[ The Bahamas ] • My Besty
The islands of The Bahamas lay in the North Atlantic Ocean, just east of the Floridian peninsula, of the United States, northeast of the island of Cuba and northwest of the island of Hispaniola which is home to the countries of the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti.
Unlike the other islands in the Caribbean found in the archipelagos of the Greater & the Lesser Antilles, the islands of the Lucayan Archipelago, home to The Bahamas & the Turks and Caicos Islands, were not formed due to crustal movements and plate tectonics. As such, our islands are generally flat and very low-lying. They are not home to any towering mountains like Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic or active volcanoes like La Grande Soufrière on the island of Guadeloupe. The highest point in all of The Bahamas is but a mere 206 feet above sea level, found on Cat Island.
The Bahamas’ location puts in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane belt which is simply the area of the tropical Atlantic that is most susceptible to tropical cyclone activity. In fact, the islands of The Bahamas have been affected by more hurricanes than any other country in the Caribbean. In particular, the islands of The Northwestern Bahamas are, for some reason, most vulnerable islands, as it relates to Atlantic tropical cyclones and their impacts. From 1851-2010, recorded data shows that the islands of Abaco, Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence have had the centre of a major hurricane, a hurricane with winds in excess of 115mph, pass within 60 nautical miles of the island more than the other islands of The Bahamas. In fact, Abaco & Grand Bahama are tied at number one for the Caribbean with 80 hurricanes each, categories 1-5 on the Saffir Simpson Scale hurricane winds scale, which is the scale used to measure hurricanes in the western hemisphere, passing within 60 nautical miles between the same period.
Thus, The Bahamas is no stranger to hurricanes. Hurricanes have been affecting these islands since its colonial days and even well before that, as the word ‘hurricane’ is believed to be Taino in its origin. Since before an official system of naming was implemented, these storms have rocked our islands. They have shaped and reshaped how we’ve gone about our lives in this archipelago of over 3,000 islands, cays and rocks that we call The Bahamas. Frequent hurricanes in the early 20th Century lead the demise of sponging in The Bahamas when those hurricanes negatively affected the islands. Because of the islands’ frequent strikes from hurricanes, the British government saw fit to implement a hurricane warning system. Had it not been for the hurricanes we experience, ZNS, as we know it, would probably not exist. Established in the 1930s, one of the principal reasons for the establishment of Zephyr Nassau Sunshine radio was to be able to provide the islands of The Bahamas with a proper hurricane warning system.
For many persons throughout The Bahamas, many names of these vicious storms have stuck with them because of the effects that they’ve caused. Hurricanes with names like Donna, Michelle, Andrew, Floyd, Frances, Jeanne, Wilma, Ike, Irene, Joaquin, Matthew, Irma and so many more have caused immense damage as they made their terrifying treks throughout The Bahamas. Their names are etched in the minds of the thousands of Bahamians.
One, in particular, I feel, is Betsy.
Hurricane Betsy was a monstrous Atlantic hurricane that peaked in intensity at category 4 strength as it had maximum sustained winds of 155mph. After leaving the West African coast, Hurricane Betsy formed as a tropical depression on August 27th, 1965. It strengthened into a tropical storm, two days later on the 29th. Due to favourable conditions for development, Betsy was able to quickly strengthen into a hurricane hours later on the 30th of August, while making a north-northwesterly movement parallel to The Bahamas. On the 5th of September, after initially appearing to be moving away from The Bahamas, Betsy was blocked by weather patterns and made a movement southward back towards The Northern Bahamas. Although at that point, it weakened to category 3 strength, it was still a major hurricane and wreaked havoc throughout The Bahamas. As a child, whenever The Bahamas was threatened by a hurricane, my grandmother would recall the tale of Hurricane Betsy, just like so many other Bahamians of her era that I’ve encountered. My grandmother spoke of how after the hurricane, the air was stink and recalled the tale of dead fish everywhere in the road. Whichever trees were left standing were either stripped of their leaves or stained brown with death. Communication became nonexistent for her and many other residents on the island of North Eleuthera. The damage was great and she couldn’t imagine a storm worse or experience more harrowing than Betsy. Having experienced many other hurricanes since then, even into 2019, Betsy was still the hurricane my grandmother spoke about.
On August 19th, 2019 a tropical wave emerged from the West African Coast. It travelled westward in the Atlantic Ocean unable to strengthen much due to limiting factors in its environment such as a prevalence of Saharan dust in the air. It wasn’t until five days later, on August 24th, that the tropical wave was deemed organised enough to be considered a tropical depression and subsequently became tropical depression 5 of the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season. The same day it became Tropical Storm Dorian while making its way towards the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Dorian, at the time, was predicted to remain a weak tropical cyclone capping off at category 1 strength, if it was able to strengthen into a hurricane at all. It was in an area of dry air and expected to pass over rugged, mountainous terrain that would have definitively squashed any chances it would have had to develop into a storm worth mentioning. This was not to be, however. After passing over the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, Dorian became a category 1 hurricane just as it approached the U.S. Virgin Islands on the 28th of August. It veered eastward of the mountains of Hispaniola & Puerto Rico and as it moved northward and to the east of the Turks & Caicos Islands, the storm began to strengthen quickly. By August 30th, it blossomed from a category 1 hurricane to a category 3 hurricane. Thus, making it a major hurricane; the first of the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Its blossoming in strength continued and on the following day, Hurricane Dorian became a powerful category 4 strength storm.
With a path now set firmly on The Northern Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian could very well be likened to, “the little engine that could.” By the 1st of September, shortly before making landfall in The Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian defied all odds and strengthened to a category 5 hurricane with an unprecedented maximum sustained winds at 180mph. At that point, Hurricane Dorian became the strongest hurricane to affect The Northwestern Bahamas in modern records. However, its rewriting of history was not yet done. The little engine that could kept going and just as it approached the island of Abaco, the hurricane strengthened with maximum sustained winds at 185mph. Honestly, having experienced so many hurricanes prior to, I wasn’t as worried as many persons felt I should have been. This is not to imply that I am fearless of hurricanes. The necessary precautions were made in an effort to safeguard myself, my home and my family but it was just business as usual, so to speak, for me having to prepare for yet another hurricane. However, while reading the advisory that announced Dorian had strengthened again, I felt as if I had been punched in my gut. I began to feel petrified and expecting the worst. At this point, its forward speed startlingly decreased, and it started to move at an excruciatingly crawling pace. The Abaco Cays were the first to feel Dorian’s wrath where Dorian made landfall on September 1st and where damage sustained was great. Almost every structure on Elbow Cay, Great Guana Cay and Green Turtle Cay was either destroyed or severely damaged. Marsh Harbour, the island of Abaco’s largest and capital town was all but flattened with very little structures left standing and the same was the case throughout the nearby settlements. Whatever structures left standing were completely swamped with water. A group of 50 survivors in Treasure Cay, also essentially completely destroyed, were just found last week.
On September 2nd, Dorian made landfall, still at 185mph, on the island of Grand Bahama. Its forward speed decreased even more and weather conditions slowly deteriorated in Freeport as the hurricane’s centre was just to its east. Grand Bahama’s fate was no different from Abaco. Just before the hurricane made landfall, my grandmother called me at home to ask if I was certain she would be free of any flooding in her area of Pioneer’s Loop. I assured her that she, along with her neighbours, would be among the safest from storm surge flooding. The neighbourhood and its nearby areas, being centrally located and in-land, never flooded before and was never thought to be a high-risk area. Dorian continued to write its own story. Late at night on September 3rd, my grandmother had to leave her house and near waist-deep water because of the storm surge that impacted the area. Virtually 3/4s of the island experienced significant damage and/or loss from storm surge and unrelenting winds. Windows, doors and walls of homes and buildings completely blown and/or washed away. In some instances, the only thing left of a home is its foundation which was completely stripped of anything related to the home that once stood. Some portions of the earth have been completely stripped away. While roads have been negatively affected before, this was much different. In some places, the only thing left is the actual limestone of the island where the entire topsoil even has been washed away.
Almost every home over the bridge on the island of Grand Bahama has been rendered uninhabitable as they were completely gutted. Survivors across the entire island tell the stories of how they fled from rising waters into their attics and roofs and had to wait in excess of 10 hours, in some cases, for rescue. This is the same with survivors from the islands of Little & Great Abaco and their adjacent cays.
Hurricane Dorian stalled over the island of Grand Bahama for nearly 48 consecutive hours. For over three days, the islands of The Bahamas felt the wrath of the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin before it finally slowly moved away.
Hurricane Dorian, this side of the world’s strongest, left an indelible mark that will never fade from the minds of every Bahamian. The images are stuck in our psyches. To this day more than 1,000 people are still missing with more than 50 persons confirmed dead. This has been the worst natural disaster of the country’s recorded history. The aftermath was arguably worse than the actual storm. While attempts were made, the government’s response to the plight of those suffering was, frankly, dismal at best. The National Emergency Management Agency became a national disgrace, as it has been in the aftermath in previous disasters, with residents on either of the two affected islands feeling as if only the bare minimum was done. Notwithstanding all of this, the resilience of the Bahamian people, bestowed upon us by God, was able to shine brilliantly. Ordinary Bahamians, both in the country and abroad, were able to coordinate, execute and manage disaster relief efforts. The tenacity of the Bahamian people, especially millennials, and their unwillingness to accept inaction and the status quo was unmatched. Because of social media, especially Twitter, lives were saved, relief efforts made and hope restored.
When speaking to a friend’s mother in the aftermath of the storm just three days later, she said that this was worse than her experience with Hurricane Betsy.
Hurricane Dorian, unquestionably, became my Betsy.
However, just as The Bahamas was able to recover from Betsy, the unnamed storms that preceded it, Donna, Michelle, Andrew, Floyd, Frances, Jeanne, Wilma, Ike, Irene, Joaquin, Matthew, Irma and so many others, the islands of The Bahamas will be rebuilt.
My Betsy has come and gone, but the story it wrote will exist in perpetuity. It will be the story that I speak to my children and grandchildren about. It was the storm that broke me down and brought me to tears after surveying the island almost two weeks after it left, and I was able to see for myself the full extent the damage wrought. In its wake, however, will be restoration.