capital, Nassau, have had contact with the Abaconian assemblies for over 30 years. Two weeks after Dorian struck, Mark visited to meet and encourage believers. Photos and videos of the destruction could not prepare him for seeing it first-hand. As the aircraft doors opened in Marsh Harbour, the stench was worse than anything he had ever experienced. Feeling helpless, Mark listened to the believers recount their experiences. Seeing what remained of their homes, the task ahead seemed hopeless.
Nearly all the assemblies have sustained considerable damage to their buildings. In particular, Marsh Harbour Gospel Chapel and their connected Christian school, need much repair. Guana Cay Chapel requires complete rebuilding, as it now sits precariously on damaged foundations.
The immediate challenges include removing the debris that serves as a constant reminder of the horrors experienced. Damaged and unstable buildings need professional assessment as to whether they are still safe to inhabit. Sea water penetration and humid weather conditions have exacerbated mould growth, rendering wooden structures, panelling and furnishing irrecoverable. At a considerable cost, much will need to be replaced and rebuilt before there can be any return to a sense of normality. The rebuilding of these communities will take years. Many islanders may choose to permanently relocate, leaving the few to face this monumental task.
In response to the extreme need of our brothers and sisters in these devastated communities, monies sent through the Echoes International disaster fund are being distributed by Mark and others on the ground there. Volunteers are currently offering their skills and time in helping to clear and rebuild these communities, but there is still so much more to do. Mark has been able to minister to survivors in a counselling capacity. After the initial shock, many have experienced anxiety, grief, flashbacks and difficulty sleeping in the aftermath of this tragedy. Significant help will be needed in this capacity to heal and restore hope over the months ahead.
As the news cycle moves on, Dorian fades from our minds and assistance from outside sources dries up, The Bahamas still needs our prayers and practical assistance. May they be strengthened and encouraged to rebuild, restart and re-establish these communities for the Lord’s glory.
- for safety, stamina and strength for those working to clear and rebuild
- for recovery from the trauma of the hurricane and its aftermath
- that the Lord will open doors to reach many, as Christians respond to this situation.