The wind was howling. But at least it was daylight. Seeing daybreak meant I made it through the first night of Hurricane Dorian. People who have survived storms like this say that they are at their worst at night. And I believe them.
That’s why the people of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas in general—and those of its northern region, the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island, in particular—feared the night terror of Dorian so much. Our island nation has weathered many storms throughout the course of its past. Yet, as a Category 5 hurricane, Dorian is one of the worst in documented history.
The survival stories old folks could tell—and do tell—are likely more harrowing than those that belong to us in this modern time. They escaped into attics and cut holes into roofs so that they could wait for rescue. They served communal meals from small pots and had the food multiply like something out of the Old Testament. They were like the lone elderly man on an otherwise deserted cay, who, refusing to evacuate, once told news reporters of how he tied himself to a tree in the middle of a hurricane to survive.
Today I wonder what the future will hold for the remembrance of this hurricane, and of its terrible ensuing trauma and losses. Skeptics will likely be suspicious of similar stories of what Hurricane Dorian was like, for obvious reasons. With mind-boggling devastation come stories of distress and rescue that sound like something out of a movie. But Bahamians are and always have been great storytellers, especially of our fearlessness and heroism.
By all accounts, my great-grandfather, the late Clement Nathaniel Saunders, was a devotee of this tradition.
Before his passing in 2017, he was as renowned a banjo player, and as permanent a fixture in his native island of Bimini, as he was a notoriously exaggerating storyteller. He told of keeping the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Al Capone, and he swore he was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Granddaddy gladly told many stories, with the exception of one.
Born on the island of North Bimini in November 1914, Granddaddy was the last survivor of 10 children born to Milton Uriah Saunders, a carpenter, and Laura-Jane Francis Saunders, a housekeeper. But he wasn’t the youngest. Granddaddy’s youngest sister Jane was just 13 months old in 1926. That year she and their parents met their deaths on Sept. 18.
More than 90 years later, I stumbled across the death records of Granddaddy’s parents and his baby sister. Their cause of death? Drowning, in the Hurricane of 1926.
When I next saw him, not knowing how to gently bring up the indelicate subject, I just launched right in: “Granddaddy, do you remember the hurricane in which your parents and sister died?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can’t neva’ forget it.”
By then, he was more than 100 years old but, as if writhing in agony, he went on to tell me the story of that day.
The entire family was huddled in a single room. With his mother and young sister seated atop a table, his father ushered him and his other siblings into another room to safety from the rising waters. As he looked back from that room, he watched as his father, mother and sister were overcome by a large wave, only to be swept out and drowned at sea. They weren’t the only casualties—four more deaths of persons between the ages of 5 and 52 are entered on the same handwritten record.
The rearing of Granddaddy and his surviving siblings was shared among family members across the island. A century later, the story was almost completely lost—even in our family. The truly terrible hadn’t made for good tale-telling.
In the days ahead, we’ll all have cause to remember that lesson. As the people of an island nation, we know all too well that, as climate change drives extreme weather patterns, hurricanes are hitting this part of the world with greater intensity and frequency. Those in my native Grand Bahama had weathered nearly a dozen other hurricanes in the 20 years since I first left for college in the U.S. in 1999. Floyd’s storm surge flooded them. Frances hovered over them for more than a day. Just weeks later, Jeanne was on her way. They were so happy when she passed over—but then sat powerless, as she doubled back. Katrina was a breeze, but then came Wilma, which destroyed 200 homes and left 1,500 people homeless. Yet, they built again. Three years ago came Matthew, with its interior tornadoes that leveled entire communities, leaving few homes without the shelter of those blue tarps.
Throughout those years, I have felt a mixture of worry, powerlessness, despair and hope. That last was mostly a result of my ignorance. After all, I lived a whole nation away. I needed to believe that everything would be well despite my around-the-clock vigil of news outlets, weather channels, weather websites and my mobile phone.
The truth, however, is that for all my sympathy, I had never endured a major hurricane.
As Hurricane Dorian formed, there I was. In the days leading up to its arrival, I vacillated between staying and fleeing. In the end, the former won out—along with the help of a sufficient serving of guilt over leaving my mother to sit through another storm yet again. And so, I stayed to ride it out in the dark—water and electricity long since lost—with a handful of family members, all veterans of the islands’ many storms.
My plan to write during the deluge of raging winds and punishing waves was interrupted by the urgent need to plead for the rescue of loved ones. My cousin was forced into an attic for more than four hours. My godson—whose recent Christening was the reason I was back home for a visit—and his parents were stranded in a stalled car. And I long awaited confirmation that my sister and her family—who waded through chest-high waters—and the two sets of neighbors with whom she hunkered down were O.K.
As we begin to rebuild the country we love, far too many will never be O.K. Some have lost everything, and none of us have not lost anything. Are we battered? Yes. But, are we broken? Absolutely not. After all, this is our story.
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