A year since Dorian, Bahamas rebuilds with hope

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New docks that are more resistant to storm damage have been built on Elbow Cay in the Abacos.
New docks that are more resistant to storm damage have been built on Elbow Cay in the Abacos.

A year ago -- Sept. 1, 2019, to be exact -- Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, forever changed lives and landscapes in the Abacos. A day later, it moved on to inflict the same heartache and devastation on nearby Grand Bahama Island, primarily on its east end.

How have these islands fared in the year since?

Prime minister Hubert Minnis answered that question during a recent address to the nation. He reminded Bahamians that Dorian was the strongest storm ever to hit the Bahamas, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and storm surges over 20 feet, causing $3.4 billion in losses and damages and leaving more than 70,000 people homeless in its wake.

"We will never forget the pain, suffering, devastation and the life-changing memories and mental trauma that Dorian inflicted on the people and communities of the Abacos and Grand Bahama. We remember the lives lost, those never accounted for and pray for the survivors who are still rebuilding," Minnis said.

Progress has been made in the past year, but not enough, according to the prime minister, who added that "there is still so much to do."

The government forged partnerships with international agencies and nongovernmental organizations and enlisted help and aid from hundreds of volunteers "because we knew we could not tackle this recovery on our own," Minnis said.

The community-led nonprofit Hope Town United is helping rebuild the primary school on Elbow Cay.
The community-led nonprofit Hope Town United is helping rebuild the primary school on Elbow Cay.

Among those organizations was Hope Town United (HTU), a community-led nonprofit formed to aid in the recovery and restoration of Abaco's Elbow Cay, where Dorian made landfall, destroying more than 70% of its homes and displacing hundreds of families.

The HTU takes its name from Hope Town, the main settlement on Elbow Cay and the site of the candy-striped Elbow Cay Lighthouse, which survived Dorian.

"In the year since, Hope Town United has grown from an initial triage and rescue effort to a forward-thinking nonprofit that is revolutionizing the way islands and low-lying communities rebuild in the face of climate-driven natural disasters," said Matt Winslow, HTU chairman.

"We're thrilled with the progress we've made, but we still have a lot of work to do to fully restore Hope Town," he said.

In the immediate aftermath of Dorian, the HTU helped organize the evacuation of 250 residents, shipped 50 tons of critical supplies and brought security and search-and-rescue teams to the cay.

The Bahamas are among several Caribbean islands that have reopened to international tourism, with protocols in place to protect visitors and residents against Covid-19.

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Restoring hope in Hope Town

Focus then turned to five priorities, which began with the restoration of Hope Town's public docks, which were severely damaged by Dorian.

"These docks are the front door to the island, serving as the entry point for building materials, construction equipment and more skilled laborers and volunteers," Winslow said.

The new docks, now rebuilt, feature technical reinforcements to prevent mass destruction from future storms.

Work on the lighthouse dock begins early next month.

The next priority was the new Hope Town Primary School, which had been destroyed.

"We wanted to preserve the historic design of the original school and add more classrooms," Winslow said.

While the Covid pandemic slowed work, the school was expected to open on Sept. 21 with 40 to 50 students, and it will be fully completed by November.

With its concrete base, the school also can double as a hurricane shelter.

The HTU is working with other organizations to build a community care center with expansive healthcare services for residents and visitors.

Completion is expected in 2021.

Solar panels have been installed in the Abacos to help to provide consistent energy for operating municipal water wells.
Solar panels have been installed in the Abacos to help to provide consistent energy for operating municipal water wells.

The HTU also is proposing a resilient utilities infrastructure to make Elbow Cay self-sustainable for energy and no longer dependent solely on an underwater power line to nearby Great Abaco Island.

The line was severely damaged in the storm and has yet to be replaced; Elbow Cay currently has limited power provided by Bahamas Power & Light from generators connected to a local power grid.

Winslow said the HTU is creating financial models that can be used by other communities damaged by climate change disasters.

Again, Covid slowed work on this project, but he's hopeful that major progress will be made in the next year.

The HTU's Homes for Hope program, in partnership with international architects, engineers and construction companies, is building homes for those in need that will feature the authentic Bahamian cottage design.

"The first phase begins with five homes, each with a solid concrete core and shell to withstand hurricanes. We've begun work on the first home for an 82-year-old, seventh-generation resident of Hope Town," Winslow said.

Another immediate response came from Water Mission, an engineering nonprofit that builds safe water, sanitation and hygiene systems in disaster areas and developing countries.

"There was water everywhere from the flooding, but none of it was safe. Our team worked to stabilize water sources to make it clean and safe to drink. We then shifted to sustainable, long-term solutions to strengthen critical water systems," a spokesman said.

In the past year Water Mission, funded by grants from Unicef and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, constructed in the Abacos one of the largest solar facilities in the Bahamas as well as rain catchment systems to provide clean water in schools and consistent energy to operate municipal water wells.

A memorial on Grand Bahama Island to the 31 lives lost there to Dorian.
A memorial on Grand Bahama Island to the 31 lives lost there to Dorian.

Progress on Grand Bahama

Grand Bahama's east end suffered destruction and loss of life, as well, from Dorian.

In July the Grand Bahama Port Authority unveiled a memorial in the shape of a large cross at the Sir Jack Hayward Bridge, which spans the Grand Lucayan Waterway connecting East Grand Bahama with the island's main city, Freeport.

The memorial honors the 31 lives lost there to Dorian. The names of the victims are etched on a plaque at the base of the cross.

A wreath-laying ceremony in memory of the lives lost and those still missing took place at the memorial on Sept. 1 to mark the first anniversary of Dorian. Strict restrictions on public gatherings due to Covid limited attendance at the event, although it was livestreamed and recorded.

Close to 5,000 homes were flooded on the eastern end of the island, and power was knocked out on much of the rest, but progress in the intervening year includes the completion of solar power projects on the east end and the repairing of roads damaged by storm surges.

A poster and decal to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Dorian making landfall on the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island.
A poster and decal to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Dorian making landfall on the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island.

The rebuilding of homes is ongoing, and many hotels have reopened.

Close to 1,625 rooms currently are available on Grand Bahama, not including vacation rentals. The number matches what was in inventory pre-Dorian, according to Carmel Churchill, a marketing consultant for the tourist board.

Contracts have been awarded and money allocated to rebuild 15 schools on Grand Bahama, redevelop Rand Memorial Hospital and rebuild Grand Bahama Airport.

As Minnis said in his speech to the nation, "It will take many years for all to be restored. We will build back better, but it will take time. We are facing the challenges left behind by Dorian and those that Covid presents at the same time, but our people are not defeated. Dorian did not defeat us and neither will Covid."

Travelers headed to the Bahamas must present results of a negative Covid-19 test taken no more than five days prior to arrival, apply for a Bahamas Health Visa at travel.gov.bs and quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Masks are required when in public.

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