‘Everything’s gone’: In Abaco Islands, lives shattered by Hurricane Dorian’s devastation

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas — About a week after Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Abaco Islands as the strongest hurricane to hit the Bahamas on record, those remaining here at the site of the devastation said the storm took away everything from them.

On the island of Great Abaco, wrecked boats and flipped-over cars were strewn across streets of completely flattened houses, crushed businesses and mangled playgrounds. Downed power lines and the frames of buildings lined the sides of the roads. Some cars were impaled by flying pieces of wood and steel. The smell of death was in the air.

Damage from Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on Sept. 8, 2019.Mariana Henninger / NBC News

The catastrophic Category 5 storm pummeled the islands with sustained winds of 185 mph, storm surges and torrential rain in a sustained two-day assault. At least 44 people were killed during the storm, the country’s health minister said Sunday night, but with many others still reported missing, that number is feared to dramatically rise. Most deaths were here in the Abaco Islands, which were home to some 17,000 people.

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By Sunday, Great Abaco was becoming a ghost town, as thousands of people try to evacuate by plane and boat.

Midmorning Sunday, a group of Haitian refugees boarded a Delta MD88 bound for Nassau. They had fled poverty or natural disaster, including the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, and in recent years the Haitian migrants have settled in communities in the Bahamas. Now they are fleeing again, as several hundred Haitians have been evacuated from the Abaco Islands.

Haitian refugees board a flight to Nassau from Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on Sept. 8, 2019.Mariana Henninger / NBC News

“These clothes on me, that’s all I have. Everything’s gone,” said Joseph Farine, 69.

Farine and other Haitian migrants lived in an area of Marsh Harbour known as “the Mudd,” which was flattened by the hurricane.

“Plenty neighbors are dead,” said Farine.

Jacques Aristil, 56, a friend of Farine’s who was also on the flight, said there was nothing left of his home and he had no place to live.

During the storm, he said, some people sought shelter in a clinic, in churches or at a school.

“After that, no people got out. No people,” he said.

Mailey Nord, who was on the flight with her 8-year-old son Asher, said she was planning on meeting a sister in Nassau and was relieved to finally be on a flight out.

Mailey Nord and her son, Asher, 8, leave Marsh Harbour on a flight to Nassau. “We lost everything, but I’m thankful to God that I’m still alive,” Nord said. “I feel much better now that I’m in the plane. I have nothing left.”Mariana Henninger / NBC News

Despite the devastation, she said she was “thankful to God for life.”

The Delta plane was one of two flights the company had planned to send Sunday for evacuations, according to George Mattson, a member of Delta’s board of directors. But because of operational challenges, it wasn’t able to send the second flight. The airline planned two flights Monday.

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Sunday’s flight also brought in 5,000 pounds of relief aid, he said.

“The most immediate need is to get as many people out of here as possible as fast as possible,” Mattson said.

Delta was planning to take as many as 160 passengers that morning, with another group in the afternoon, but misinformation on social media caused confusion among the evacuees, he said.

While about 60 people were waiting at Marsh Harbour’s airport for the flight, hundreds more had mistakenly gone to an airport in an area called Treasure Cay because of misinformation and ongoing communication issues on the island, he said.

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The hope was to transport those hundreds of people to Marsh Harbour for an afternoon flight, he said.

Outside the airport, a few disfigured cars with smashed windows were still being driven on the streets where residents are either scrambling to leave or trying to piece their lives back together.

The Central Abaco Primary School in Marsh Harbour was serving as a shelter for some of those who remained.

Mothers tended to young children as they roamed a hall with rooms on one side. Beside the hall was a grassy area strewn with chairs, desks and other debris several feet high.

Charvis McPhee, 44, became emotional when he said he knew people who were killed in the storm, including friends and coworkers. One was a local boat captain.

Charvis McPhee at the makeshift shelter at the Central Abaco Primary School, one of the few buildings left standing on the island, on Sept. 8, 2019.Mariana Henninger / NBC News

He said that days earlier, hundreds of survivors had been living at the school; on Sunday about 100 people remained. He was living at a friend’s home but came that day to check in on other friends.

McPhee said the house he rented had blown away, but he still planned to stay on the island. “I want to stay for work. I want to stay to rebuild,” he said.

A few feet away, Dynetta Robinson, a volunteer nurse who’d come with a group of nurses from Miami, urged McPhee and others to leave the island.

“We need help,” she said. “We need people to come in. Help is going to wane off, and people are going to be exposed to poor sanitation,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

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