There’s a mural in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island that stands out. The cursive isn’t perfect, the drawings that go along with it are basic, but the “hello sunshine” scrawled across the painting speaks to who Bahamians are far more than any politician could.
People in the Bahamas have an attitude about them that even the most destructive hurricane in the country’s history can’t dampen. The mural sits on the outside wall of a hardware store — one of the only walls left standing in the area after Hurricane Dorian.
Nobody thought Dorian would be what it ended up being. The Bahamas had experienced hurricanes in the past: lots of wind and rain, some damage, for sure, but nothing its people weren’t prepared for.
Dorian was different.
Not only were its winds 298 kilometres per hour — tying an Atlantic storm record — but after the hurricane blew into the area and destroyed almost everything in its path, it stayed put. For two days, the winds blew and the rain fell. Officially, the national weather service said the swells topped out at 15 feet, but residents whose houses were more than 20 feet high swear the water was over their roofs.
As bad as the wind was, it was the water that turned out to be the killer. Too many drowned in their own homes, unable to escape as the water rushed in. Others were swept away, dying in the maelstrom of water and debris or getting swept out to sea. In what seemed like a bad movie, sharks were seen swimming between the houses.
Global News met with Pastor Elizabeth Nixon and members of her family, who thought their home was built strongly enough to withstand the storm.
“We watched our house get swept away by the tide,” she told Global News. “And that tide beat the door down. It bust it down.”
With tears in her eyes, she detailed how each of her family members got pulled in different directions. One held onto a tree, another a bus, while she grabbed hold of the bumper of a car. She was convinced some, if not all, would die. None did.
“That’s a major miracle,” she said. “It took my faith to a new level.”
Stories like Nixon’s are common. Such was the power of Dorian that it swept through an island of roughly 30,000 residents and affected them all in some horrible way.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, reporters were clamouring to get over to Great Abaco Island or Grand Bahama for days. While most eventually found a plane to Freeport on Grand Bahama, Global News discovered unscheduled flights to Treasure Cay on Great Abaco Island. Our goal was to get to Marsh Harbour and confirm the stories we’d heard of its complete destruction.
We were at the airport for 5 a.m. and travelled the half-hour north with Abacoans who had been away when Dorian hit and were making the trip to either find family or inspect their homes and businesses. A number of people said they had to wait days to confirm their relatives were still alive.
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Elijah Esho, a Nigerian student we met, lost power to his phone before the storm hit. He says the roof of the first shelter where he stayed collapsed, trapping everyone inside as the waters rushed in. He managed to get away and found another shelter, but within an hour, he says, the same thing happened.
As a result of the hurricane, Esho said he saw people die. He recounted the story of seeing a mother have to choose between two children she was holding onto before eventually losing her grasp on both. When he finally got power to his phone a week later, Esho discovered he had been listed as dead.
“I had 500 messages on one board, 750 on another,” he told Global News. “Some people were writing: ‘Rest in peace.'”
When we landed in Treasure Cay, none of the airport’s buildings was still standing. Half the trees were seemingly bent out of shape or snapped in two. And the lineup of evacuees was staggering. There, we met Christine Bostwick and her husband Barry, whose son Barry Jr. is attending school in Manitoba.
“It was four days before we were able to tell him we were alive,” Bostwick said. Huddled in a car for hours, she was convinced she was going to die.
The road to Marsh Harbour has been largely cleared by British soldiers, but the drive is anything but ordinary. The once-plush green landscape is now either subdued or brown from the muddy waters that have largely receded. Every few kilometres, something catches your eye, like the small fleet of large catamarans that sit oddly in the forest. They had been moored and tied down in an inlet to wait out the storm. But Dorian took them, their lines and the posts they were moored to and flung them around like toys.
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It isn’t until you drive into Marsh Harbour that you see the stories about its destruction are true. Not a single building is unaffected. Most are wiped away entirely. Some of the more sturdily built structures are still standing and look salvageable — if you replace the roof and everything inside. But for the most part, it’s all gone.
How the cleanup is organized will be one of the greatest plans ever concocted in Bahamian history. Truck upon truck will have to be filled with debris. The Bahamas will have to rebuild extensively on Abaco and large swaths of Grand Bahama. If the island weren’t so naturally beautiful, it would be easier to just walk away and start again somewhere else. But that won’t happen because of people like Onassis McIntosh.
Onassis is only 25 years old but has what you would call an old soul. He visited the U.S. once but “I came right back,” he says. “I got homesick. I love the island.”
The very idea of living somewhere else is hard for him to accept. He could have left shortly after the storm but stayed to help the thousands of people he’s not related to but still calls family. He and his friends arranged for hot food to be delivered to the airport, the first such meal most of his fellow Abacoans had seen in a week. With a smile on his face, he personifies the “hello sunshine” mural.
“I don’t feel that leaving them here helps,” he says. “I’ll sacrifice myself for them.”