THE WASHINGTON POST – Tip Burrows dropped a low-grade expletive when she saw the beach by Banana Bay Restaurant, on the south side of Grand Bahama Island.
“Wow!” said the islander, peering into a freshly carved trench. “That wasn’t here before.”
Nearly two months after Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Tip, who runs the Humane Society of Grand Bahama, was still discovering new evidence of destruction. On this mid-October afternoon, she had unearthed an inlet on Fortune Beach. As if that weren’t alarming enough, the storm surge that had swept away a section of the beach had not come from the ocean lapping at Fortune’s feet. It had traversed the island from the north and pushed the sand out to sea like a scene from an eco-horror film.
“We lost two feet of beach,” said Danilo Rulli, the restaurant’s owner, “but it will slowly come back.”
And so will the Bahamas, at possibly an even faster clip than Mother Nature.
“We’re going to bring the sparkle back to Grand Bahama,” said Steven Johnson, an official with the Grand Bahama Tourism Office who is already working on new initiatives, such as expanding the West End as a seafood destination.
To be sure, Dorian was devastating. The strongest storm ever to strike the Bahamas caused at least 65 deaths and damaged or destroyed more than 13,000 homes on Grand Bahama Island and the Abaco Islands, both in the upper reaches of the 500-mile-long archipelago. Economic loss could rise to USD7 billion, more than half of the country’s gross national product. But the Bahamas are moving forward – rebuilding homes, reopening businesses, and restoring the spirit of the islands and its people.
“We’ll be back bigger and better than before,” exclaimed a resident who lives in the East End, the hardest-hit area on Grand Bahama Island.
The Bahamas can soon breathe a tiny sigh of relief. Hurricane season ends November 30, and the tourism high season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April, is just around the bend. While recovery efforts proceed, the country has started singing a refrain common among destinations rebounding from a natural disaster: If you want to help, come visit. Money spent on a vacation is a direct deposit to the country’s economy. Plus, you can show the islanders that the world cares, that you care. Is a trip to a hurricane-ravaged destination easy? Not always. Is it gratifying? Absolutely.
When we say Dorian hit the Bahamas, we need to add a qualifier. The hurricane didn’t pummel the entire country, only the top portion of the 700-island archipelago – specifically, Grand Bahama Island and the Abaco Islands.
To clear up the confusion, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation unveiled a campaign a week after the hurricane highlighting the 14 islands that were unaffected by the storm. It assured travellers that airports, cruise ports, hotels and attractions were open. To further entice visitors, it listed deals and incentives on its website. Individual hotels and the islands’ tourism boards also spread the message through special promotions and hurricane-related programs, such as Baha Mar’s Pack With Love. Guests staying at any of the chain’s three resorts in Nassau can help assemble parcels of supplies bound for the neighbouring islands. They can also distribute goods at Nassau shelters housing evacuees, or simply drop the items in donation boxes set up in the lobbies.
The information from the Bahamas travel industry is useful if you want to soak up the sun on any of the 14 unaffected islands. However, I wanted to travel to the other two. One, I learned after some pre-departure and on-site research, was ready for me and other low-maintenance travellers; the other was not.
“The airport is running on a generator. The water is back on in Marsh Harbour, but it’s trickling in slowly and is not consistent,” Patricia Clarke, who works at the Leonard M Thompson International Airport on Marsh Harbour in the Abacos, told me. “It’s going to be a long, long time before we come back.”
Patricia is the mother of De’yanza Hanna, a veterinarian with the Bahamas’ Department of Agriculture who helps out at the Humane Society. De’yanza put her on speakerphone while I was visiting the shelter. She confirmed my suspicions: The Abacos are still nose-deep in recovery efforts. Parts of Great and Little Abaco, the two main islands, plus the smaller cays, still lack electricity and running water. The few hotels fit to open their doors are housing relief workers. For now, the concept of “helping through visiting” does not apply.
The situation is much less dire on Grand Bahama Island. The island, home of Freeport, the country’s second-largest city, is quickly hitting its goals. The majority of its hotel rooms – more than 1,200 out of 1,670 – are welcoming guests. Carnival Cruise returned on October 13 and will sail to Freeport nearly 40 more times before the new year. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has resumed its infinity loop of two-night cruises from West Palm Beach, Florida; Balearia is ferrying passengers to and from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Most of the beaches are open, especially around the main tourist areas of Freeport and Lucaya. All but the zip-line is operating at Pirate’s Cove Zipline and Waterpark; the adventure park is just waiting for an official to test the ride’s safety. At Crystal Beach, the 22 pigs are back in the water, porcine-paddling for apple slices. And on a recent Saturday night at Port Lucaya Marketplace, visitors and residents crammed into the warren of restaurants and bars. I had to wait in line for a drink at Blu – with pleasure.
I did encounter a few stumbling blocks – some foreseen, others surprising. For instance, only domestic flights can land at the Freeport airport, so international travellers must fly to Nassau and catch a connecting flight on Western Air or Bahamasair, the regional carriers. (Officials say international air service will start Nov. 15.) To avoid the multi-flight hop, I flew to West Palm Beach and booked a cabin on the Grand Celebration, a Bahamas Paradise ship. The one-way trip was 14 hours longer than the flight, but I easily passed the time eating, salsa dancing and grimacing at the twerking contest.
To spend more time on the island than the ship’s allotted eight hours, I booked the cruise-and-stay option, which included two nights at the Lighthouse Pointe at Grand Lucayan. When I checked in at the terminal, the employee told me the hotel was closed. Her colleague concurred. When I showed them my reservation, they shot me a concerned look that read: Hope you brought a beach blanket and pillow as backup.
The hotel was indeed open, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. There was no air conditioning. No fans, either, except for the giant propeller that blasted hot, humid air at me every time I crossed through the lobby. My room was on the ground floor, so I couldn’t keep the porch door open. Instead, I sat on my bed and stared hard at the ocean, trying to cool off through visualization. (A Florida firefighter who was helping repair a church told me the Pelican Bay Hotel, a few steps away, had air conditioning. He was ready to throw down the extra USD30 a night to escape the heat.)
I also unexpectedly swallowed a mouthful of Dorian. The storm surge had penetrated the aquifers, contaminating the water with a high level of salt. I learned about the water issue only after drinking a glass of water from the bathroom sink; it tasted like a shaker’s worth of Morton. To avoid another salty sip, I marched back to the lobby and filled my arms with bottled water. Thankfully, the resort is all-inclusive.
“Hello! Can I get you some cold water? You want a food bag? Do you have a kitty cat?” shouted Cheryl Waugh at a man crouching in the door frame of a hollowed-out home. The young islander approached Cheryl, who was standing by the back of her pickup truck. She reached into a teetering mound of supplies that, with one ill-placed tug, seemed poised to topple over. Unfazed, she started handing the man rice packets, baby wipes, cheese crackers, toilet paper and water chilled on ice. Cold water was a luxury. She gave the man an extra bottle.
Since mid-September, Cheryl has been picking up passengers from Grand Celebration who had chosen volunteering as their shore excursion. (The cruise line ended the programme on October 22.) Three of us signed up. Cheryl referred to us as MAM, or Mat-Andrea-Melanie.
“This to me is a really good reason to be here,” said Mat Everhart, “even if it’s just for one day.”
The married Pennsylvania couple, who own a timeshare on the island, last visited in July. Their love for the country was apparent: Mat said he almost quit his job as a chef to assist with recovery efforts, and Melanie sported a tattoo of the Bahamas tourism logo. A heart marked the spot we were driving through.
Cheryl had a long list of jobs she wanted us to complete before the two Ms had to sail back to Florida. We started at the Humane Society, where we dropped off shoes and clothing for the staff. The women held up the jeans to their waists, eyeballing the sizes. The men strapped the empty backpacks on their backs, modeling for each other. We next drove to a warehouse run by CrossReach, which has been providing groceries to low-income families for 20 years. Sundries covered every inch of space. The group has distributed more than 6,000 meal bags since the hurricane.
“We’ve literally done 10 years of distribution in six weeks,” said Steve Crane, a team leader.
At the Garden of the Groves, a botanical attraction with birds, butterflies, trails and a cafe, we met Wayne Hall, who manages the aquaponics farm. His boss, Erika Gates, also owns Grand Bahama Nature Tours, which operates bike, Jeep, ATV, kayaking and birding tours. Before Dorian, many of her excursions included a stop at the garden for shopping and lunch. However, until the property reopens on December 1, she will send guests on bikes and ATVs to Banana Bay Restaurant instead. Erika also had to alter the Lucayan National Park kayak and nature tour while park staff restore access to Gold Rock Beach, and she suspended the perfume tour.
Wayne lost a greenhouse, 20,000 plants and all but seven of his 4,000 tilapia. Make that five: Birds swooped in and ate two. To help Wayne, we donned work gloves and cleaned out a storage building swamped by five feet of water. Many seeds in the germination room survived. Ever hopeful, Wayne said he expects to have baby greens by Thanksgiving.
For the remainder of the afternoon, we drove around the East End, doling out supplies house by tent by house. The mountain of goods dwindled to nothing. We popped over to Smith’s Point, which hosts the Wednesday night fish fry, and ordered a round of drinks. Next door, a wedding party streamed out of a church. Life, and love, goes on.
I stood between the spooners and the loaders, ready with a pair of pink towels.
My job that morning was to help pack up the 18,000 to 20,000 meals prepared daily by World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit established by Washington, DC, chef José Andrés. The assembly line started to my right. Two women in hairnets transferred rice and meat from coolers into large aluminium pans. Another volunteer placed the tops on the containers. Then I was up, sealing the lid and pressing the corners so the covers didn’t fly off during transport. Speed was important, but so was safety. I was frequently warned of the sharp edges and reminded to use the towels.
I didn’t need any food service experience to volunteer at the kitchen, nor did I have to undergo any training. I just showed up one morning and was handed a pair of disposable gloves. I learned about lids – and the operation – on the fly. Some volunteers spend all day at the site, churning out the twice-daily meals that churches will pick up and deliver around the island. I stopped at the 200th meal, a nice, round, fulfilling number.
The Humane Society also accepts volunteers. Until the centre starts to rebuild its facility later this year, its most pressing need is for visitors to play with the animals: cats, dogs and two piglets. In addition, guests can check out a dog for a hike or beach jaunt.
On my first visit to the shelter, I met Lily, a border collie mix discovered roaming around the East End. The staff did not know whether she was a stray or belonged to family. They posted her photo on the centre’s Facebook page, praying for a reunion. A day later, no one had claimed her. So I did – for an hour. I put Lily in my car and drove to Taino Beach. We watched two men set up beach chairs and cooled our ankles in the surf. At Tony Macaroni’s Conch Experience, a seafood shack, I waved and Lily barked at an employee.
As I wiped the sand off Lily’s paws, I updated my feelings about walks on the beach. Seaside strolls are always better with a dog, but they’re even more magical when the beach happens to be on Grand Bahama Island and the dog is a hurricane survivor.