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Florida locals help Bahamians salvage their home after Hurricane Dorian

Max Chesnes
Treasure Coast Newspapers
Walton Sun

The photograph that emerged from the rubble depicts a woman standing next to a girl, who looks to be no older than 7 or 8.

The girl is wearing a bright white graduation cap with a red tassel dangling on the right side of her face. The woman beside her smiles with pride.

This photograph, now browned and withered along its edges from water damage, was one of only several personal items salvaged by volunteers from a home destroyed in September by Hurricane Dorian's 200 mph wind gusts and 12 feet of storm surge.

While the story behind the photograph is unknown, how it ended up beneath a pile of debris is a tale all too familiar with residents of Marsh Harbour, a town on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

An emotional recovery

For four months, some Treasure Coast residents have joined with volunteers from around the world to help clean up the mess left in the wake of the historically powerful storm.

The most recent official death toll in the Bahamas stands at 70 people, but Bahamian locals said they believe hundreds of undocumented residents, mostly immigrants from Haiti, are still unaccounted for or are missing.

Youth on a Mission, a Vero Beach service-based ministry, has raised $100,000 and spent 33 days in Marsh Harbour since the hurricane made landfall Sept. 1, said the group's director Richard Schlitt.

Forty volunteers from around the Treasure Coast, ranging from 18 to 68 years old, have worked on the ground with Bahamians and international organizations to rebuild homes, churches and schools, Schlitt said.

"We've moved into the rebuilding stage pretty quickly," Schlittt said Dec. 21 as he finished a week-long stay in Marsh Harbour, "I just see great things that are going to happen if people keep contributing and making time to go help."

The ministry group has worked alongside All Hands and Hearts Smart Response, an international nonprofit organization with volunteers from 144 countries. The non-governmental organization supplies relief to communities impacted by natural disasters, according to the organization.

Together, the two organizations established a base camp at Every Child Counts, a Marsh Harbour special needs school that experienced severe damage from the hurricane, Schlitt said.

Working out of the school, the groups have cleared debris, rebuilt and roofed homes and cleaned out moldy walls, he said.

"Most of the local people here are very supportive," Schlitt said. "They are all recovering emotionally and trying to fix their homes."

From the window of an airplane, what looks like hundreds of homes and buildings along Great Abaco Island are flattened from the storm's unprecedented wind and storm surge.

And on the ground, cars, boats and massive railroad containers lay strewn and battered across the island.

Over 120 days after the hurricane, it appears as if the storm could have blown through Marsh Harbour just hours ago.

But despite the extensive cleanup still needed, volunteers such as Liam Alabiso-Cahill are not daunted by the work ahead.

Alabiso-Cahill, 19, from Alberta, Canada, bought a one-way ticket to San Juan, Puerto Rico in January, 2018 and joined All Hands and Hearts after Hurricane Maria made landfall, he said.

When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas almost two years later, Alabiso-Cahill did not hesitate in joining the recovery, he said. He now lives out of the damaged school on the island with volunteers from South Africa, Ireland, England and at least nine other countries.

"I was in Puerto Rico when Dorian came through here, and it was really scary" Alabiso-Cahill said as he lifted a ceiling fan from a pile of debris and placed it in a rusted wheelbarrow behind him. "I just had to come and help."

To Alabiso-Cahill's right, volunteers were organizing a pile of personal items that emerged from the flattened home they were clearing.

Silverware, books and official documents were piled tightly together.

And in that pile was the photograph of a woman and a girl in her graduation cap.

Annihilation of 'The Mudd'

In March 2018, the Bahamian government announced plans to remove all "shantytowns" on Great Abaco Island.

For decades, Haitian immigrants have fled their home country and established new lives in these Marsh Harbour shanties, often makeshift communities with informal rows of wooden homes.

According to a 2013 report by the Bahamas Department of Environmental Health Services, Abaco housed one of the largest populations of Haitian immigrants in these shantytowns.

Of these communities, the two largest and most populated were in Marsh Harbour, dubbed "The Mudd" and "Pigeon Pea".

Citing fire hazards and dangerous living conditions, the Bahamas' Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister told the Bahamas Tribune in March 2018 "there is a complete plan to eradicate the country of shantytowns."

But before the government could step in and demolish these Marsh Harbour shanties, Hurricane Dorian did the job for them.

Jason Quashie, a minister at the South Abaco Church of Christ who works with Treasure Coast volunteers, brought his red minivan to a halt Dec. 21 in front of an empty plot of land.

What was once a bustling community of immigrants was now a fenced-off, vacant field.

The Mudd had been destroyed in the storm, Quashie said, and the government cleared out the debris quickly thereafter.

"It's always been public land," Quashie said, looking out of the window of the van at what used to be The Mudd. "And now the government has closed it off."

Even before the shantytown was destroyed, The Mudd was a politically contested region that often divided Haitian immigrants and Bahamians, Quashie said.

In January 2018, a Bahamian man set fire to 55 homes in the shantytown, displacing around 170 people. And even then, the Ministry of Public Work's response to the Mudd was to "fence that off, clear that up and create a green space" where the homes once stood, Bannister told the Bahamas Tribune in March 2018.

'Some days you are overwhelmed'

While some volunteers have traveled thousands of miles to assist in the post-Dorian cleanup, many All Hands and Hearts volunteers on the ground said the local response has been crucial in the return to Marsh Harbour's normalcy.

Cheri Rolle, 52, a single mother of four children, has volunteered to help feed her neighbors nearly every day since the storm destroyed her home in Dundas Town, a small region of Marsh Harbour, she said.

As her roof started to collapse above her, Rolle dragged her children out her bedroom window, she recalled. Everyone survived.

"We had to swim over to our neighbor's house," Rolle said. "Me and my kids got out with our lives, which we are grateful for."

Before the storm, Rolle worked as a food vendor in Marsh Harbour, she said. Because the recovery process has placed a temporary hold on her business, Rolle looked for a way to help others with the skills she used as a vendor.

Now, Rolle volunteers out of the Ministry of Education's Central Abaco Primary School, a makeshift food distribution center that services the Abaco island chain, she said. She has worked many 12-hour days supplying food to the hungry.

Rolle is just one example of many who take what they know, and use it to help others.

"That's one of the reasons I came here. Fitting in here is just normal for me," Rolle said, sitting in a plastic chair outside of the school building. "Some days you are good; some days you are overwhelmed. But all in all, you try to make the best with what you have to work with."

The Bahamian government moved swiftly after the storm to place over 50 mobile homes on the side of the Bahamas Government Complex to house government workers, and also created dormitories for the displaced, Rolle said.

Living arrangements also have been altered for Alison Scotney and her husband, James.

For the past 17 years, the couple from Cambridge, England has spent half of every year sailing throughout the southern Bahamas and living on their boat. Originally purchased in Stuart and towed over to the Bahamas, the sailboat lost its mast during the hurricane, Alison Scotney said.

"It's our second home," she said, pointing across the harbor to the damaged vessel anchored offshore. "And now it's got dents all over it."

Instead of sailing, the two have decided to help locals clean up their damaged homes.

"We usually go further south, but we won't be doing that this year," she said. "There's more important things to do. You feel like you're more helpful here."

Allison Scotney paused as she looked toward Mangoes Marina and Restaurant, an empty shell of what used to be a favorite dining spot she shared with her husband.

"It's hard to get your bearings. It's all gone," she sighed. "It's like the place has been nuked. It's just utter devastation."

A time to stand strong

George Charite, the medical director at Integrated Medical Centre in Marsh Harbour, travels over 100 miles to Nassau and back three times a week to pick up urgent medicine for his patients, he said.

"Our clinic was basically destroyed," Charite said.

Along with the clinic, the pharmacies he used were forced to close after the storm, Charite said. They are expected to be operational sometime this month.

Charite said he stuffs medicine such as insulin and blood pressure medication into his suitcase, making the journey to Marsh Harbour again and again.

"Anything that they need," Charite said. "They call me and they tell me they need it, and I just put it in the suitcase and bring it to them."

While grateful for the continued medical care and aid from international organizations, a sense of "home" is missing with most of Charite's patients, he said. Parents with children enrolled in schools feel they cannot return to the islands until the education system has reopened.

"A lot of people would like to come back here, but there's nowhere to go," Charite said. "Their home was destroyed."

Families pent up in makeshift shelters are also growing impatient, Charite said.

"They don't want to be there," he added. "They want to be back home."

In addition to physical care, a form of mental rebuilding was under way Dec. 21.

Inside the Central Abaco Primary School, children from around Marsh Harbour gathered for a community Christmas party.

The event, sponsored by several American organizations including Horses that Help, Live 360, the Mall at Wellington Green and Abaco Freight and Island Supply, gave children and parents an opportunity to unwind.

As kids danced to Christmas music and tossed footballs, adults gathered at picnic tables and ate a catered meal.

For the children who lost their homes and school, it was the perfect opportunity to boost morale and keep spirits high, said Rolle.

She said the islands are in need of more canned goods, water, and other non-perishable food items such as spaghetti. Monetary donations to credible organizations are also encouraged.

"This isn't a time to break down and to fall to pieces," Rolle said. "This is a time to stand strong and try to rebuild."

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm breaking news reporter for Indian River County. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes and give him a call at 772-978-2224.

This story originally published to tcpalm.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.