Growing up in The Bahamas, you are no stranger to hurricane stories. Every generation has one. One could say that telling stories about hurricanes is as much a part of our culture as the hurricanes themselves.
Our parents could tell you the story of Hurricane Andrew. How, in the late summer months of 1992, this category 5 storm was the most powerful and destructive hurricane they had seen.
Following every major hurricane that came to our shores uninvited and intentional, Bahamians seem to pick up the pieces and return to life as normal. Even on islands like Grand Bahama and Abaco, which were flattened by Hurricanes Matthew and Floyd some few years ago, our people were still resilient, still hopeful.
Now, this generation has a story to tell.
Forecasted as a category 2, Hurricane Dorian was projected to steer north of Grand Bahama and Abaco. Bahamasair, the national flag carrier, was preparing for the per usual “heavy travel” during the United States’ Labor Day weekend, but as Hurricane Dorian drew near flight schedules changed.
Bahamasair joined the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in evacuating those islands and cays that were predicted to be in Dorian’s path. Despite the fact, most Bahamians underrated the storm and opted to stay, particularly in Grand Bahama, Abaco, and the surrounding cays.
Having lived in Marsh Harbour, Abaco for 13 years, Felicia Johnson had only prepared to be cooped up in their apartment for a couple of hours. Most residents did not believe that the island would be in Hurricane Dorian’s direct path or, at the very least, be so catastrophic.
“I thought it would be like other storms because I rode out (Hurricane) Andrew in Eleuthera and Andrew was a category 4. We lived through a lot of storms and hurricanes, and we came through without the amount of damage that Dorian did,” Johnson said.
As quickly as Dorian traveled across the warm Atlantic Ocean as did it grow, packing gusts of over 200 mph when it arrived in Grand Bahama. For 24 dreadful hours, Hurricane Dorian hovered over the island bringing with it heavy rainfall and up to 20 feet in storm surge.
Throughout the Bahama Islands, social media was buzzing with posts and videos of people treading the storm. Neighbors rescuing neighbors. Families arm in arms atop of roofs. Homes and businesses flatten or swept to sea. In this story, the first responders were not men in uniforms, but rather plain-clothed civilians on jet skis and in small boats, pulling survivors from their homes.
Before leaving these islands on a snail’s back, it was apparent that Hurricane Dorian would be the worst natural disaster in Bahamian history.
With electricity and the majority of phone lines down, Johnson was fortunate to call her
supervisor, Rachel Mortimer, in the unscathed capital of Nassau. As the Leonard Thompson International Airport runway in Marsh Harbour, Abaco was littered with debris, Mortimer and the Bahamasair team arranged transportation to Treasure Cay, and safe evacuation some four days later.
With just the clothes she was wearing, Johnson joined 120 other passengers onboard one of three flights to Nassau that day. In total, Bahamasair rescued 3,260 people from Grand Bahama and Abaco onboard 22 ATR aircraft and 16 Boeing 737 jets. With each trip, Bahamasair planes were stocked with food, water, clothing and supplies that were distributed to the people there.
As news of Dorian’s destruction began to circulate the world, the global community stepped into immediate action, offering donations from as far as China and as near as Jacksonville, Florida to more than 17,000 displaced islanders. Celebrities like actress Reese Witherspoon, recording artists Lenny Kravitz, Sean 'Diddy' Combs, and Keri Hilson took to social media to offer condolences and use their influence to encourage their fans to donate to charities.
Bahamasair’s Senior Manager, Woodrow “Woody” Wilson, who is stationed at the airline’s Florida office, saw firsthand the immediate outpouring of support for The Bahamas as he coordinated the hurricane relief efforts there with the help of Floridians.
Wilson described the “amazing” encounters he had while in Orlando, including seeing store signs and billboards pledged commitment to “help our brothers and sisters in The Bahamas,” including the local Publix, where there were flyers at check out, asking shoppers to donate to a hurricane relief fund.
“Where ever I went there was some effort. Someone was doing something to try to help.
Churches, businesses—everyone wanted to chip in,” Wilson said.
In the weeks after Hurricane Dorian, Wilson and his team stocked 40 pallets of food, water, clothing, and other essentials into thirty 50-foot trailers, shipping them from Florida to Nassau for displaced families living throughout the country and in shelters in Nassau.
It has been months since the hurricane forced Johnson out of Abaco. She lives with a friend as she adjusts to “the city life” and works at the Customer Service desk for Bahamasair in Nassau.
“I didn’t even know her that well and she opened up her doors, and I’m so grateful,” she said.
Johnson also expressed gratitude to the strangers, co-workers, unionists, and friends, who donated clothing, food and other living essentials from the time she stepped off of that Bahamasair flight until today.
International and local humanitarian groups and medical teams have treated the sick and injured and assisted residents that chose to stay in disaster zones. Although the Bahamian Government has received millions in monetary donations, it is estimated that it will be years before the nation’s second and third most populated islands will return to its former economic standing.
The sustainability of the Bahamian economy is dependent on tourism, especially from North America. While Bahamasair continues to close the gap with flights from the U.S. and Europe to Nassau, the airline's Managing Director, Tracy Cooper, is hopeful that when the Grand Bahama and Abaco international channels are reopened in late 2019 it softens the economic blow on the nation's tourism product.
Cooper said, "Right after the hurricane and even up until today we've been able to maintain the leverage between Nassau and the two islands. The Government is moving expeditiously to open up the gates to the United States, and Bahamasair and the communities for both of these islands' strategy is to get those commercial routes back as soon as we can."
For Bahamasair, the infrastructural repairs and humanitarian aid are as important to both islands as it is for the airline to replicate the "best strength" of the Bahamian people. Cooper reaffirmed the airline’s commitment to give the best service to all the islands of The Bahamas.
The devastation of Hurricane Dorian was eclipsed by the best strength of the human race, proving that love, selflessness, and generosity is still prevalent. This generation’s story of Hurricane Dorian was championed by the fast-acting mobilization of local and international groups and individuals, those that live and have vacationed here or have not, that prayed for the missing, the injured and homeless, and who gave when our people had lost so much.
Together, we are moving forward, and we are still resilient. We are still hopeful. Moreover, we are grateful.