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'I don't feel like we're making any progress': 6 months after Hurricane Dorian, Bahamas struggles to rebuild

Canadian charity GlobalMedic is spearheading efforts to get Bahamians working, homes back in liveable condition.

Six months after powerful hurricane levelled Bahamas, in places it still looks like it just hit 

The National went to the Bahamas to see the challenges it faces rebuilding six months after the destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian. 10:18

Ten minutes away from the restored and gleaming cruise ship terminals on Grand Bahama island, just beyond the multi-millionaires' beach compounds, is the real Bahamas — and it lies in ruins.

It's six months since Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the island nation, snapping trees, gutting homes, shearing exterior walls and roofs clean off. Along with the catastrophic winds, surging waves hammered cars through buildings, and emptied schools of desks and chairs and pretty much everything else.

Bahamian authorities officially reported 76 dead as a result of Dorian's wrath. But nearly that many have been missed from some individual communities, with the belief by many aid and other organizations that the true death toll is more likely counted in four figures. Hundreds of Haitian migrants lived next to the sea when the hurricane hit, for instance, and many are unaccounted for but, without status in the country, their deaths have not been included in the official national tally.

While the streets have been cleared of debris, thousands of homes remain uninhabitable. Power crews continue to restore electrical service, and roofers have years of work ahead of them.

"What do people do? They have nowhere to come back to," says Bishop Silbert Mills, on the hardest hit island of Great Abaco. 

"When they do come, there is nothing."

Great Abaco's recovery from the destruction of Hurricane Dorian has been slow, and while streets have been cleared of debris, badly damaged buildings and piles of rubble can still be seen six months after the storm. (David Common/CBC)

Mills's own church was a sanctuary for more than 200 people. First as powerful winds battered the windowless building during the storm, and then for nearly a week as supplies dwindled and food rationing became a necessity, with the community waiting for two metres of floodwater to recede back into the ocean.

For several days after the storm, water cascaded into homes of Great Abaco. On neighbouring Grand Bahama island, 80 per cent of the island was covered in water.

That wiped out business, and with it the source of most of the jobs on both Abaco and Grand Bahama.

Bishop Silbert Mills, on the hardest hit island of Great Abaco, lost his pizza business to Hurricane Dorian. He still runs his gospel radio station, but broadcasts out of a trailer he now lives in with his brother. (David Common/CBC)

"On Sept. 1 when I woke up, my pizza operation was worth half a million dollars," says Bishop Mills. "After Dorian, it was reduced to vacant land."

He didn't have insurance and does not expect to ever have the money to rebuild that business. He's running his other business, a gospel radio station, out of a trailer he now lives in with his brother. 

WATCH | Bishop Silbert Mills describes the effort to sort through the wreckage left behind by Dorian:

The Canadian charity GlobalMedic used donations to hire local people to fix the boats damaged by Hurricane Dorian in the fishing community of McLean's Town, Bahamas. 0:10

While the uber-wealthy who inhabit lesser-hit Bahamian islands have insurance for their expansive palatial quarters, most Bahamians do not.

"It is extremely expensive," explains contractor Darren Cooper. "It can go anywhere monthly from about $600 US to $10,000."

Already, Bahamians were suffering from job and income losses after Hurricane Matthew caused destruction in 2016. Many stopped paying insurance because they simply couldn't afford it. Then came Dorian in 2019, causing even more loss.

The result is that many Bahamians have simply left the most affected areas, moving with their kids to other islands where schools are still operational — and sometimes as far as the U.S. and Canada.

But that requires friends or money, or both.

"We stayed here because we couldn't afford to go anyplace else," Ronique Adderley says.

The lower half of the walls in Ronique Adderley's home on Grand Bahama have been newly dry-walled due to water damage from Hurricane Dorian. (David Common/CBC)

Her father has just replaced the waterlogged drywall in her modest home.

Her family has had to rely on charities for mould removal and to provide building materials. Government officials, she says, have been absent since the storm.

National efforts and resources have focused on rapid recovery in the country's tourist hotspots, in order to kickstart the top driver of the Bahamian economy.

"I don't feel like we're making any progress really, especially not from the government," Adderley says, referring to recovery efforts outside the tourist centres. "Thanks, though, to NGOs and private entities from all around the world who are assisting us."

A car and home damaged by Hurricane Dorian show the extent of the damage to the island of Great Abaco even six months after the storm. (David Common/CBC)

One of those non-governmental organizations is Canada's GlobalMedic, which arrived in the days immediately following the storm to provide emergency services. 

The group wanted to continue helping with the economic impact of the storm in the weeks following Dorian's punch, so after the initial emergency relief efforts, it went looking for projects that would help Bahamians get back into their homes and back to work.

"We operate on a model of the right aid to the right people at the right time," says the group's leader in The Bahamas, Jowett Wong. "So past that [initial] point where people need immediate food and water, they need a livelihood."

A team of workers removes drywall from a home on Grand Bahama damaged by the flooding. (David Common/CBC)

Partnering with the local Rotary Club, GlobalMedic has created jobs for 45 people, hiring teams to remove contaminated materials from homes.

In many cases, families have been unable to return to their homes after Dorian, due in part to structural damage, but often because of mould that rapidly developed in the weeks following the hurricane in the structures that were still serviceable.

"It's a lingering threat," says Wong. 

"We're giving people … something to hang on to their livelihoods, a safe place to come home to, and a way to earn money."

GlobalMedic's Jowett Wong says helping people restore their livelihoods is a crucial part of disaster recovery. (David Common/CBC)

Removing mould is a tedious and messy process, with the team able to clear up to 12 homes a day in Freeport, the largest city on Grand Bahama.

It involves bashing out drywall, and removing mattresses, furniture, clothing — absolutely anything that was covered by the storm surge.

A worker in protective gear uses a power tool to carefully clean away mould from a building's wooden framework after the water-damaged drywall was removed. (David Common/CBC)

At the other end of the island is another GlobalMedic project to help McLean's Town return to being a fishing village. Not just for sustenance, but for the recovery of the local economy too, where dozens of fishing guides have for years led small groups of tourists through lucrative fishing spots.

One of those guides is Joseph Thomas, who heads up the local effort to repair the community's remaining vessels.

"This community is 80 per cent fishermen," he told us while repairing holes in boats damaged by the storm. "Can you see why this project is so needed and helpful? That's what they need to make a living to feed their family."

A team funded by GlobalMedic repairs boats damaged by Hurricane Dorian. (David Common/CBC)

The boats he works on suffered punctures, hull and floor damage after being thrown into mangroves, trees and buildings by Hurricane Dorian. Fisherman are now hauling them to Thomas and his small Canadian-funded crew to repair.

The town is a shell of its former self. While 200 people once lived here, today only 15 can spend the night. The rest still have no permanent shelter, or are bunking with friends and family outside the community.

Thomas lived in a tent for months after the storm. Now he's back inside his damaged home, restoring one room at a time with money he earns repairing boats.

Phil Thomas, left, points to a local school that was badly damaged by Hurricane Dorian. (David Common/CBC)

Philip Thomas owned five boats before the storm hit. He has been waiting for repairs to one of them, and still doesn't know where some of the others ended up after the storm.

"It's important for me because it's my livelihood, and it's important that I continue to make a living to sustain my family and try to get my house repaired."

He plans to use the first repaired vessel to take clients fishing, including the many who arrive by cruise ship and seek a day's adventure. 

While Thomas is excited to be back out on the water, he's still struggling with a major loss. His adult son died in the storm after rescuing his wife from the water, and while trying to rescue his three young children. All four died. 

"It's hard to keep going, but if I stop, then I think it will be even harder, because my mind will continue to dwell on what has happened," Thomas says.

WATCH | Residents of fishing community of McLean's Town fix boats wrecked by Hurricane Dorian:

CBC's David Common talks to Bishop Silbert Mills from Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, about the clean-up efforts after Hurricane Dorian. 0:17

 

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