FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA | Claudina Swann is searching for an object in the storm debris scattered around her backyard in the Bahamas.
“Something was here, and I was trying to, well, I don’t know,” she says in a perplexed voice. Maybe it’s part of a light pole. A wooden chest. A truck tire. Swann doesn’t really know what the object is. But she’s obsessed with finding it.
She says it saved her life and the lives of her two youngest children as they were being swept away last Monday during Hurricane Dorian.
Massive, powerful storm surge waters began rising to the ceiling in Swann’s house in Freeport, on Grand Bahama island, “and I had no other choice but to go on top of the roof – with my kids on my neck,” she says.
“But that water, that surge, was too strong. Almost over my head. I looked down and I was like, No, Lord, please help us, because if we go down, that’s it – we’re dead….” And then she halts her search for that object and begins sobbing.
For good reason. They could have been among the scores of people so far known dead in the Bahamas because of Dorian – or the estimated hundreds still missing. But underwater that object, whatever it was, passed just beneath Swann and her kids. And it lodged there, securely enough for her to leverage their rescue.
“I put my foot on it to push them up,” she says. “And I just fight, fight, fight, fight to get on top of the roof. I’ve never been through this in my life. Never had to go through this in my life.”
Thing is, this was hardly Swann’s first hurricane. She’s been through Jeanne and Frances. Wilma and Matthew. She says each seemed more powerful than the one before it. But Dorian was a monster she never imagined.
“Trust you me,” she says adamantly. “It was the worst of them all.”
It was indeed the worst recorded hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas. It packed wind gusts of 220 miles per hour – and it drove and dumped deadly volumes of water on Grand Bahama and Abaco islands.
Scientists say storms like that are becoming more common in hurricane seasons, thanks to global warming. And that means the Bahamas and the Caribbean will probably have to change how they prepare for, and respond to, tropical cyclones.
Father Stephen Grant agrees: “It’s a new ballgame for us. Brand new.”
Grant is the rector at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Freeport. He and parishioners spent last week delivering food and water to Dorian victims like Swann. Driving his church van along the route, Grant seemed to know where every miracle like hers had taken place – and where every tragedy had struck.
“This entire area was underwater,” he said entering one neighborhood. “All the houses. Y’know, persons in this area they lost everything. In that building, two persons there didn’t make it. The water came up to – well, they got trapped in there…”
Near Freeport Harbour Grant pointed to a vast limestone mining pit near that he and other residents argue may have helped the storm surge come through more easily.
“They dredged it out and widened it all the way up here,” he said. “So I think it was no difficulty for that water to come in. Some of that flooding is really due to a lot of error that we have made.”
The limestone company’s environmental impact study had actually insisted the project would help prevent dangerous storm surge. Either way, Bahamians like Grant say their country now can’t afford not to assess any errors that make their islands more vulnerable.
“I don’t think we have done that as a people, especially the authorities haven’t done that,” Grant argues. “We’re accustomed to the wind, but nothing like this flooding. A lot of my members, they lost everything, ‘cause the water was moving so quickly. We need to prepare the people – train the people how to deal with preparation, how to deal with the aftermath.”
As for preparation, Bahamians like Grant say that means, more than anything else: “To evacuate.”
Compared to South Florida and the U.S., people in the Bahamas and the Caribbean do not take that seriously enough. Yet it’s more important there – especially getting people off vulnerable tiny islands to main ones with shelters.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis did call for evacuation of smaller islands in the northern Bahamas as Dorian approached. It wasn’t enough. As a result, many are calling for heavier measures – including the president of the Bahamian Senate.
“I think we need to look at legislation for mandatory evacuation,” says Senator Katherine Smith. “I think that is absolutely necessary.”
Smith herself evacuated to Grand Bahama island. Last week she was at Freeport Harbour directing the unloading and distribution of food to Dorian victims, many of whom ignored the evacuation call.
“I don’t think anybody expected the outcome of this storm,” says Smith. “But people still have family members that are missing. We had a guy working with us yesterday who was walking through sewer to get to an abandoned building to his mother. So not just in the Bahamas but in the entire region we have to look at mandatory evacuation. I think that’s the first step.”
But hardly the only step. The Bahamas and many Caribbean countries have strengthened building codes in this century. Still, Dorian left no doubt there’s a litany of other infrastructure challenges ahead for low-lying islands like theirs.
Arguably the most urgent now is storm surge mitigation – safeguards like levees and watersheds. At the U.S. military’s Southern Command in Doral earlier this year, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Caribbean leaders to discuss stepping up those kinds of climate-change resilience efforts.
“Talking about disaster preparedness and resilience, this is about as big and inclusive and integrated a meeting as I’ve been involved in with our Caribbean partners and allies,” Sullivan said after the April gathering. The U.S. is looking to do this [Caribbean resilience work] because this is our neighborhood.”
In hurricane-battered neighborhoods like Swann’s, the immediate priority is relief for Dorian’s 70,000 beleaguered victims.
Swann, a single mom, is now surviving the storm’s aftermath. Her house in Freeport’s Hudson Estates district is a hollowed-out wreck; the back of it is a skeleton of lumber. Her family’s clothes are strewn across the front lawn still drying out in the tropical sun. And she’s frustrated by what she says has been a lack of Bahamian government presence on her street so far.
“We have no water, no light, no food, no nothing,” she says. “And we have, like, young kids to deal with, y’know?”
A week after the storm, that’s a common complaint among Bahamians on Grand Bahama – where Dorian sat for a full day if not longer – and especially Abaco island to the east, where the hurricane made its nightmarish landfall.
But the Bahamian government’s relatively scant resources were no match for Dorian. So as the new norm of hurricanes pounds the Caribbean, better U.S. and international relief coordination is a must.
One feature of that new coordination is the cruise ship industry. The Bahamas and the Caribbean are vital to the multi-billion-dollar success of cruise lines like Royal Caribbean. So they’re responding to calls to get more involved in hurricane relief.
Last week the Royal Caribbean ship Symphony of the Seas diverted its itinerary to take water and tens of thousands of meals to Freeport.
“This is, I think, just a part of a very multi-layered relationship that we have with the Caribbean,” said Russell Benford, Royal Caribbean’s government relations chief in the Americas.
“And I think when we can connect the needs of a country that’s been devastated by a storm with the resources that we have, I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned.”
Docked near his ship was another cruise liner, Bahamas Paradise’s Grand Celebration – with thousands of desperate Bahamians lined up hoping to be taken to Florida. Among them in the hot, loud and chaotic scene was Sophia Taylor – who like Swann had to swim through Dorian’s storm surge to survive.
“Everything’s totally demolished, totally demolished,” Taylor said of her home and business in the Holmes Rock district. “I got everything I own now tucked away in a Ziploc bag.”
She hoped to get to Pembroke Pines to stay with an uncle, then perhaps return to the Bahamas – but this time to Cat Island, which has the country’s highest elevation, far less vulnerable to the hurricane deluge that is to believed to have taken so many of her fellow Bahamians.
“I really just want to get out of here, take a bath and chill for a while if I can.”
Problem is, the new storms of the Caribbean aren’t likely to let these islands rest any time soon.