It’s a long road to recovery in the Abaco Islands in The Bahamas, and many obstacles lie in the way
I spent most of January volunteering in The Bahamas, working to assist the recovery from Hurricane Dorian, and I just recently returned home (hence no Medium articles from me for the month). The work was in Marsh Harbor in the Abaco Islands. If you can remember the path of Hurricane Dorian on September 1, 2019, you might recall that the storm literally stopped and sat on one island for almost 36 hours while it still remained a category 5 hurricane. That was Great Abaco Island and the city of Marsh Harbor, and that is where the volunteer organization I served with, All Hands And Hearts (link) (called AHAH, below), is active and working towards helping the island to recover.
This is a brief recounting of my experience there, as well as an update on the situation in The Bahamas (current as of January) as seen from my perspective. I’m not so skilled a photographer, but I hope you find the photos interesting too.
As our plane was descending into the Marsh Harbor airport, I noticed from the air that almost all the trees had been blown down. On the ride to the volunteer base, I saw the extent of the damage and it was clear that this area was still very much a disaster zone. The destruction was almost total here in Marsh Harbor; no building was untouched.
Some buildings around town had “RIP” with a person’s name or initials spray-painted on doors or walls.
It was January, so all these photos are from four months after the storm. The recovery on Great Abaco Island, the hardest-hit area in The Bahamas, is proceeding quite slowly (there are some reasons for that, which I’ll get to).
Imagine having this destruction as part of your everyday scenery for four months. You eventually become desensitized to it, and kind of stop seeing it, but the debris must be removed quickly for multiple reasons.
When I took in my surroundings, I knew this is where the help is very much needed. So it was time to get to work.
My first day on the job was spent helping prepare food with World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by Chef Jose Andres that provides meals after natural disasters. I was definitely glad to work for them for a day, because I’d received one of their meals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2017 after Hurricane Maria smashed us. But God is so good, not only did I get through that, but now thanks to Him almost three years later I got the chance to repay World Central Kitchen too.
The rest of my workdays were mostly spent scrubbing mold. The storm brought 23 feet (!!!) of water in some areas, so as you can imagine basically every building was a mold nightmare. AHAH was also doing other work such as roofing and debris removal, but mold sanitation is a major need here right now, so that was most of the work I did.
The sanitation process consists of four phases for killing and removing as many mold spores as possible before the spraying of the final phase: 1) Take out all the drywall, exposing the wood; 2) Scrub the wood multiple times; 3) Vacuum a few times; 4) Spray it all with an ammonia-based hospital cleaner.
Ideally the people would not be living in these homes while they’re still mold-infested, and they could decide to move back in once the process is finished. But everyone has different resources, and natural disasters affect the poor worse than others. Some people have nowhere else to go. Sometimes people were still living in these moldy homes we worked in, and we had to work around them as best we could.
I thanked God that no one was in my house scrubbing it for mold. That I lived comfortably and dry, with a sturdy roof over my head. I make it a habit to express gratitude to God each day, so I’m always reminded of how I’ve been blessed. And yet, when problems arise those seem to come to the forefront of my attention every time. I shouldn’t have to do volunteer work and interact with people in a dire situation to keep things in perspective, but to my embarrassment, this time that’s what it took. I guess on some level it’s just a human tendency, to think about ourselves first and foremost, and to focus on what’s going wrong rather than right. But if you take time to consider it we all probably have more going right than we realize, and it’s often these most basic but vital blessings (such as having a roof over your head) that we take for granted. But when you lose one of those kinds of blessings? Then you’ll know what to really be grateful for.
Nothing brought that idea into sharper focus than when I worked on a debris removal project for a few days. But the ‘debris’ in question was the remains of a person’s house (it had entirely come down in the storm), so we were removing much more than cinder blocks, etc., but rather the remains of a family’s life.
We started removing and piling up the broken walls and floors and so on, in addition to old homework assignments, DVDs, clothing, food, and other things that painted a picture of what life inside the home might have been like. Now this family’s home was just another part of the debris pile landscape. When we were done, it was literally sitting in a pile on the curb (to be picked up at a later date). Since this was literally a plywood home sitting atop a wooden platform, I wondered if this home had even been insured in the first place; probably not, I imagine. And if so, I wondered how this family would get back on their feet. Natural disasters don’t affect all people equally; it’s the poorest who suffer the worst, and have the hardest time bouncing back on top of that.
When I first saw all the destruction, I wondered if there was even a church in operation that I could go to. Well there were quite a few, actually. But I’m glad I went to New Rehoboth Ministries International.
The pastor and his wife have been very active in helping the people locally after the storm and have been coordinating efforts with AHAH since early on. When I arrived, naturally the first thing I noticed was that the roof wasn’t complete. It was a bright, cloudless sunny day each time I was there, and that could always be visually verified by looking through the open space in the ceiling. I don’t know what it looked like before, but for now this was a humble church with no decorations, with words like “Jesus” spray painted on the walls as you can see in the photo. But the state of décor is not what makes a church, of course, and they did have the only important element they needed — Jesus was in here too with all of us, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). I bet God thinks highly of those who overcome or work around circumstances to continue their worship routine. I bet God enjoys those services the most. And although it was a very small congregation of less than 10 people each time (they probably had a larger group before the storm, as people have evacuated to Nassau and Florida), the services were cheerful and had music and everything.
Of course the sermons dealt with Hurricane Dorian, as that topic just can’t be avoided given the circumstances, but the sermons were about Dorian in the context of moving on, moving forward, and overcoming. How something much better can come out of barriers, obstacles, setbacks, and even tragedies once you’ve managed to overcome. On having the faith to believe that all proceeds according to God’s plan, so keep on going knowing that He is with you every step of the way. You may not know exactly where you’re headed to when you start, but you’ve just got to keep moving and have faith that things will come into focus as you go. To keep on going during times like this is an act of faith in and of itself, believing that God will produce good from the tragic, even if you can’t see any possible way how that could happen. But with god all things are possible (Matthew 19:26); what seems like a hopeless situation and meaningless tragedy can not just be salvaged but used to create truly positive miracles once the hardships are overcome. That’s when things finally become clear, and you understand how some problems were actually blessings in disguise.
Faith is very strong in The Bahamas. I was especially impressed by the stories of two locals that I got to hear. The first was a woman named Sophie who came to our volunteer base and spoke to us at length during a dinner event. She thanked God over and over as she talked, and she recounted how when she saw the destruction of the school her kids went to, the first thing she said was “God has a plan,” adding that God’s plans are not our plans (Isaiah 55:8). I was impressed by her calm, collected faith because if I saw that I think I would have had a different response. Her whole attitude towards her situation was an optimistic one of gratitude and looking on the bright side.
The second was an older man who got up and told his story in church, his name was Mark. He spoke about how he cared for his wife who had suffered a stroke for 15 years, how he did literally everything for her because she was unable to. But she passed away ten months ago, and then Dorian came. The home and land where the two of them lived, which they had initially purchased as a retirement project, was completely destroyed in the storm. “A half a million-dollar loss” he said. “But God is still good though,” he continued without missing a beat. It takes incredible faith to lose it all, including the person you loved the most, but still remain faithful to God and continue to believe He will work it all out, even if you can’t see how yet. To still remember your previous and current blessings and thank God for them. I wish my faith were that strong, but I don’t think it is, and I know it hasn’t been tested to that point either.
There will be near-unbearable times in our lives that test our faith as Christians. But are we going to love and follow God all the time? Or just when times are good? We need to hold on to Romans 8:28 and believe that God is always working towards our ultimate good, and give thanks for our trials and tribulations too, because we know that enduring our suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope (Romans 5:3–5). I’m grateful to the people of Marsh Harbor who showed me so many examples of that.
The Slow Pace of Recovery
But faith alone won’t rebuild Marsh Harbor and Great Abaco Island. What’s being done to rebuild the island? What’s being done to help the residents? Is the pace of recovery going to speed up? Because the storm was on September 1, 2019, so it’s now (as of this writing) been five months since then.
It’s clearly evident that here on Great Abaco, the recovery is lagging behind.
No one has power in Marsh Harbor, and a local told me “you have to go to Nassau for power.” I only saw one power truck at work the whole time I was there, and I was expecting to see a lot more due to the amount of downed power lines. I know the suffering and hardship of an extended blackout; I have personal experience with that. It’s a horrible time. Thankfully the temperatures in The Bahamas are cooler right now, the highs are usually in the 70s.
One common complaint I heard from locals was on the lack of direction or action from the Bahamian government. During the closing prayers of one of the sermons, the pastor said “…we pray for guidance and direction for our leaders. We need to know where we’re going, we need to hear from them. We need a five-year plan, something…” The Bahamian government apparently discusses all sorts of ideas, including having the Chinese rebuild Marsh Harbor, but nothing solid has come to fruition, yet. There’s no clear direction from the government, no plan.
In terms of actions from the government, they repeatedly bulldozed a neighborhood in Marsh Harbor known as The Mudd, which was a primarily Haitian area (there are many Haitians in this part of The Bahamas) and the site of a shantytown. That being the case, there was major damage to buildings here and many completely came down. But regarding the effort spent on the repeated bulldozing, some residents criticized this move as motivated by the desire to erase all traces of Haitians ever having lived there. Some didn’t mind that part (there were tensions between Bahamians and Haitians here before the hurricane), instead criticizing that the Bahamian government hasn’t visibly done much more than this, in their opinion.
As another piece of evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of the Bahamian government in this recovery, there’s the story of the temporary housing domes in Spring City, a neighborhood located south of the Marsh Harbor airport. As far as the damage in Spring City, it varied (though everything was damaged). Here is some of the worst that I saw:
To aid the residents, the Bahamian government setup some temporary housing domes … but didn’t finish them. The day I was there, there was one person working on them.
Clearly unfinished, as you can see. But besides the fact that they aren’t finished, the residents complained that these domes are 1) small, 2) LOUD (from reverberating sound), and 3) they leak. Of course if you’ve got leaks, that simply doesn’t serve as a shelter. This is why the residents of Spring City who haven’t evacuated elsewhere are staying in their damaged homes and will likely continue to do so even when the domes are finished.
In a pavilion in a neighborhood park here in Spring City, someone had chalked “RIP Abaco” a few times on the ground.
It is true that a lot of people here have a strong, hopeful faith. But even that faith can hit a limit. The slow pace of recovery is frustrating, and when people don’t see visible improvement in a timely manner, they can start to lose hope for better days or a vision of what that might look like. Once hope is lost, it can easily become fatal.
In these same closing prayers of the same sermon I mentioned above, the pastor asked for prayers for a local man who had died that weekend in an auto accident. “Let’s remember not only the people we lost to Dorian, but the people we lost after as well,” he said. “A lot of people have died in accidents after the storm. A lot of men. Which means that we need to really stop and think about how healthy and emotionally healthy we really are at this time.”
Natural disasters are terrifying occurrences that can be traumatic. But mental health can start to seriously fray during the aftermath as well, during the recovery from these disasters. When the recovery is slow or doesn’t seem to be progressing, stresses start to add up. Normal worries such as taking care of your family become more urgent and difficult to accomplish under the circumstances, and your source of employment might be totally gone. (Only a scant handful of businesses on the main road in Marsh Harbor had reopened while I was there, and most showed no signs at all of reconstruction; looked to me like they weren’t coming back.)
Add on to this the disorienting and disruptive circumstances that disasters bring. Schools are closed, for example, affecting your children’s lives and their emotional well being. Everyone’s well being is affected. Aftermaths are incredibly stressful situations. As I mentioned the power is out too, and daily life can become real primitive, real quick when the power stays out for a long time. This too is a major source of stress and has caused people to leave for Nassau and elsewhere.
Everyone has a breaking point under stress, but before that happens there are still other dangers. But in the case of accidents specifically, naturally when people are this stressed many turn to alcohol or other drugs to relieve stress, distract themselves, and for soothing from emotional pain. Not the best idea, but it is what it is, and I certainly can’t and won’t judge anyone. But when people treat their stress with alcohol (etc.), they can get reckless and suffer accidents they wouldn’t normally have gotten into. With the weakened medical infrastructure on the island (all serious cases must go to Nassau), injuries that may have previously been treatable in Marsh Harbor become a more serious issue, possibly even fatal. This fatal recklessness can be a symptom of the crushing stress of the situation. It can also be a symptom of a person’s hopelessness as well.
That’s why we’ve got to stick together and support each other during these times. No one can get all the way through something like this completely alone. We have to encourage each other and keep each other going when help isn’t coming fast enough. It’s not easy to get through these aftermaths. Supporting each other is the only way to get through it more or less okay.
The government is, however, operating a distribution point at the Central Abaco Primary School where people can get some supplies: Food, clothing, and necessities. World Central Kitchen delivers food here, while the government operates the rest of it.
AHAH, along with other groups, is currently working to repair this school, which is the largest on the island, so it can reopen. With the distribution center in operation at the same time, the scene is quite busy with lots of activity going on. Once this school reopens it will mean less disruption in the children’s lives and a huge step towards life on the island getting back to normal.
The simple fact is that Marsh Harbor, in the Abaco Islands, needs more help right now. They are getting help from NGOs, volunteer organizations, and plenty of church groups, but all of the above are doing much of the work that’s currently going on. The Bahamian government needs to step up and be more active in rebuilding this area. If the recovery doesn’t speed up, the area will continue to suffer in the ways I’ve described and more. Plenty of people have evacuated Abaco and headed to Nassau, Florida, or elsewhere. Similar to any other disaster, with every day that goes by, these evacuees become more established in their new lives in those other places. They become less and less likely to return with the passing of time, as they find employment and their kids get into school and so on. So if the Bahamian government doesn’t figure something out to speed up the recovery and can’t produce some kind of clear plan to present to the people, the evacuees will simply stay away, in that sense adding to Abaco’s losses from the hurricane. But the evacuees can’t shoulder one smidgen of blame for that; it’s beyond them.
If you visit, you’ll quickly see that the Abaco Islands are a beautiful place in The Bahamas. It’s visually jarring to drive down the coast and see total destruction juxtaposed against that stunning natural beauty. We were working six days a week, so I didn’t have many days off to fully explore the island. Abaco Tourist spots such as Hope Town and Sandy Point are back in business, though I didn’t make it to those. Since we spent all our workdays in groups, and since the AHAH volunteer base was a communal living situation (really not my thing), every time I had a day off, I really needed to go off by myself to have some alone time. The place I found to go to was Mermaid Reef, a 25-minute walk from where we were based.
Mermaid Reef is completely deserted right now. Almost every house along the reef is vacant — some were destroyed, some are condemned. I swam around by myself; the water was cold, teal-colored, and almost completely still. There were no waves. It’s one of the most beautiful ocean swimming spots I’ve ever seen. And I had it all to myself each time; didn’t see another soul around. So the experience kind of felt to me like swimming alone in paradise after the apocalypse, something like that. Though the landscape of damage and destruction was slightly eerie, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the utter silence here. What a unique opportunity I had, to swim around the beautiful abandoned Mermaid Reef alone.
Marsh Harbor and the Abaco Islands have been blessed with incredible natural beauty. I hope the damage will be cleaned up and houses repaired, and soon tourists will once again come to enjoy the beaches, fishing, conch salads, and more. I hope to see Marsh Harbor again one day, when everything is back up and running.
It’s frustrating when recovery moves slowly. I truly hope the Bahamian government will step it up and the pace of recovery will accelerate moving forwards, for the sake of the residents and the islands. Returning to normalcy will go a long way towards helping everyone move on, mentally, emotionally, and otherwise. Every storm shall pass, and this hurricane aftermath has an end as well. Every day that goes by gets Abaco one day closer to reconstruction. Every day they take one more step towards the goal, ending the day closer than where they were in the morning. And one day, perhaps sooner than we realize, this season of suffering in the Abaco Islands will be over, and there will be relief.
Waiting for that return to normalcy requires patience, endurance, fortitude, and strong faith. Fortunately all of those qualities are in great supply among the friendly and welcoming residents of Marsh Harbor in the Abaco Islands in The Bahamas. They’ll make it, they’ll get there, there is no question of that! Until then, why not consider donating to the All Hands and Hearts relief effort here. But even better than that, why not consider donating your time and labor? Apply to volunteer for the All Hands and Hearts Hurricane Dorian recovery effort in The Bahamas here.