MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas >> No schools. No banks. No gas stations. No supermarkets. No restaurants. No churches. No pharmacies. No hardware stores. No water, no electricity and no phone lines.
In this part of the Bahamas, nearly everything is gone.
Hurricane Dorian didn’t just upend life in Marsh Harbour, the biggest town in the Abaco Islands. Dorian crushed it, stripping all essentials, schedules and routines — everything residents and visitors had taken for granted.
And there’s no sense when those things might be restored.
Five days after the storm struck the northern end of the Bahamas, the total death toll remains unknown, but fears abound that it will be far higher than the 30 confirmed as of Friday. Many people were still missing. By some estimates Dorian did at least $7 billion in damage.
Tens of thousands of traumatized survivors, with nothing but wreckage encircling them and no way to communicate, do not even know where to begin. In the Abacos, they simply had to start by leaving.
“This ain’t no place for anyone at the moment,” said Durana Francis, 35, a cook who, like most other residents, was trying to flee.
The storm’s blast across the Abacos on Sunday damaged the vast majority of structures, erased entire neighborhoods and effectively rendered many residents homeless.
Hundreds of people swarmed Marsh Harbour’s wharf at the port Friday after having heard rumors that ferryboats would arrive to evacuate people. Many others thronged the airport terminal, hoping to land a seat on private flights, which began arriving Thursday after floodwaters had receded from the tarmac. As of Friday, commercial service in Marsh Harbour had not resumed, residents said.
Renaldo Bowleg, 37, who worked as a charter boat captain before the storm, passed by Marsh Harbour’s wharf after hearing about a possible humanitarian ferry to Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. He had his two pit bulls and was hoping to secure space for the three of them.
“I was going to stay and volunteer, but it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I just feel it best to be closer to extraction points right now. People are becoming more desperate now.”
Bowleg was carrying an unlit cigar, a gift from a police officer he had encountered in the street a couple of days after the storm. Bowleg wasn’t a smoker but said the occasion would make him one.
“If I get on a boat I’m going to light this,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy it on my ride back to Nassau.”
The larger and more populated Grand Bahama Island also took a direct hit from Dorian, leaving some areas destroyed and survivors stupefied. Surrounded by wreckage, many wondered how they could meet their most basic needs.
In Lady Lake, a ravaged neighborhood near Freeport, Grand Bahama’s largest city, the yard of Nicole Sweeting-Bain’s gutted, one-story home was littered with the shredded remnants of what had been inside. A large Bahamanian flag was the only recognizable object. Whether to salvage and rebuild was the last thing on her mind.
“I don’t even care about the house,” she said, scrambling through the rubble in an attempt to find anything still intact. “My kids don’t have underwear.”
Her brother, Sean, 51, who shared the house, said there was no option but to relocate. “Home is home,” he said, “but in this particular area, I don’t think so.”
Other Dorian victims, in Grand Bahama, said they would rebuild.
O’Neil Wildgoose, 43, said he, his wife and their dog spent two days on the roof of their home in Freeport’s Lincoln Green neighborhood, ravaged by a 12-foot storm surge that “came like a tsunami.”
“I watched every piece of my furniture float through the back door,” Wildgoose said. But he insisted he would not leave Grand Bahama, where he has lived since birth. “We have to be resilient. We can’t give up.”
In the Abacos, no area seemed to have been hit as ferociously as Marsh Harbour. It was as if someone had lifted up the entire town and dropped it.
Houses smashed to bits. Commercial buildings split open as if with a sledgehammer, their contents splayed on the sidewalk. Boats and cars tossed here and there like toys.
Some residents shared the food and water they had stockpiled, while others took whatever they could from wrecked food shops, offices and pharmacies.
Hundreds of people, many from destroyed shantytowns that had been mostly populated by Haitian immigrants, fled to the main government complex in Marsh Harbour and took up residence in its damaged offices.
Maxine Duncombe, administrator of the central Abaco district, said the government had admonished residents, particularly in low-lying areas, to evacuate to proper shelters before the storm. Officials had even gone door to door, broadcasting their warnings.
“We thought people would heed the warnings,” Duncombe said Friday at the government complex.
The first refugees started arriving at the complex as the hurricane’s eye passed over Marsh Harbour. “We saw this multitude, and my first instinct was to save lives,” Duncombe said. “I pushed them into every office.”
At their peak, nearly 2,000 people were sleeping in the building’s courtyard, along its colonnaded balcony and walkways, and in its administrative offices. They dried their wet clothes on the branches of bushes in and around the building, and children played on the trunk of a palm tree felled in the storm.
Their numbers had ebbed considerably by Friday as they found other sanctuaries or a way off the island.
Andrew MacCalla, director of international programs and emergency response at Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization that was flying pallets of medical supplies to the Bahamas, said the evacuation was not a choice. He likened it to Hurricane Irma, which wiped out several Caribbean islands in 2017, including Barbuda, where all 3,000 people had to be evacuated.
“There wasn’t anything there, no housing, no structure, no clean water,” he said of Barbuda. “This is not a quick rebuild. In the short term, it’s moving them off.”
A post-apocalyptic sense of despair claws at Marsh Harbour. There are no public utilities, and no reliable sources of food or drinking water. Gasoline supplies are dwindling and are a black-market trade now — for those fortunate enough to have a functioning vehicle.
Only one of the Abacos’ two cellphone companies has restored partial service in Marsh Harbour, but the regular phone lines remain down, leaving most people without a way to make calls.
Verifiable information of any sort was in short supply, so people fell back on rumors.
Kenson Jean Louis, 25, a roofing company worker, was at the wharf, hoping to get on a rumored ferry. But the storm left him without identification papers, credit cards or other documentation, and he worried he would be unable to travel.
The first step for recovering lost documents was to file a police report, he said, but the police department had been seriously damaged, and there was nobody to file a report with.
Louis said he viewed the hurricane as a test of human will.
“This is what we made of,” he said. “We are men.”
Government emergency officials have been scarce, if not invisible, to residents, angering many.
“The government has to do better,” said Francis, who was waiting at the wharf with her two sons, 4 and 7, and her boyfriend. The only belongings they salvaged from their destroyed home fit in a black duffel bag and small backpack at their feet.
“They need boats,” she said. “They need to bring all them things in here.”
At the government center, Keven Pierre, 34, was charging his cellphone off a generator, one of the few available to the public in Marsh Harbour, and plotting his next move. He was trying to figure out a way to get himself and nine family members off Abaco Island. He had heard about the commercial flights on Bahamas Air leaving from Treasure Cay but was angered at the idea that the airline might charge for the seats. (The airline said Friday that “all persons wishing to leave Abaco will be provided passage free of charge.”)
Without banks and ATMs in operation, many residents were left without cash.
At the Marsh Harbour airport, where part of the tarmac was still underwater, Lakeria Simms, 29, and her husband, David Gardiner, 31, and their three young children, had joined hundreds of others seeking a seat on a plane.
The hurricane, Simms said, had “put everybody on square zero.”