O.C. Cornish drives down S.C. Bootle Highway in his four-door light gray sedan, zigzagging past downed power lines, snapped pine trees and mountains of shredded debris, pointing out along the way the pockets of civilization that used to be.
His office complex, car rental business and two-bedroom Topical Pine vacation cottages? Gone. The Baptist church? Gone. The understated, yellow-and white Touch of Class restaurant, at the entrance of Treasure Cay? Gone.
“This here used to be a famous restaurant,” Cornish said, pointing to a mangled concrete structure with a blown off roof and flattened to half the size it used to be before Hurricane Dorian’s 185 mph winds chewed up the popular bar and restaurant. “It’s gone.”
“It’s rough. Rough,” he said about life in Treasure Cay, where the Category 5 hurricane tore through homes, churches and luxury resorts over the Labor Day weekend before slamming Grand Bahama with 18-foot storm surges as it stalled for 40 hours over the low-lying island. “But that’s a part of life. It’s going to get rough before it gets better.”
Two weeks after Dorian reduced much of the Abacos to rubble and left scores of homes in Grand Bahama with gaping holes in the ceilings, shell-shocked storm survivors are facing the daunting task of rebuilding their devastated lives. The government says it has so far confirmed only 50 deaths, although its missing person registry had 1,300 names — down from 2,500 days earlier —as of Friday.
Meanwhile, an estimated 4,500 residents have fled for Nassau, while an unknown number have boarded commercial flights and private charters for Florida. With the free evacuation flights all but ceased, hundreds of others, including Cornish and a handful of Haitian immigrants, have decided to stay put in the Abacos and rough it out.
“Everybody just can’t leave,” said Cornish, driving past water-clogged vehicles with missing windows, brown vegetation and collapsed houses on the lonely stretch. “I am going to stay and try to build, put it back together. I am an Abaconian. We believe in bouncing back.”
Putting it all back together won’t be easy. Nor will it be cheap. There is no electricity on the island or any of its 15 storm-ravaged cays. Cell service, while coming back, still isn’t 100 percent, and running water? No way. Baths are taken with a bucket — “We call it a cowboy,” Cornish said, with a laugh.
Food, medical supplies and other relief are pouring in, but government spokesman Carl Smith acknowledged on Friday that due to the devastation on Abaco and the surrounding cays, “it is logistically more challenging to deliver them relief.” Meanwhile, locals like Richard Roberts, who survived by tying his 11-foot boat to the knob of his front door and keeping it open by about six inches to release the pressure, said it’s “very stressful.”
“You’ve got limited amounts of gas. and you have to be very careful where you’re gong and what you’re doing,” said Roberts, 57. “Your roof is leaking, and now they say we have another [weather] disturbance out there. You don’t know if the tarp is going to blow away and everything is going to get gutted again.”
Even so, Roberts, who sent his wife and 16-year-old son to nearby Eleuthera, said he has no intention of leaving.
“This is my island. I was born here,” said the mechanic and tradesman who also has his own construction company. “If everyone evacuates, who is going to help with the relief? Who is going to help rebuild the island? Some Bahamians are needed; we just can’t depend on America, Cayman, Jamaica and others to do all the work for us.”
Eddie Floyd Bodie, a pastor and boat captain from nearby Green Turtle Cay, said he believes the Abacos can be rebuilt, but it will require pulling together.
“Every morning, you wake up, you open your door and you see the debris and it’s just getting to you,” said Bodie, who plans to stay in the Abacos but admitted he needed to take a two-week break in Florida first to clear his mind and regroup. “Your mind is wondering what’s going on. It’s a bad feeling knowing that you used to seeing things that you don’t see anymore. What do you say? You say you better try to get adjusted to it, but it’s hard. The pressure starts to get to you.”
Bodie, recalling running from house to house in the middle of the storm with his wife, teenage daughter and their suitcases, said while the people are broken, he believes the community can rebuild.
The Bahamian government, which at times has seemed overwhelmed by the unprecedented disaster, has yet to put a price tag on the destruction. But many like Bodie aren’t insured, and acknowledge that with Abaco and Green Turtle Cay being islands, rebuilding will require massive amounts of investments. Everything from machinery to clean up debris, to building materials to rebuild and repair gutted structures will need to be shipped in.
“You have to think about this. You can’t just walk down to Home Depot and pick up hammers and nails,” said Craig Roberts, the developer of Bahama Beach Club, who has been in business on Treasure Cay since 1991. “The labor force is so skinny, there is hardly anybody to help you.”
Craig Roberts’ 15-acres oceanfront resort, which includes 88 luxury condominiums ranging in price from $600,000 to $2 million, suffered an extensive amount of damage.
“Some of my owners said, ‘Get my furniture out of my apartment and store it, while you rebuild the resort,’ ” the developer said. “Well there is no place to store it because the garages have been destroyed by the storm.”
The silver lining? None of his 46 employees, he said, died in Dorian, and a Baptist church he and his wife built, along with some other Americans, as a place of worship and hurricane shelter for the predominantly Haitian Sandbanks community in Treasure Cay, saved lives.
Thinking about the road ahead, Craig Roberts said: “It’s going to be a very difficult task to rebuild our resort in Abaco because it’s going to take a lot of people; you have to house them, you have to feed them. You have to have toilet facilities. You have to have bathing facilities and none of that exists anymore. ”
Still, like Cornish, he vows to rebuild. And he can’t do it, Craig Roberts said, without the help of the island’s Haitian labor force, some of whom have also decided to remain in the Abacos after surviving the harrowing ordeal.
For the community, a mix of documented and undocumented migrants, the reasons for staying put varies.
Some, like Woodson Victor, who arrived in the Bahamas a year ago, fear deportation despite the Bahamian government’s insistence that it has — for the time being — suspended all deportations of storm victims and there is to be no discrimination against any nationality in the distribution of aid.
“It’s one of the tactics they employ in a case like this,” said Victor, 33, illustrating the deep mistrust many Haitians have amid a history of discrimination in the country. “They want us to go Nassau... and after a month and a month and-a-half, they will then announce arrests and let you know that the disaster that happened didn’t happen in Nassau but Abaco.”
Francilien Pierre, 54, who works as a landscaper, said many Haitians are scared of not just deportation but the capital itself.
“There are a lot of people here who would love to evacuate. There are some who have their documents, but they are afraid of Nassau,” said Pierre, who has lived in the Bahamas a dozen years. “But Nassau right now poses a big danger for Haitians. Too many people are over there right now. There is nothing for you to do, so you’re just going to sit doing nothing and no one is going to help you.”
For Sisadieu Noel, who has been living in Abaco since 1999 and is married to a Bahamian, it’s both the uncertainty of Nassau and the perspective of future work in the rebuilding that he said, is leading him to stay.
“I can’t jump and go somewhere when I don’t know where I’m going,” he said, standing on a ladder surrounded by debris in what used to be a vibrant shantytown. “Nassau is dangerous; it’s a dangerous place.”
As more rain and gusty winds loomed over the Abacos, Noel and a friend were rushing to finish the construction of a shed made from pieces of salvaged plywood. The shed wasn’t to sleep in but to store a generator, welding machine, vibrating plate compactor and other tools they had managed to recover from the muddy rubble of broken stoves, toppled cars and stacks of shredded plywood that once framed their wood shacks.
“A lot of people have gone to Nassau, and they have nowhere to live and they haven’t found work,” Noel, 51, said, returning to the subject of temporarily relocating to Nassau, where the National Emergency Management Agency said shelters had reached capacity.
Unlike The Mudd and Pigeon Peas in Marsh Harbour — two other Haitian shanties where many believe unknown numbers of Haitians may have died — no one perished in Sandbanks, residents said. Everyone evacuated ahead of Dorian to the nearby New Haitian Mission Baptist Church, the church that Craig Roberts, the resort developer, built and painted pink prior to the storm.
Ironically, it was built on the ruins of Roberts’ first resort, the Banyan Beach Club, which was destroyed in 2004 during hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which hit the Abacos.
“We built that church for the Haitian community there so that they would literally have a hurricane shelter,” Craig Roberts said.
An imposing pink structure along S.C. Bootle Highway, the church currently has about 50 people taking shelter inside. During the storm, it housed about 200 people, said Ilfrenord Charles, a pastor. When the waters started to rise, people climbed a rope to the rafters.
“Plenty of Haitians want to leave,” Charles, 60, said. But rather than Nassau or any of the other islands in the Bahamas not battered by Dorian, they want “to go to Miami, to Canada because they don’t know how the situation here will be and they think things will be better there.”
Craig Roberts believes if Abaco is to be rebuilt, it will need the Haitians, who for the first time find themselves in the same boat as Bahamians after having lost everything to Dorian’s roaring waters and winds.
“I always say ‘No Haitians, no Bahamas.’ It was Haitians who helped me build Bahama Beach Club. And it’s all the Haitian community I will need to help me build it again,” Roberts said. “They are the strength of our workforce over there. We can’t do it without the Haitian people backing us up.”