It was September. The water stain on the ceiling of my Tel Aviv apartment had begun to spread. “It’s really terrible,” said my partner with great concern, and I stood there, peering up at the ceiling, wearing my investigative look, nodding and mumbling to her, “Yeah, it really is terrible.”
Less than 36 hours later I found myself looking at inconceivable devastation on the eastern part of Grand Bahama island, in one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian. Houses had been shredded into splinters, forests had been uprooted and people were sitting outside their homes unable to comprehend what had happened to them. That was terrible.
The most powerful hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas had washed over the country with extreme intensity. At least 68 people were killed and another 600 were missing and feared dead. When the hurricane moved on, it dragged everything back to sea with it: cars, trees, houses, animals and people. But there were two things the storm didn’t have the nerve to take with it: the hope and the resilience of local residents.
Driving along a deeply rutted road leaving Freeport, the biggest city on Grand Bahama, toward the town of High Rock, you see nature’s unfairness: It chose to completely level one house but left another, only a short distance away, undamaged.
The community here is extremely cohesive. Everyone calls one another by their first names, and even knows their birthdays. Truly one big family. Until not long ago, some 600 people lived here. Many residents left before the storm made landfall; others refused to leave. And some of them were killed, although it is still too early to say exactly how many. Twenty people are still missing. And then there are those who survived.
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I see a woman outside her house, and stop to ask how she managed to survive the hurricane. Her name is Erica Roberts and she welcomes me with a broad smile. A charming woman. Here she was born and here she lives. She leads me into her home, or what remains of it. In the course of our conversation, she describes how the house flooded and she was swept outside, into the yard. She and her daughter had to hold on to two cables for hours in order not to be swept away in the current, in order not to disappear forever.
A few houses down the road I meet Elijah McKay. His wife and two children stand alongside him as he relates how the entire house was afloat, and that the family turned their refrigerator into a raft so as to escape the rising water level. “The children enjoyed every second of it, it was really an adventure for them, they felt it was a game and they could sense our own feelings of calm. We knew that God was with us and that we just had to let the storm pass.”
While Elijah was speaking, I was reminded of the little water leak in the ceiling of my apartment in Tel Aviv. How many thoughts had passed through my mind at the time: Would my insurance cover the repair, was it my upstairs neighbors’ fault? It had weighed so heavily on me at the time.
And now, standing before me was a family on the doorstep of their destroyed home, with wide smiles on their faces, telling me, “What an amazing day, here we are alive and the sun is shining.”
I keep on walking from house to house, hearing story after story, each one more harrowing than the next, about survival, about life, about loss and about an inspiring optimism.
I walk along a path that leads down to the ocean, where the dissonance is arresting: I am standing across from a pacific, hypnotic sea, the water a beautiful turquoise. Behind me is great, silent destruction, the calm after the storm.
And as if this situation were not deceptive enough, suddenly a boy appears, with a big smile on his face, playing in a lean-to by the beach. His mother sits on a chair, in total apathy. The scene turns even more surreal when a man in a red shirt rides past on a brightly colored girl’s bicycle, struggling to pedal a bike that is at least much too small for him. Truly a theater of the absurd, of the apocalypse.
The man, whose name is Doland, stops to talk with me. “Technology and man’s having grown apart from the community, materialism. That is definitely one of the reasons the storm hit us so badly here. It should be an eye-opener for us all,” he says.
“It is a lesson, not only local but also global,” he continues. “We need to wake up. Something is wrong with our planet, it affects us, the rich as well as the poor, it is stronger than everything else. This is an opportunity to push the reset button.”
Doland was born in New York, but came to the Bahamas when he was 3. He speaks with great wisdom and power. A most impressive man, who like everyone else finds strength and inspiration in the most difficult circumstances.
In High Rock and all over the Bahamas, there is a very strong faith in God — most of the residents are Christian — but also a practical understanding and mindset. Yanks, a local man, tells me how he survived the storm thanks to God. When asked what caused the catastrophic natural disaster, he responds, “That is simply the nature of life.”
On the way back, I try to digest it all, looking from the window at the passing landscape. A forest that only a week ago was a perfect tropical green is now yellow and brown, the trees uprooted by the powerful hurricane. It is hard to grasp what happened here. My driver lost his home in the storm. He asks me if I’m tired and if everything is all right. “It is very hard to take in the situation here,” I reply.
The sun had been burning hot all day, but now it suddenly begins to rain. My driver smiles at me in the rearview mirror and says, “You know, when the rain comes, we call it ‘liquid sun.’”
The sun always manages to overcome the rain here.
The Israeli-based humanitarian agency IsraAID is providing long-term emergency aid in the Bahamas, coordinating the distribution of urgent relief supplies, offering emotional first aid and working to meet the water and sanitation needs of affected communities. The organization’s volunteers arrived immediately after the hurricane and plan to remain for a few years to come in order to help the local community get back on its feet.