From My WindowIssue Date: September 19, 2019
Jane Thibodeau Martin
Mystery in Paradise
In 1985 Mike and I took a risk and rented a house on a tiny island in the Bahamas. The price in the ad in the sailing magazine that caught my eye was very cheap for a week, an unbelievable bargain for the lovely newer oceanfront home. We fell totally in love with "off the tourist track" Hope Town on tiny Elbow Cay, Bahamas. Neither of us had been to the Bahamas before, and we didn't have much information on what to expect other than that my sailing magazines like to say "Bahamas Out Islands are not for sissies." There was no TV, no telephones, no casinos, hardly any shopping and the entire island had only two tiny jitney vehicles on the single road. Just 2 l/2 miles long and less than a mile wide (way less in places,) it was primitive, quiet, safe and gorgeous. The water was crystal clear, the beaches beautiful and empty; and the people friendly. If you wanted to eat out in one of the three tiny restaurants, you walked to it early in the day to place your order, so that they had the right food on hand. We loved Hope Town so much we returned twice more over the years, and I was looking forward to visiting one more time in the next few years while we are still able to travel.
That first trip involved a big plane to Florida; then a 10-passenger plane to little Marsh Harbor, Bahamas " before we boarded the small plane they weighed each of us AND our baggage. We took a taxi to the ferry dock; got on the water ferry and crossed the Sea of Abaco to the Hope Town "public" dock, where a little boy met us with a wheelbarrow to take our luggage to the rental house. We were charmed beyond words, and only slightly surprised when we asked for the key to the house and were told "no one locks their houses here."
You can imagine my dismay while I obsessively watched the Weather Channel as the eyewall of Hurricane Dorian, a vicious category five, made a direct hit on little Elbow Cay just a few weeks ago.
The people of the Bahamas are a tough and resilient type. They have survived many hurricanes, and are used to what we mainland softies would consider really harsh conditions, but this blow was especially savage. The little island was cut in two by the ocean during the storm, severing the only road, and damage was catastrophic. I belong to several on line groups about the Abacos, and seeing the video of the fly-overs of the little island I love so much was devastating. Not a single boat left in the "hurricane hole" harbor. Roofs and entire buildings gone. No leaves on the plants " the entire length of the island is brown, black and stripped of foliage. No power, no clean water, no phone service, no way to fly out since there is no airport, no useable docks left, boats high and dry on land or missing altogether. I read a report that every single water ferry in the northern islands sunk.
But even worse was the plight of Marsh Harbor, on Great Abaco. The hurricane "parked" over the hapless community, and gave them more than a full day of relentless wind, storm surge and torrential rain. As bad as Hope Town was, Marsh Harbor suffered more. As I write this, the death toll is 40 and there are dire predictions that once search and rescue teams enter the poor communities at "the farm" and "the muds" the actual extent of the loss of life will be staggering. Several hundred people are still unaccounted for " and as time passes it gets harder to hope they are all alive. I have read on-line concerns about cholera outbreaks, with people describing dead dogs and other decaying animals scattered all over.
Paradise is a wonderful place to vacation, but life "on a rock," as an island woman's group I follow on line calls it, is not easy. And that is BEFORE a category 5 hurricane hits. Nearly everything must come to the island on a boat or by plane " making all of it more costly. There are 700 islands in the country of Bahamas; making it impossible to have emergency services equipment and teams in all locations they may be needed. If you need a doctor's services, you will likely get on a boat or plane. There are no police or military personnel on most islands. It is simply too costly for a poor island nation to staff that way. Your island may have a small clinic staffed by a government-provided nurse; but the clinic roof is gone and there are no useable supplies left. The designated hurricane shelter is the sturdiest building on each island, typically a church or school. But there was four feet of water pushed in by the storm surge, so even the sturdy buildings became flooded and uninhabitable. If you and your family survived the storm, you have no food, no access to clean water, no power, no medications, no hospital, no computer, no phone contact with the outside world and few, if any, government services. (Note: contrary to inaccurate comments I heard, the Bahamas are NOT a commonwealth or territory of England. They have been a sovereign country since 1973.) There is no way to get off the island, and each little island community was left on its own for days.
For those of you who remember Hurricane Katrina, on U.S. soil, at least help could be mobilized from many directions. The National Guard, emergency services providers and medical staff were pulled from all over the U.S. to help. But nothing, absolutely nothing is so easy on these little islands. Witness the terrible struggle of the U.S. citizens on our island territory of Puerto Rico to recover from their destructive hurricane.
My heart grieves for the Northern Bahamians. Nearly 60 percent of their economy is based on tourism. With their infrastructure in shambles, ports closed, air travel disrupted and resorts destroyed, no tourists will be able to come for months, even if they still wanted to. Cruise ships are re-routed to other countries. The sail and charter fishing fleets are destroyed or sunk; and there is inadequate food and water supplies for the survivors, let alone visitors.
Say a prayer for the Bahamians. The northern Bahamas will probably not fully recover for decades. At least 17 percent of the population's homes were completely destroyed, and a much higher percentage have no more workplace to earn the money needed to rebuild their homes. Their disaster could easily have been our own. Our coastlines are also vulnerable, our gulf and ocean communities just as exposed, when a category five comes calling. And come it will " it is just a matter of time, and luck. Our infrastructure and resources are much better, but the suffering would be similar. It is a very safe bet that the U.S. will see more hurricanes, and higher severity ones, as our oceans warm and water levels rise as glaciers and ice caps melt. (If you don't believe ocean levels are already rising, talk to someone in Florida.)
I have made a donation to Hope Town's tiny on-island volunteer fire and rescue department, and I lift my prayers. Because our fellow humans in what was once a visitor's paradise need our help, and they will need it for the foreseeable future.
Not all the Bahamas islands were decimated by this hurricane. Nassau and large southern groups such as Andros and Eleuthera are in good condition. One suggested way to support the Bahamas is to book travel to those other islands, to help support the national economy of the country.
Thank you to reader Ilene, originally from Oconto Falls, for her lovely recollections of picking wild cranberries. I enjoyed hearing your story.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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