Scenes of destruction and resolve in the Abaco Islands

A mural depicting marine life on Treasure Cay in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas.
A mural depicting marine life on Treasure Cay in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas -- Mountains of debris line the roadsides these days on tiny Elbow Cay, an eight-mile stretch in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.

It's a 20-minute ferry ride east across the Sea of Abaco from the ferry dock in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco to this fragile cay, which is noted for its iconic red-and-white-striped lighthouse built in the 1860s, the quaint picturesque village of Hope Town and the prime fishing waters just off its shores.

Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Elbow Cay on Sept. 1 as a Category 5 storm with 185 mph sustained winds that gusted to 220 mph.

The compact, ferocious storm also tore through Central Abaco, centering its fury on Marsh Harbour, and a day later it hit Grand Bahama to the west, also as a Category 5.

Dorian stalled over Grand Bahama for another day, finally pulling away from the island on Sept. 3.

One of the many damaged piers on Elbow Cay.
One of the many damaged piers on Elbow Cay. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

I didn't meet any tourists in Marsh Harbour or on Elbow Cay on a visit there last week. The people I did meet were homeowners, boat owners and residents trying to salvage anything that could be saved from the wreckage.

Included among them were hoteliers rebuilding from the storm's destruction and scores of volunteers and organizations ferrying supplies wherever needed. The Water Mission, for example, set up its equipment on the ferry dock in Marsh Harbour to convert sea water into drinking water.

My 22-minute flight on Western Air from Nassau to Marsh Harbour was fully booked with residents returning to the Abacos to check on family members or on progress being made rebuilding their homes and businesses. A number consisted of construction crews flying in to work the heavy machinery needed for the removal of the tons of debris seen everywhere, who were joined by utility linemen righting toppled phone poles and restoring the miles of downed wires.

My seatmate, whose home in Marsh Harbour had seen massive damage, said he came over often to work on his house because he intends to return.

"It's where I live. It's my home, but I still can't sleep at night. The images are still with me," he said, a reference to the bodies he saw amid the storm surges that swept through parts of the island in the days after the storm.

Although the confirmed death count remains at 70, everyone I spoke with knows that the number is much higher.

Also on that flight was a woman named Anna. She had not been back to the Abacos since she had been evacuated four days after Dorian. She's temporarily living in Nassau with an aunt and has one of her sons in school there. Another son is living with her brother in Freeport on Grand Bahama and is attending school there.

From talking to friends who had remained on the island, she knew her home was gone, reduced to a concrete slab.

"Oh, I'll be going back there to live," she said. "I'll rebuild my house, but it will take time. That's OK."

I saw her later that day, in good spirits, hanging out with friends near the ferry dock in Marsh Harbour.

The Abacos include numerous cays, nine of which are inhabited.

Marsh Harbour is its commercial hub and tourist center and was where the majority of the Abacos' pre-Dorian population of just over 17,000 lived.

Sadly, it's where Dorian concentrated much of its fury and caused the most damage.

These days, the population of Marsh Harbour stands at around 2,000. Many people were evacuated to Nassau, some went to Florida to live with relatives and others remain unaccounted for.

The tourist center around the harbor and waterfront was the heart of the town and was ringed with small inns, restaurants, shops, vendors' stalls, bars and cafes.

It's gone. Some half-standing structures remain, wires dangling, shutters blown off and cracked sheetrock crumbling.

Wynsome Ferguson, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism representative who was my guide, said, "It was so lively and fun. Locals, visitors and boaters loved to come here, hang out, listen to music, enjoy the sunsets and be with friends."

Ferguson, too, lost her home and has temporarily relocated to the tourism offices in Nassau. She plans to return.

The government brought in 40 trailers to house displaced government workers in Marsh Harbour, and large, igloo-shaped, plastic structures for temporary housing lined one of the piers on Treasure Cay.

I spotted tents set back from the roadways in several areas, and some churches still serve as shelters.

Large, igloo-shaped, plastic structures provide temporary housing on Treasure Cay.
Large, igloo-shaped, plastic structures provide temporary housing on Treasure Cay. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

Yet, there has been progress. Maxwell's supermarket reopened on Nov. 1. Peeking inside the warehouse-sized store, I saw well-stocked shelves and several businesses, including a small bank, a pharmacy, an insurance company and a booth belonging to the Bahamas Telecommunications Co.

The parking lot was jammed, and shopping carts were piled high with food items, milk, fresh fish and six-packs of Bahamian Kalik beer.

I drove north and south with Ferguson on Great Abaco. As we put miles behind us heading south from Marsh Harbour, there was a drastic change in foliage.

What had been stripped bare by Dorian's winds, which uprooted enormous trees, shredded palm fronds and bent their trunks in half, began to give way to way to flowering shrubs and upright pine trees.

The roads were clear and drivable.

In South Abaco, we stopped at the four-room Sandpiper Inn in the settlement of Schooner Bay, run by Larry Carroll, a retired doctor from Nassau.

"We reopened Nov. 1," Carroll said. "Just had minor damage. We've had some guests here since. We were lucky."

I boarded a ferry north to Treasure Cay to meet Adam Showell, owner of the nine-room Green Turtle Club Resort and Marina in the settlement of New Plymouth. 

Treasure Cay's pre-Dorian population was 450. Showell estimated that these days "it might be 200. Many people evacuated.

"The resort had extensive damage, although the marina was pretty much spared," Showell said. "We've had six freight boats deliver construction supplies, we've got power back, and we'll be ready to receive our guests on March 4."

Green Turtle Club, which opened in 1964, is home to the famous Dollar Bar whose walls are lined with dollar bills signed by visitors.

Back in Marsh Harbour, I spent some time with the folks at the 86-room Abaco Beach Hotel and Boat Harbour Marina.

General manager Mo Shallah recalled, "In the first month or so, we just tried to survive day by day. We lived like animals. Nobody could get in or out. We had to clear a narrow footpath everywhere we went just to try and walk. Roads were completely impassable."

Once heavy equipment began arriving at the end of October, the pace of recovery picked up.

Co-owner Emmanuel Alexiou added, "We had a few rooms that were habitable, so we turned them over to the World Kitchen teams of chef Jose Andres and to insurance adjustors and NGOs who used our helipad to bring in supplies."

The Abaco Beach Hotel plans to reopen fully by April 1.

"If you were here right after Dorian, it was total devastation" Alexiou said. "Now, by comparison, it's paradise."

Great Abaco had 950 hotel rooms before Dorian struck plus several hundred rentable cottage rooms and vacation homes.

Ferguson estimated that 35% of all those rooms now are or soon will be available for visitors.

"We lost the winter season. Tourists come here to enjoy our beaches, resorts and this playground out on the water, to fish, snorkel and take excursions, to explore the numerous cays," she said.

"Our game-fishing season is April to mid-June. Summer is family vacation season," she said. "We hope to begin to see our visitors return at that time."

The destruction on Elbow Cay was widespread. Golf carts are the main form of transportation now, due to roadways narrowed by debris, including upended boats, trees, crumbling limestone boulders, blown-off roof shingles, unusable kitchen appliances, soaked mattresses growing mold and household furnishings. 

The Firefly Sunset Inn is closed, the Sea Spray Resort & Marina is destroyed, the Hope Town Boutique Lodge dangles precariously on a hillside above a crumbling limestone cliff.

The restaurant at the Abaco Inn on Elbow Cay reopened on Nov. 16, serving three meals a day. Four of its 23 guestrooms are open, but there's no reopening date for the remaining 19 rooms.

The famous lighthouse survived, but the area around it is cordoned off due to a massive debris field.

The sound of generators reverberates throughout the cay.

There is much work still to be done, and it will be months, if not years, before the Abacos and its cays fully recover from Dorian's onslaught.

As Ferguson told me, and so many others echoed, "It's been a challenge. Nothing like this has ever happened here, but Abaconians are resilient. The Abacos will come back."


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