Hurricane Dorian – A personal account of the resilience of the Bahamian community bound by disaster – Luke Hopper – former MBA teacher
All photographs are copyright Luke Hopper
Hurricane Dorian was the fourth named storm of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, and as it approached the Bahamas it maintained wind speeds of 185mph and gusts over 220mph. As if that isn’t alarming enough, September 1st and 2nd, witnessed a twenty-three to twenty-six-foot storm surge washing over areas of the Abacos and Grand Bahama islands, causing catastrophic damage and loss of life. For the global community, the climate change debate somehow rolls on. Attempts to muddy the waters with ill-informed science deny the impacts of accelerated ocean warming patterns. Yet on a local scale, the humanitarian impacts are being felt right now as more powerful record-smashing storms become more prevalent. July 2019 ended like many others. The nostalgia of British summer, surf and endless hours with family and friends spent on the beach at our home in Cornwall. As the joy lingered, back-to-school feelings loomed. The life of a teacher moves in cycles from the beginning of one academic year to the next. For international teachers, this is often broken up with flying your family back to your respective workplace after the summer break, in our case to Freeport, Grand Bahama. One unseen task arriving back in the Caribbean in August is always hurricane preparation, as hurricane season is well underway by your arrival. At the back of your mind it is something you plan for but ultimately hope you never have to worry about. Little did we know 2019 would serve up the second-strongest hurricane in Atlantic history and the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas since records began. As Dorian arrived in the Bahamas late Sunday evening, the first weekend of September, our eyes were transfixed on the canal outside our window. Living less than half a kilometer from the southern shore, a storm surge from the south-east was still a distinct possibility given the nature and unpredictability of hurricane behavior. We had chosen to ride out the storm with close friends and neighbors Sam Teicher and Joe Oliver of Coral Vita, a reef restoration company based on-island. By teaming up, we felt this would give us the best chance for our safety and be most effective during and in the immediate aftermath of the storm. A frenzy of messages lit up our phones that afternoon as the first of many terrifying videos and cries for help came in from people we knew across the Abacos. Terrifying imagery of twenty-foot plus storm surges washing over the islands and surrounding cays filled our screens. People had nowhere to run but into the ocean or scramble into trees as they were either trapped or washed away. Those fortunate enough to shelter in structures able to sustain the force of the storm and height of the water barely survived. Now directly in its path stood Grand Bahama. We knew Dorian was coming, and we knew just how consequential it would be. Huddled together in a two-level concrete condo equipped with hurricane windows, we had discussed and rehearsed numerous contingency plans. The reality of the situation truly hit home on the second night of the storm as it refused to abate, while seriously discussing what tools we would need to cut a hole in the roof above Joe’s room, should we become trapped in the attic by flood-waters. Through this hole, we planned to climb out onto the roof, put two inflated scuba vests on two people with us who couldn’t swim, and hold onto our two young children while tethering our group and one another to the roof trusses. Outside sat our truck with over three feet of water clearance. It was filled with fuel, tools, first aid supplies and anything else deemed necessary in a life-saving situation, should we need to escape ourselves to higher ground or go out into the storm to help others trapped by the wind and waves. Thankfully the waters never rose beyond our docks and our worst-case plans never put into effect, but the same cannot be said for thousands of Bahamians across the Abacos and Grand Bahama. This macabre chain of events changed the Bahamas forever wiping entire communities and their families from the map. Through Sunday night into Monday morning, the storm tracked across the eastern and northern shores of the island leaving heart-wrenching tales of loss and devastation in its wake. We knew this because somehow Sam and Joe’s cell network managed to maintain internet connectivity throughout the whole storm. People on the Aliv network were able to relay what was happening around them. In many cases, this included relaying GPS coordinates alongside urgent pleas for rescue. Dorian stalled and spent close to thirty-six hours over and above the northern shore of Grand Bahama Island, exacerbating the effects of the storm surge. At this point, it felt as if the whole island was being reclaimed by the ocean, as flooding poured in from the east and northern shore inundating any low-lying areas of land. Trapped inside for most of Monday, we attempted to entertain two young children, while also explaining the severity of the events unfolding around us. Hunkering down, communicating with friends for updates on the status of people across the island, we waited. Late in the morning, I drove my truck to the edge of the opposite side of the canal inlet we live on to check the condition of a friend’s house across the water from us. The ferocity of the wind blew the truck a full foot across the road while I dodged fallen trees to make it four hundred meters to a viewpoint. From there, nothing but a blizzard of white, the surface water being swept horizontally in the direction of the wind at 150mph, making it near impossible to see their building. I could just make out the outline of the roof and building intact, knowing they were sheltered inside I breathed a little easier. Upon entering our house, terrifying messages continued to ping through the groups on social media. “The water is rising and we are getting into the attic” was seen time and again. Nigh impossible to mount any safe rescue attempt as night fell, many remained trapped but in communication with loved ones waiting for morning to break when help could arrive. Tuesday morning dawned, and the winds and the messages had continued through the night. Communication, as with any disaster, saves countless lives. Unbelievably cell service remained reliable. Members of the community from various backgrounds and prior experiences of working in search and rescue and disaster zones mobilized to save as many lives as they could. In Category three hurricane conditions, friends deployed boats and jetskis into undefined waterways that were now fifteen to twenty feet higher than the spring high tide levels. A team on a frontloader drove through areas it could access to help others trapped in roofs in six feet high floodwaters. Sam, Joe, and I forded submerged roads, as our team relayed fuel supplies to the boats and jetskis, cleared access routes, attempted to rescue people from trapped houses and provide immediate first aid to those who needed it, evacuating people to alternative locations where necessary. The countless tales of bravery from those in the community with the will to help is truly awe-inspiring. Time and again people ventured into the storm to help others. In communication via our phones teams were able to sweep countless houses and rescue those trapped. Every person’s contribution large or small having a huge impact on the number of lives saved. The entire island’s infrastructure ground to a halt with all but a few services functioning. The island’s hospital had flooded. Badly damaged, doctors were forced to relocate with their patients to a nearby church. Emergency response vehicles were now underwater or washed away, and entire public and private buildings were destroyed. Reports of public services unable to cope with the sheer scale of the disaster and isolated instances of looting trickled in. Thankfully the airport tower and runway remained relatively intact as the water surged over the top of the airfield, causing little damage. The same could not be said for all the buildings, suffering complete destruction. US Coastguard helicopters, and directly after BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association) flights, with vital aid, were able to land as early as Wednesday and Thursday respectively after the storm. A plane piloted by friend Adam Miller landed Thursday evening containing many vital supplies we needed to continue our response work in the coming days. By good fortune, my wife and children were able to leave on its return journey, first to the US and then on to the UK, until it was better understood how the island would cope with the immediate aftermath of this hurricane. Over the coming days, under direction from incredible volunteers like Jason Albury (a man who worked extensively during Hurricane Katrina, USA, 2005), our teams continued to sweep areas cut-off and destroyed by the effects of the storm surge and eyewall. The eastern settlements of the island (the Eastend), were disproportionately affected when compared to Freeport. Communication was crippled almost immediately as the storm moved across them. Category five winds and huge storm surges almost wiped some of these communities from the map. Ravaged by tornadoes in the eyewall, multi-million dollar communication towers laid buckled around houses and buildings. Some of these areas becoming entirely unrecognizable from their former state. Settlements such as Sweetings Cay and McLeans Town were close to ninety-percent flattened. Inconceivably no lives were lost on Sweetings Cay, a small island twenty minutes boat ride from the eastern tip of Grand Bahama. Residents tied ropes between trees and buildings surviving by hanging on for safety. Resident after resident cited the healthy surrounding mangrove forests as a life-saving force during the storm surge, underlining another valuable reason to protect the natural ecosystems that sustain us all. Those in McLean’s Town and settlements to their west with less natural protection, such as High Rock and the surrounding areas, sadly were not so lucky. Many of whom remain missing within the debris and lost to the ocean. As one of the first of the teams to reach these points by land (US Coastguard had dropped water and airlifted some serious casualties by helicopter), the scenes we came across were catastrophic. People still emerging from trees in the bush, having been swept away a day or so earlier from their homes. Every individual in a state of extreme shock from the events they had witnessed. Some had sheltered upstairs only to have the entire second floor and roof washed away with them inside. Unbelievably many survived these harrowing ordeals. We did our best treating them for shock and minor injuries, providing open arms and much-needed water and food aid, evacuating those that needed it. In these first days, we triaged these communities and provided vital supplies for immediate survival, as well as gathering valuable reconnaissance and intelligence to provide to government and NGOs to aid relief efforts. Shocking scenes remained the norm, passing upturned and unearthed caskets around coastal graveyards inundated by the water. We discovered bodies tangled in debris fields needing to be recovered so they could be laid to rest. A man from High Rock shared his ordeal of his wheelchair-bound brother being ripped from his arms in the storm surge. He managed to make it to the safety of a tree, where he spent the next twelve hours clinging for his life. In the same settlement, we even found some of the tanks used for growing coral at Coral Vita’s farm over thirty miles away to the west. Survivor Marilyn Laing, a friend and environmental guide from a local botanical garden, offered up her High Rock home as a distribution center for food, water, clothing, and fuel for her community in the immediate aftermath of the storm. From here we were able to stage further operations into the harder to reach settlements of the East End. Friday morning much of our progress was halted by a football field-sized section of mangrove that had been ripped out of the northern shore and deposited miles away along a narrow neck of land that contained the only road into this area. Thanks to the valiant efforts of locals, who managed to dig a path around the mangrove enabling our hardy 4×4 to make further progress we broke through to the last of the eastern settlements around midday. A boat on the trailer behind us, we could now launch from McLeans Town and reach the remote Sweeting’s Cay. Yet further barriers lay ahead. A large barge used to transport vehicles from McLean’s Town to Deepwater Cay (a small island close by) blocked the road in the tiny settlement of Pelican Point, ten miles from its anchorage. We broke a trailer hub due to the adverse road conditions forcing us to problem-solve and salvage another wheel from a trailer we found overturned in the bush a mile away. Finally launching our boat required dodging twenty or so sunken cars, boats, and trailers in the shallow, narrow channel, normally rife with hazards at any tide on a typical calm Bahamian day. Finally, Sweeting’s Cay was in our grasp. Docking our boat we delivered wide-ranging supplies, providing essential assistance to the thirty or so residents that had survived the storm here. The following evening, on a final sweep of the McLean’s Town area we came upon four panicked, hungry, and dehydrated men dragging all their remaining possessions in suitcases behind them. Just arriving from Abaco, managing to jump aboard a small boat, they had traveled to Grand Bahama with little or no water in their bid for survival. Their plan had been to walk to Freeport through the night and coming days, a fifty-mile journey, in thirty-degree heat on a clear road. The grim reality of their story written across their faces as they tried to escape the sickness and destruction of Marsh Harbour. Bundling them in our truck-bed alongside all of our equipment, while three of the four sat on the tailgate, we made the long drive home. Day-by-day it continued. Using both boat and helicopter we continued completing the search, rescue, and recovery operations alongside the first NGOs on the ground. Careful coordination allowed us to open access routes previously impassable after the storm. With many of the emergency services overwhelmed and without vehicles and equipment from the flooding, the survivors in the east were reliant on us and others operating continuously to provide immediate life support. Leveraging local and international assets, networks and connections, the Bahamian community facilitated a large amount of immediate rescue, recovery, and aid provision in the aftermath of the storm. These proceeding weeks have since become a dreamlike hazy fog of memories working eighteen hours a day. Time split between our relief teams, multiple NGOs, hundreds of phone calls, thousands of messages, and all while trying to support my students in their academic programs, in temporary and condensed timetables at varying locations. Daily stumbling blocks overcome thanks to the strong relationship building in the field. Essential aid is now being distributed thanks to the Bahamian government, the international community, NGOs and charities on the ground. Through the foundations we work under we have continued to run trucks, boats, and helicopters to the hardest-hit communities in the east as well as Freeport. Working in partnership with BASRA, aid groups like the Grand Bahama Disaster Relief Foundation, and NGOs such as Team Rubicon, IsraAID, Third Wave Response, the countless volunteers, and members of the public, the people in the hardest-hit communities of Grand Bahama are well-fed, watered, dry, and already starting the process of rebuilding their homes. Inspiringly my school’s IB students, in partnership with Rotary and staff members, have given up their time to help organize, distribute and put up temporary shelters for people who have lost their homes. Some of which have lost close to everything in the disaster themselves. Although much is being achieved day-to-day, there is still a huge amount to be done on the ground before these islands can recover. To quote friends Sam and Joe who recently wrote for CNN: “amid this destruction, people are coming together in extraordinary ways, showing a personal and communal resilience that exceeds anything we’ve ever experienced. That is the truest spirit of the people of The Bahamas.” This is ultimately the truest spirit of human nature, as the good shines through in people when adversity strikes hardest. Since 2016, we have experienced the effects of climate destabilization more significantly than at any time during human existence. Storms are intensifying with ocean warming as natural barriers such as mangroves and coral reefs are being deforested, destroyed or are dying out. In the last three years, each July has come and gone as the hottest on record, and the number of high-intensity Category 3, 4 and 5 storms has increased. The new normal, life in the Anthropocene, continues to hit home for those affected and those watching in astonishment. All while our political, industrial and media leaders go out of their way to betray us with inaction. It is easy to ignore these issues that take a second place to many of the wars and economic issues of our time, yet I would argue many of these stem from the climate emergency we find ourselves in. The greed and ignorance fueling disproportionate, inequitable and unsustainable economic growth cannot continue to go on unchecked in the pursuit of endless profit. Economic gain at the hands of environmental degradation has continued for too long and future generations will never forgive us for not doing enough. We must stand together united to ask for a better answer from our leaders. The fact that we live in a time where sustainably focused businesses and NGOs are considered a radical departure from the status quo says it all. Smart and resilient planning and an immediate departure from the business as usual approach is the only logical solution to being a part of a human world that will continue to flourish for generations to come. Luke Hopper In a final note our work has heavily been facilitated by the organizations we are involved in and I would like to thank The Grand Bahama Disaster Relief Foundation and The Coral Vita Conservancy. I must also thank my school, Lucaya International School, for its understanding in allowing me to continue relief efforts around my teaching and leadership responsibilities. Our school was flooded extensively with eight of nine buildings receiving extensive damage. Some of our families, staff, and faculty have lost everything, including loved ones. If you are interested in seeing more about these foundations and the work they are engaged with as well as a way to help Lucaya International School click on any of the specific links below:
Luke Hopper is the Head of Teaching and Learning and an experienced IB and IGCSE Geography teacher at Lucaya International School, located on Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas. He lives with his wife Zoe and two young children Marley, and Roo. Growing up in and around the ocean he spends the majority of his free time in the water or outside enjoying the physical environment. Most recently he has also been working as a Disaster Relief Coordinator for the Grand Bahama Disaster Relief Foundation, and the Coral Vita Conservancy. In this role and independently he is consulting in partnership and for multiple NGOs for on the ground efficiency in aid deployment in the East of Grand Bahama in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.