‘Grand Bahama is dead’: Firsthand look at Dorian destruction
It’s been almost a week since Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, but the deadly hurricane continues to haunt those of us who rode out the storm here.
At least 45 people are dead, hundreds are missing and some 70,000 are homeless. There is no power or running water. Aid is arriving slowly on the island of Grand Bahama, where Dorian parked for almost two days and caused damage one usually witnesses in a war zone.
It’s impossible to fully capture the devastation we see every day. We’re only about 80 miles from Florida, but the miles of rubble Dorian left in its wake have made this part of the Bahamas feel as remote as any place on Earth.
On August 30, CNN sent the three of us to Freeport, on Grand Bahama, to cover the storm. The trip was so last-minute that we bought many of the staples of hurricane coverage at an airport newsstand: beef jerky, peanut butter and as many water bottles as we could carry.
We had to scramble to catch American Airlines flight 3489 from Miami, which turned out to be the last from the US to Grand Bahama before Dorian hit.
Our first sign that this hurricane was going to be exceptionally dangerous was when a gate agent announced over the intercom that only Grand Bahama residents would be allowed on the flight. All hotels would be closed, he said. If you didn’t live there, you would have nowhere to stay.
Then a supervisor walked over and overruled him.
“These are the guys that go stand in the rain on TV,” he said, motioning to us. “If you want to risk your lives, go for it.”
Cut off from the outside world
The plane was nearly empty. Within minutes we landed in Freeport on a sunny day. With the storm approaching and the airport due to close, the customs agent waved us through with barely a glance.
We squeezed our gear into a rental car and raced to a beach to report live on CNN about the incoming storm.
As we finished for the day, a man and woman strolling down the beach stopped to ask what we were doing. Without a moment’s hesitation the couple — Kristine and her boyfriend Graham — invited us to ride out the storm with them in their ocean-view apartment.
Late the next night, Dorian began pummeling the Abacos and Grand Bahama as an insanely powerful Category 5 Hurricane. Our weather forecasters told us that if there were a Category 6 ranking, Dorian would qualify.
The storm howled for hours in the darkness. Winds and rain pounded the building from all sides. Daylight finally came, but the sun never showed.
The apartment had a protected balcony, and we were able to continue transmitting throughout the storm even as we lost power and cell service.
We realized the storm surge was flooding the island Sunday night when a group of neighbors banged on the lobby door and begged to come in. Their houses were underwater and most of them had barely made it out with the clothes on their backs. Several had managed to carry their pets. One woman sobbed that she had not been able to find her two cats as the water came in.
A group carried in a soaking wet, elderly woman who had fallen and broken her hip during the rush to escape her home. We brought them towels and shared our supplies as they settled in for the first of several nights on the lobby floor.
One man said he saw his wife drown
On Tuesday, Dorian’s winds had subsided enough that we ventured out to survey the damage. Downed power lines and trees were everywhere. A submerged school bus blocked one roadway.
We reached an area called “the bridge” where a hastily organized rescue operation was being mounted to save hundreds of people trapped in their homes.
There we found the bridge itself was underwater and was being used as a ramp to launch Jet Skis and rescue boats into the churning floodwaters. The storm was still blowing with hurricane strength, and volunteers told us several boats had flipped over in the winds.
There was little coordination or organization to the rescue effort, but limitless bravery.
Many evacuees had held onto rafters of their flooded homes for hours, whipped by the wind and the rain. We asked where their houses were but could only make out a few roofs and trees in the distance. There were hundreds of homes there, rescuers told us, we just couldn’t see them.
As the rescued evacuees climbed off Jet Skis in the waist-deep water, many collapsed and had to be carried to safety.
“People are exhausted,” rescuer Rochenel Daniel told us as the driving winds forced the rescuers to suspend their operations. “Some we had to carry, some couldn’t even make it.”
As we fled the worsening weather, a wraith of a man in a red rain jacket approached us and whispered, “I’ve lost my wife.”
He said his name was Howard Armstrong, he was a crab fisherman and hours before he had seen his wife, Lynn, slip beneath floodwaters in their home as they awaited rescue. He was covered in bruises.
“My poor little wife got hypothermia and she was standing on top of the cabinets until they disintegrated,” he said. “I kept with her and she just drowned on me.”
Armstrong said he then swam to his neighbor’s house. She was dead, too, he said.
The airport is crippled
The next day we drove to the airport where we had arrived five days before. As we approached we saw a small plane flipped on its side.
One of the terminals was ripped open on all sides. Shrapnel was scattered across the inside of the domestic terminal, and the storm had flung the wing of a plane with such force that it had pierced a wall and lay mangled on the floor.
The other two terminals were still standing but had been underwater for days, and the airport’s single runway was littered with debris.
This was the island’s only airport. We all realized we were going to be on the island for a while.
Despite no electricity or running water, we coped in Kristine and Graham’s apartment as best we could. We slept with all the windows open in the sweltering heat and lugged buckets of water up three flights of stairs from the swimming pool to make the toilets run.
Whatever the challenges, none of us would choose to be anywhere else.
In the days after the storm, Bahamian officials have talked constantly of “assessments.” Assessing the port, assessing the airport, assessing the power grid. There has been a lot of assessing but too little action.
The aid that has trickled into Freeport — the island’s largest town — has improved conditions, but only a little. Cell phone service is back for the most part, some stores are open and you can even get the occasional hot meal and cold beer.
As soon as one leaves Freeport though, those scant privileges vanish.
Residents say the aid they need hasn’t come
The only road to the hard-hit east end of the island is still underwater in parts and completely washed away in others.
Apocalyptic rubble lies where houses stood before.
Residents say the storm surge topped 30 feet in some places and tore whole houses off their foundations.
A grim Washington “Smitty” Smith sat in the front yard of the house he built in Bevans Town. Dorian tore the roof off and punched holes through the cement walls. The gas station he owned across the street was also completely destroyed.
“Grand Bahama right now is dead,” Smith said, trauma carved into his face.
“One of the hurtful parts about all of this … is I haven’t seen a government official yet to come say, ‘Here’s a bottle of water’ or to see what’s going on.”
Government assistance has also been slow to reach the town of High Rock, a few miles further down the road.
There, resident Marilyn Laing got tired of waiting for officials to show up and instead organized her own relief system, with water and food delivered by friends and family members.
At least 14 people remain missing from this town of about 300 people. Five others have been confirmed dead, residents say.
One man sat, near-catatonic, on a white plastic chair. Neighbors say three of his family members, a daughter and two grandchildren, were swept away by the surging waters.
A US Coast Guard helicopter hovered over a wooded area nearby, searching for the dead. Residents say that’s usually how they know another body has been found.
When the wind picks up, you smell death.
Laing said she has to keep working to help others in her shattered community or the desperation will overcome her.
“I have no words to say how bad,” Laing said. “Maybe one in 10 houses is standing.”
We lent her our satellite phone so she could contact family to tell them she’s alive.
Nearby a man who had lost his house took tiny sips from a bottle of water. He knew he would need to make every drop last.