For donations to the recovery, this is a reliable campaign: http://bahamashurricanerelief.com/
This has been a challenging blog entry. I still feel a little unsettled and will do my best to capture our experience.
The storm has been exhausting. It snuck up on us, giving the islands only a few days to prepare. When it arrived, it was very slow-moving and stayed a while. And when it passed, the physical work that followed was more tiring than the mental work of getting through the storm.
Unbelievably, we had power and Internet at our house in Exuma for most of the time that Joaquin was hovering nearby. We continued business as usual and logged in to work on our normal schedule. By Monday, the stores and schools had closed, the roads were quiet, and it was either work or wait. It felt lonely. The wind outside was constant for three days, and it became mentally tolling. It was dark – at first because of the cloud cover, and later because we decided to put the storm shutters up.
And we were understandably anxious: neither of us (or anyone) could guess what the elements had in store. We listened to the boaters moored in Elizabeth Harbor over VHF radio, where they debated for hours about how much longer the hurricane would stay and how many miles it might crawl. A few of them took to the land for the worst parts of the storm. We also heard an eerie search call for El Faro, the ill-fated ship that proved to have been sunk with 33 crew members aboard.
When we started feeling that the worst had passed by Thursday, we relaxed. We had friends come over and play cards. On Friday, we went beachcombing, had beers and generally celebrated ourselves for outliving Joaquin.
Then rumors started trickling in about our neighbors 30 miles east: Long Island had been destroyed, deaths were in the double digits, our friends couldn’t contact their family members. And we realized that Facebook had indeed gotten quiet.
John theorized that the power had been out in most places, and people’s phones were dead. If your phone isn’t charged, you can’t post to Facebook or message anyone on WhatsApp. Or if your phone is charged, you could be suffering from a fault of the mobile pay-it-forward system: the cellular company here has a pre-pay system which allows you to stop in to most stores and “Top Up,” giving a few bucks in exchange for mobile minutes and data. If your pre-pay runs out, you’re stuck until you get to a store to Top Up. All the stores have surely been closed.
But hopeful theories aside, those aerial photos weren’t lying. We saw tiny planes going back and forth from Exuma that day (and we still are seeing them now that things have moved into a relief phase). In a place as small as the Bahamas, people could easily recognize which neighborhood the pictures depicted, and even whose home was underwater. The power lines were clearly downed, cell service was out of the question, and the airports were underwater.
Note: At this point I need to clearly state that others islands took a hard hit, too. The hurricane caused significant damage to Acklins Island, Crooked Island, Rum Cay, and San Salvador. Our experience was limited to Long Island because of our personal friendships and physical proximity.
On Sunday morning, the first flight out of Nassau delivered a group of Long Islanders to the closest open airport: Exuma International. We knew they were coming because our dear friend Graeme was with them and told us he was coming. We drove them to boats for the 90-minute ride.
I hadn’t really met these guys before, but they were the right guys to be sending down there. They had two satellite phones and extensive personal connections within and without the islands. I think that the earliest relief efforts, eyewitness assessments, and rally cries can be attributed to them. I would also give Outstanding Citizenship Awards to our friends who drove their personal boats to ferry survival supplies and people throughout that and the following days.
We went to Long Island the next day. I was worried about what I would see or how I could even help. Before leaving Exuma, people met us at the boat dock with clothing donations, cases of water, baby supplies, and best guesses on what would be helpful based on the reports. As with most experiences, the small things mean a lot: we had a cooler full of ice with us and kept a rotation of water bottles going. This allowed us to hand cold water to people who hadn’t had anything cold in 5 days and it was received as treasure. (Remember that it’s still over 80° here.) I’ll let the pictures do a lot of the talking from here, but some final thoughts:
- Even in the worst times, I have to truly commend how resilient the people here are. They are able to smile and appreciate their safety in the face of lost homes. You will even hear some jokes and happiness when they recount the stories. My favorite is about a family (including Gramps) who stayed in a tree for 6 hours to avoid rushing flood waters amid 90mph+ winds. Evidently the 90 year old thought the whole thing was pretty exciting while up there… and the family thinks it’s a great story!
- When I posted some pictures of our trip to a public group on Facebook, I didn’t realize that a poorly cropped photo would reveal that someone’s mother was ok. And I didn’t realize that a blurry shot would give someone relief to see that their family survived. If I could do it over, I would take a picture of every face I saw and post them for their families.
- The rumors were horrible and largely unfounded. It’s a miracle, but I think that only one life was lost in Long Island. The importance of staying calm and verifying information cannot be understated when people are fearing for their families.
- Long Islanders are exceptional at living off of the land: Unfortunately, the flooding has contaminated the wells, and the storm tore apart farms. I truly hope that whatever the recovery efforts bring, it does not change the strong relationship that they have with their environment. Or with each other! This is an incredible community.
- It’s really impressive how effectively Exuma was able to assist those less fortunate from the hurricane. The airport here was used as a jumping ground to the impacted islands, and Exumians collected and delivered supplies to be loaded onto the planes. Using Facebook, information was able to spread quickly and people could see the impact they were making. We were put here to be helpful.
Finally, there is a confusing flurry of ways to donate to the short and long-term recovery efforts. I would suggest this one: http://bahamashurricanerelief.com/
Funds raised here will go to the Long Islanders Association, which is a responsible organization and will also share the funds with the other severely impacted islands.