Two tents stood ready across the parking lot. One was filled with T-shirts, shoes, and underwear. The other was empty, awaiting the day’s first group of evacuees.
The first of the 14 boats ferrying Hurricane Dorian’s victims out of Abaco and its cays was due to arrive around 1 p.m. on Saturday. The neighboring communities of Harbour Island, mainland Eleuthera and Spanish Wells, which are no strangers to hurricanes but were spared Dorian’s Category 5 wrath, had spent all morning preparing to welcome them.
Then at 12:53 p.m., as the Foxy Express, a red and black luxury powerboat, appeared out of the horizon, ferrying 17 evacuees and a baby, someone screamed, “The first boat is coming! The first boat is coming!”
As frustrations continued to run high in the Bahamas with the slow pace of the relief efforts and the tallying of the dead now at 44, Bahamians and ex-pats were pulling together in Eleuthera to do their part to help the storm’s victims.
“This could be us tomorrow, it could be any of us here right now,” said Steven Cartwright, one of the lead volunteers who was visiting from Nassau and decided to stay on to help the relief effort. “This is their turn unfortunately and we are going to help as much as we can.”
The volunteers who had been patiently waiting under the scorching sun at the government complex in North Eleuthera quickly assumed their posts. A piece of plywood separated the space: One side was for intake, the other for triage, urgent and non-urgent medical needs, and then around the corner for photo taking.
Down at the dock, several young men formed a line and quickly began unloading what little luggage there was. Then, it was time for the passengers to disembark.
Speechless and disoriented, they stepped off the boat where they were welcomed with hugs and hand sanitizers and wipes.
“Only God got me out,” Rebecca Edgecombe, 62, said. “Never, never had I experienced anything like that, but God will always make a way.”
Dieulande Diejuste, 30, walking with her husband and 8-year-old son, said there were just no words to express how she felt about finally being off the island of despair. Like Edgecombe, the Haitian immigrant hoped to go to Nassau.
“I don’t know how it will be,” she said, her voice infused with uncertainty over her family’s fate after losing everything in Murphy Town.
Half an hour after the Foxy Express, another boat, the Shore Thing, arrived. This time, there were 30 of Dorian’s victims. Then, as it pulled out eight minutes later to return to the devastated island, someone yelled, “Two more boats are coming!” as a vessel appeared with a man gleefully dancing to reggae tunes while standing on the bow.
The Eleuthera community has become a bridge between Abaco and Nassau, processing more than 500 evacuees since Friday who have been unable to get out of Abaco by plane. Airlifts became complicated with pilots complaining that Bahamas Air Traffic Control bureaucratic red tape was limiting their ability to help evacuate storm victims.
Even after Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced that Bahamasair would be offering free flights for storm victims, Treasure Cay evacuees told the Miami Herald that the national airline was charging $75 — money they didn’t have after losing everything in the storm — to get to Nassau.
Once they arrived in Eleuthera, they were interviewed by volunteers — “name, age, occupation, any missing relatives?”— and then directed around a corner to have their photos taken. All of the information was then entered into a database. Those in need of medical care were tended to immediately by a doctor and nurse on site before being escorted to the tents, where they were given food, water and even clothing as they waited to either be picked up locally or transported to Nassau.
Anyone who didn’t want to go to Nassau was welcome to stay in Eleuthera, the volunteers said, pointing out that a number of locals in the community of about 10,000 had opened their homes to individuals in need.
“It’s all about helping each other. It would be inhumane to see someone in need and not try to do something,” said Janeen Mather, 49. “We might’ve missed it and they got it, but they are our brothers and sisters and it affects us as much as it affects them.”
A voluntary effort that began on Friday, the ongoing relief mission involves everyone from boaters out of Spanish Wells, who have volunteered their luxury fast-boats and fishing fleets, to individuals like Michele King Soffer and Donald Soffer, the South Florida power couple who own a home on nearby Harbour Island.
On Saturday, King Soffer flew down with nearly 2,000 pounds of supplies, including, bandages, Pedialyte and animal carriers that she collected with the help of Global Empowerment and BStrong. As she sat at the intake table and helped interview evacuees, her pilot made several runs between Eleuthera and Sandy Point and Treasure Cay to rescue stranded individuals. In all, 21 people were transported to Eleuthera, where they were quickly taken to Nassau.
“It’s amazing to be part of an amazing community that is looking out for its brothers and sisters on the other island,” she said. “The Bahamian people are very resilient and are going to come back strong. It warms my heart to to see everybody there be so compassionate and welcoming of the people. I was happy to do my part.”
Residents on the island said they feel lucky. Recalling how the community got hit during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, they said Dorian created some flooding but nothing compared to Abaco or Grand Bahama, where on Saturday disaster experts were still trying to assess the extent of the damage and the search and rescue for missing people continued.
Howard Rickey Mackey, member of parliament for North Eleuthera and one of the organizers, said locals and ex-pats who own homes on Eleuthera and nearby Harbour Island and Spanish Wells felt fortunate to be able to help the evacuees “who have lived through this dramatic experience.”
“What we got was breeze., you might as well say; there was no damage, no structural damage,” he said. “It’s amazing that we were spared and now we’re able to help the evacuation process and try to bring some sense of normalcy to these people who have been traumatized by the experience of hurricane.”
Making his way over to the second boat, Mackey looked out onto the sea and reminded volunteers to “give them the sanitizers.” He said he didn’t know how late they would go, but on Friday, boats were arriving well past midnight with passengers.
Taking out his cell phone, he decided he needed reinforcements and ordered up lights.