Humanitarian

Paradise Destroyed: On The Abaco Islands After Hurricane Dorian

A former Royal Marine who has just returned from the Bahamas gives an eye-witness account of the situation after Hurricane Dorian.

Article by former Royal Marine Richard White, who accompanied Forces News reporter Sian Grzeszczyk to the devastated Abaco Islands.

As we approach the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, our turboprop plane is buffeted by turbulence. We are flying through the edge of Tropical Storm Humberto. Lightning flashes to the side and below. 

Finally, Great Abaco appears beneath us. The sea and reefs around it are beautiful shades of blue-green.

On Google Earth, the island is a lush verdant green. Now from the air, it appears brown.

The vegetation in places has been stripped by either wind or water.

The main terminal of the Leonard M Thompson International Airport is intact but buildings have collapsed all around it. The terminal has no running water and customs is chaotic. An official writes our names in a book.

Outside, in the car park, carnage surrounds us. Cars upside down, rolled over, windscreens smashed. Trees lie strewn around. Some taxis are running but they all have impact damage.

We are met by Team Rubicon. They drive us to Treasure Cay, 45 minutes north of the airport. Punctures are daily occurrences, they tell us. The roads are littered with nails and other debris. There is almost no traffic on the S C Bootle Highway, Abaco’s main trunk road.

To either side of the road, some trees remain standing, many are flattened.

All have been stripped bare of foliage. The palm fonds are not just lying on the ground, they are gone, washed away by the tidal surge that swept across much of the island or simply blown away by the 185 mph winds.

I think of a windy day in Cornwall with maybe 60 mph winds. That is bad enough. These winds were three times that. I cannot imagine that.

As we approach the luxury tourist resort of Treasure Cay, a few security guards man the entry barrier, still carrying out their roles despite the resort having no tourists. The only people they are keeping out now are other Bahamians.

Inside the resort, the charity aid organisation Team Rubicon have set up an operating base in the local clinic. Outside the clinic, they have erected a 9x9 military tent as a makeshift kitchen. Inside are another charity, 'Heart to Heart International', with medical supplies.

Around the clinic, the trees lie smashed up at all angles. Many of the conventionally built nearby houses have withstood the hurricane.

We meet a man and his son driving a ‘procured’ golf buggy. "How else am I supposed to get around?", he asks us.

A Dutch Marines reconnaissance team arrives in some recce vehicles.

Dutch marines are slowly working their way up the island from the amphibious assault ship HNLMS Johan de Witt. They have been on the island for five days now.

Inside an emergency services building, the fire engine has its front cab raised in the air where it has been impacted by a beam as it caved in.

We drive to Marsh Harbour, the largest town on the Abaco Islands. The wide streets are deserted. The vegetation is stripped bare and most of the buildings are abandoned.

On a nearby hill, a bus lies on its side, overturned either by wind or water.

A man stops his car and asks if we can help him get to America.

Three more men approach. They look in their twenties. They ask where the help is. I tell them it has already been arriving and more is coming. It will improve over time. They are carrying hammers and shopping bags with things they have scavenged from deserted buildings. I feel relief as they walk away.

Most buildings are empty. The roofs have been blown off by the hurricane and the contents swept away by the storm surge. It is shocking how high the water must have come to reap this destruction.

We arrive at Central Abaco Primary School.

The school s now home to a troop of German Marines who were meant to be on exercise with the Dutch.

The German marines are stripping classrooms of water-damaged materials, which are put into a massive pile.

Their lieutenant tells us that nearby are full-sized shipping containers washed up by the storm surge from the port. That is over a kilometre away.

Outside the school, a makeshift sign says in capitals: 'WATER HERE'.

We drive to another part of town on the main street. The side streets are impassable to vehicles because of fallen power lines and trees. The occasional truck goes by. The clatter of helicopters passing over is frequent.  

There is no-one walking on the streets. It is surreal. It is like a giant film set from a disaster movie. Except it is real.

Officially 1,500 people are missing but the Bahamas Government can only estimate this as many Haitian’s were living there below the radar. Many people evacuated and are spread across the Bahamas either in official shelters or staying with families.

It is probable that the figure will be far higher than the 50 victims quoted by the government. The reality is that many people were possibly simply swept over the island by the storm surge and out to sea. We may never know the true toll.

At a National Emergency Management Agency press conference in Nassau earlier in the week, an official stated that the Abaco Islands would not be evacuated. Temporary accommodation would be built.

It feels that in Marsh Harbour, where Dorian hit hardest, most people have mostly already gone.

They either evacuated before the hurricane hit, survived the impact and then evacuated. Or did not survive the impact.

Finally, we return to the airport. People flying on the scheduled Bahamasair flight are mostly from aid agencies rotating through. A few locals are present. They have to show an identity document and pay a minimal fee and their names are added to the manifest in the officials’ book.

I ask the airline official which seats we should take on the aircraft. He says just sit anywhere.

Normality will one day return to this island but it will take years. The sheer brute force of a Category 5 hurricane strike on small low-lying islands remains one of nature’s most destructive forces.

More images below showing the extent of the devastation to the island's infrastructure: