Great Guana Cay Foundation
Rebuilding of Bahamian Homes
Randy Roberts was born on Guana Cay just off the harbor where generations of his family have lived. His wife, Veola, is from Spanish Wells, an island nearby. So, the couple, both in their early 70s, have experienced many hurricanes, but Veola says the ferocity of Hurricane Dorian made the other storms seem like “little boys and girls.”
As the storm approached, however, they felt somewhat secure.
“The downstairs was solid cement,” Randy said. “I felt like I was protected.”
His hunch was only partially correct. As Dorian’s winds – which peaked at 185 mph – moved over Guana Cay, Randy looked out of his home’s basement window and saw only debris where his sister’s house had been. He looked the other way and saw his brother’s house was also gone. He didn’t know it then, but his own home had been badly damaged, too. The roof was gone, as was the north side of the house.
From the basement, the storm above sounded like a freight train, they said. Water poured down the basement walls as they waited for the storm to pass.
“We knew it was going to get worse,” Randy said, “so we hunkered down the best we could.”
They slept the next three nights on a basement chair and divan, the water continuing to pour in. They used buckets to stem the flood.
“I’d doze off and, when I’d wake up, the buckets were flowing over,” Randy said.
They had purchased supplies, but by the end of the third day, they were eating moldy bread and scrounging for whatever food they could find. After the hurricane finally passed, boats from Spanish Wells came to rescue the residents of Guana Cay.
Randy and Veola left the area with their son-in-law, who had escaped to Spanish Wells from Marsh Harbour.
Three weeks later, Randy and Veola returned to their home and found massive structural and water damage, including destroyed ceiling rafters, paneling and insulation. Walls were moldy are peeling and the electrical system was likely ruined.
For Randy, a man used to being self-sufficient and generous – he routinely donated his Saturday fishing haul to the community’s elderly residents – the storm’s aftermath has been emotional and difficult.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” he said.
Even so, he hopes to rebuild his life on Guana Cay.
“I was born here,” he said. “My daddy was born here. My grandfather was born here. I can’t go nowhere ‘cause I got a grave up there with my name on it. This is my home.”
Suzanne Sands’ family has lived in the Abacos “forever,” she said. She has been working at Nippers Bar & Grill, a Guana Cay landmark, since it opened 23 years ago. Her husband, Jeffery, 59 and a former construction worker, was born on the island, where his family goes back six generations. He works at Nippers too.
They were on a trip to Florida before Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. Once they learned the storm was heading to the Abaco Islands, Suzanne wanted to go home, but Jeffery wasn’t willing to risk the trip.
The last contact they had with their children, who were on the island, was the Sunday morning before Dorian arrived. Their son Brandan called to see if she wanted him to move anything before the storm.
“You ain’t gotta worry about none of that,” she recalled telling him. “The water ain’t going to come up inside the house.”
Watching television in the United States, Suzanne and Jeffery were able to see what was unfolding in the Abacos, but unable to do anything about it. They didn’t know if their family members were alive or dead.
“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes and in all my life, the water has never come up into the house up where we are,” Suzanne, 56, said.
When they were finally able to speak to their sons, she learned that they had had to swim out of the family home to escape. The 100-year-old house they had rented for 27 years from her uncle was destroyed.
When she returned home at the start of November, what she saw, she said, was “shocking, very shocking” and she still feels that way.
“It’s like being in a dream and somebody’s going to wake us up and say it’s just a dream,” she said. “Now, nobody has no jobs. Nobody has anything.”
She returned to her home and found the storm surge had lifted the structure off its foundation, twisting the walls, and destroying her possessions, including a family Bible and photos. All she could salvage were some Pyrex dishes that had been stored in a tall cabinet for decades.
The hurricane came at a time when tourism had been on the rise, especially at Nippers, a popular attraction for visitors. Now closed due to the storm, she’s hopeful the restaurant will open again soon.
Until then, the family is staying with her mother and reapplying to be granted rights to Crown land, where their son has plans to build a house. Because of the destruction on the island, there are few, if any houses left to rent.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, especially (the ability to earn) money,” Suzanne said. “But we’re living, and that’s the main thing.
Going through Hurricane Dorian was a harrowing experience for 70-year-old Kathy Sands, who has lived on Guana Cay since 1972. It wasn’t just the trauma of the storm that was so difficult for her, she said, but she also was dealing with her husband Leonard’s health. Near death from the final stages of bone cancer, he was in Cuba undergoing treatment when the storm hit.
She and Leonard raised four kids on Guana Cay, two of whom still live there.
Her two-bedroom, two-bath house had a cement-block foundation, but was made of wood. They had purchased it 22 years before and had always stayed on the island during hurricanes.
She pre-packed her bags for the post-hurricane trip to Cuba, believing as others did, that the hurricane would rage for a day and then pass over the island.
The Saturday night before Dorian hit, the family went to bed and woke as the Category-5 storm was near. By the end of the day, the home’s roof and front porch had been torn off, the ceiling had fallen throughout the house and water was pouring in through the roof.
As water inundated the house, they fled to a small shed under the house. Then, as water filled that that shed, they fled to another house.
“Oh my god, you couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Roofs were gone, everything blowing all over the place and it wasn’t even safe to cross to the next house, but we did it because we had to do it. We could barely walk, but we got there.”
They spent Sunday and Monday night in the second house, but many windows had been broken, leaving the wind to blow around dangerous debris inside.
“We really thought we were going to die,” she said.
Monday morning, they fled to a small efficiency apartment at the back of another home nearby. There was only one bed – but minimal water damage – so they stayed there for the rest of the storm.
Kathy woke Wednesday morning thinking about her husband, so she went to Baker’s Bay, a resort on the north side of the island, and got a helicopter ride to Nassau.
“I didn’t even bathe,” she said. “I just took some clothes and grabbed my handbag. There was nothing was left of my house anyway.”
Before she could get a flight to Cuba, however, she learned her husband had died. Kathy said their son Christopher was at Leonard’s side and Leonard died not knowing that their house and its contents had been destroyed.
She went to Cuba, anyway, and, from there, to Florida, where she stayed with family for a month.
When she returned to Guana Cay, she found devastation. She had no job. Her six pet parrots were dead. The house was open to the sky, its contents, including family photos, gone.
All she could find were two pairs of pants.
“I will never stay (during a storm) again,” she said. “Unfortunately, often by the time you realize you need to leave, it’s too late. The planes stop flying and ferries are shut down.”
On a sunny Sunday in late November, the family gathered at the Guana Cay cemetery to bury her husband’s ashes.
“I’m glad my husband wasn’t here to see this,” she said. “I didn’t want him to know.”
Ronald and Gina Roberts were on a Florida vacation when they learned Dorian was forecast to hit the Bahamas. Managers of 13 second homes on the island, they quickly returned home to prepare their properties for the storm.
Leaving their suitcases unpacked from Florida, they began boarding up the 13 homes, as well as their own home. This wasn’t their first hurricane and they expected it to be over when the sun went down Sunday.
Along with their 34-year-old special-needs daughter, Shannon, and Gina’s mother, they woke Sunday morning and waited behind shuttered windows.
“We thought we’d stay,” Ronald, 63, said. “We’ve been through so many before.”
By mid-morning, the winds came. Within hours, the elevated front porch was torn away, along with a portion of the roof and the front stairs. When the living room ceiling collapsed, they moved to a small laundry room at the back of the house. There, they worried the backdoor would fail.
“The way the door was bending in and out was like cardboard,” Ronald said. “It’s a strong door, but there was so much pressure.”
Later in the day, with water pouring into the house, they realized that the laundry room wasn’t safe.
“The walls were breathing in and out in the laundry room,” Gina, 54, said. “It gives me goose bumps to think about it.”
They fled to a room beneath the house. Using a staple gun, Ronald put a tarp on the ceiling, but water poured in from above.
As caretakers to numerous properties on the island, they had keys to some nearby homes, so they ran through the wind and across the street where they found temporary refuge in a then-dry house. Towels stuffed around the windows and under the doors, however, were soon soaked.
They stayed there two days.
“Like the other hurricanes, you thought it would stop,” Gina said. “It just kept hanging on and hanging on. It was a nightmare.”
After the storm, Gina and her daughter flew to Nassau and Ronald stayed behind for two weeks to begin the cleanup and to salvage whatever he could.
In mid-September, he joined his family in Jupiter, Florida, where they were staying with relatives. Within a month, he was back home, bringing materials and supplies to start rebuilding the house. Gina and Shannon joined him several weeks later.
In the aftermath of the storm, they have benefitted from donated and purchased supplies, but there’s little work. Just two of the 13 houses they managed are still standing and the tourists are staying away.
Life has changed for the family.
Shannon now points to the window whenever she notices a breeze and announces that another hurricane is coming.
Their second daughter, at school in the United States, is studying elementary education with an emphasis on special needs. She plans to come home for Christmas and see the hurricane’s devastation for the first time.
“Material things don’t matter anymore,” Gina said. “To get back in our home, to live normally and find work again would be good. I’ve thought of relocating to another island, but I don’t know if that will happen because my Mom’s here.”
Stephen Jenks, who moved Guana Cay from Nassau more than 20 years ago, was the only cay resident to be seriously injured during Hurricane Dorian.
Working multiple jobs – Jenks, 57, was a caretaker of second homes for expats and he also worked at Nippers Bar & Grill – he planned to stay in his home during the hurricane.
After prepping some of the expat houses, he boarded up his own house located mid-island. He’d purchased the three-bedroom, three-bath house six years ago and is still paying off the mortgage.
Insurance for the $275,000 home would have been about $15,000 a year – more than a year’s worth of mortgage payments – so he chose not to buy it.
The last he heard about Dorian, before he lost communication, was the storm would be a Category 5.
“I knew we were in for a real beat down, so I put on my Third Reef jacket and put all my valuables inside of it – money, Passport, credit cards,” he said.
When the wind started shaking his house, he moved to a closet. Then, he heard a sound like a “big freight train,” saw a white flash of light and felt himself being spun around. He landed in the backyard. There, he had difficulty breathing and couldn’t see.
“I had to lay there and catch my breath and then my eyesight came back,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t stay there with 200-mph winds. I had to get to safety.”
Only the stilted lower portion of his house, where he parked his truck, remained.
Early the next morning, with the winds down to an estimated 60-80 mph, he saw a neighbor, who drove him to town in a golf cart so he could get medical treatment.
The normally 10-minute ride took three hours.
“Every house we passed was completely destroyed,” he said. “Like we were in a movie. Like a bomb went off. No vegetation.”
They found a doctor at Nippers’ owner Johnny Roberts’ house. The doctor determined Jenks had eight broken ribs and gave him pain medication. Jenks stayed at the house for the next three days until he was evacuated off the island by helicopter. He eventually ended up in a hospital in Palm Beach.
There, he found that in addition to the broken ribs, he had a collapsed lung. He stayed in the hospital until the end of September and was to stay in Florida until the pain subsided.
“I couldn’t lift nothing,” he said. “I couldn’t tie my shoelaces.”
His hospital bill was $318,000.
He returned to Guana Cay two months later. All that remained of his house was the foundation, sitting atop 20-foot stilts.
Located in Guana Cay, Mama’s Kitchen is nestled on a hill about 100 yards from the harbor. Irene and Kaydon McLennon, who came to the island 17 years ago from Nassau, opened the restaurant four years ago.
Kaydon works at Baker’s Bay, a resort on the north side of the island. In addition
to running Mama’s with Kaydon, Irene also works at Grabbers, a restaurant and bar that also leases cottages.
Along with other businesses attempting to recover from Hurricane Dorian, Mama’s opened for lunch in November.
Apart from a volunteer center, which has fed residents since the storm, Mama’s was the first restaurant to reopen on the island.
The restaurant, which is also home for the couple and their three children, ranging in age from 18 to 37, was partially insured, but the storm damage exceeded the policy’s coverage.
Irene was taking her 18-year-old daughter to school in Nassau when Hurricane Dorian hit. Kaydon and their two older sons stayed on Guana Cay.
Kaydon, who had experienced many hurricanes, stayed downstairs in the lower level of his cement-block home, while his adult sons stayed in a top floor room.
“We had some canned goods and stuff that we needed,” he said, adding that the storm lasted longer and was more intense than he anticipated.
In Nassau, Irene had no way of finding out how her family fared.
“I put Kaydon and my two boys faces on the Facebook website to see if anyone had seen them,” she said. “I was just waiting and hoping.”
Thursday morning, she finally heard from Kaydon, who had used a satellite phone. Everyone was safe, he told her, but the house sustained damage.
The hurricane had torn the roof off and water poured through the house, soaking beds, furniture and other possessions. In the downstairs kitchen, the appliances were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the family is still paying off the building’s mortgage. Irene is waiting to go back to work at the still-closed Grabbers, but Kaydon has gone back to work at Bakers Bay.
“We’re trying to make it happen,” Irene said. “We’re using what we have right now and making it happen.”
She says the experience of Hurricane Dorian has likely taught everyone on the cay to be more cautious when the next storm approaches the Bahamas.
“All the Prime Minister has to do is say ‘hurricane’ and the whole island leaves,” she said. “He don’t have to say that twice.”
Myrtle Bethel has the distinction of being the oldest person on the island. At 77, she has raised five children and has numerous grandchildren on the cay and on neighboring islands. Her husband, who died nine years ago, was raised on Guana Cay.
Her cement-block bungalow near the harbor was built by her husband 53 years ago and has survived many hurricanes.
As the storm approached, Myrtle headed to her daughter’s house in town. She didn’t anticipate Dorian’s strength.
“I just thought we’d go and spend the night,” she said. “It would be a little bit of wind or something. All hurricanes, the next day you could go out.”
Keeping with her hurricane prep traditions of more than 50 years, she covered her home’s windows, took down the photos in the house and covered them with a tarp in a back bedroom, where she also stored rugs, cushions and other mementos. She and her daughter also placed sandbags and towels around doors and windows.
“I worked like a mule,” she said.
As she made her way to her daughter’s house Saturday evening, she noticed “the prettiest moonshine. It was flat calm. It was beautiful. It wasn’t blowing a breath of wind.”
Eight people waited out the storm at her daughter’s one-story house. They had a radio and were able to get stations from Freeport and Nassau until losing electricity and cell service.
At one point, Myrtle felt the house moving.
“The house felt like it was going to lift up and the trees was banging into it,” she said.
She prayed that no one would get hurt.
At one point, she told her daughter: “If you all gotta go out, just leave me here. Just leave me in the house.”
She didn’t want to slow them down if they had to leave. She was prepared to die.
The family put additional plywood over the door as a waterspout hit land and turned into a tornado. The piercing sound was like a roaring train, she said.
She waited until Thursday before venturing outside. She couldn’t “see a leaf on a tree.”
Her house was still standing, but badly damaged. The siding had been ripped off and the front porch and part of the roof was gone. Also gone was the home’s central air conditioning unit and a shed. Her rainwater collection system was also destroyed.
Inside, she found six inches of standing water. The paneling, the carpet, most of furniture and all of the appliances had to be thrown away. She also lost a freezer full of food. Part of it included the prepared bananas and grated coconut she used to make pies and bread that she sold during tourist season.
Myrtle gets about 400 Bahamian dollars a month from national insurance, which often doesn’t cover her basic expenses. She supplemented her income by selling the bread and pies, as well as occasionally cleaning houses.
After the storm, she evacuated to Nassau and then to the United States. She returned to the Bahamas in September to stay with her son in Scotland Cay. She returned to Guana Cay in November.
While most of her possessions are gone, she was able to save her family photos and some other personal items that she had packed away safely in a back bedroom before the storm.
Forrest sent me a video – I’m sure he’s got some before/after photos of restaurant/house/etc.
Edmund “Forrest” Pinder, 37, started the Kidds Cove Seafood Bar & Grill with six barstools, two tables and a bar assembled from storm debris he gathered after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
Eventually, the restaurant seated 50 and served all locally sources vegetables, fruit and seafood.
“People loved the food,” he said.
In addition to Bahamian food, he hosted an international cuisine night and changed the menu weekly. He and his father, Edmund Pinder, 73, did the cooking.
The restaurant also employed three other local residents.
During the worst of the storm, with many residents seeking shelter in his friend’s house, it appeared as if the house’s roof was close to caving in and the doors were about to give way. Then, part of a tree fell against a kitchen window.
“Everyone of us in that place, every man, woman and child just started screaming,” Forrest said. “The only way I can describe (the sound of the storm) is like a demon. It was the worst-sounding noise. Every time the wind would blow you could feel the air getting sucked out of your body.”
The restaurant was destroyed. His grandfather’s house behind the restaurant was destroyed, too. His family home, which he is currently trying to salvage, is uninhabitable. Most of the home’s roof is gone, as is the front of the house.
His mother has been dealing with health issues for years and is now in a wheelchair, unable to live on Guana. Her bouts with cancer and heart issues has taken a toll on the family emotionally and financially. There is no money for them to fall back on. Forrest is working hard to do what he can to save what’s left of the house.
“I went down to the house,” he said. “I was just bawling. I couldn’t help myself. I fell to the ground. Everything was washed from the back of the house out the front doors.”
There was one surviving reminder, though, of something that has inspired his family over generations.
“The Irish Prayer was on the counter fallen from the wall and the crucifix was in the middle of the dining room table,” he said. “Everything around it, everything else was destroyed.”
Brandan Sands has deep roots in Guana Cay. His family owned the first grocery store and his great-grandfather was the first to export crayfish, the island’s name for rock or spiny lobster. At 31, he is the youngest of four brothers. He says he’s a “jack of all trades and master of some.”
He never thought of leaving the island as Hurricane Dorian approached. As it turned out, he had to swim out of his house to escape.
As the hurricane approached, he thought the storm would pass over the island like many hurricanes had before. But by Sunday afternoon, flying debris was hitting and entering his house and the front door had been nearly torn off by the wind.
His home sat on four-foot-tall stilts, but the water still gushed in. He knew he’d have to evacuate along with his brothers and two dogs.
“We had to go out the back, swim through the water,” he said. “It was either that or go up in the attic and I’d heard too many stories about people going up there and not having anything to chop (a hole in the roof) with and drowning.”
He waited for the wind speed to drop slightly and the three men and two dogs swam out the back door and across a newly formed lake. Then, they made their way through some bushes and debris to a friend’s house.
There, a flying wooden board crashed through an upstairs window, shattering the glass. They ran downstairs to a one-bedroom efficiency, where five men and two dogs stayed for the next three days.
“We had water and food for a little period of time and then that was it,” he said.
When the storm passed, they evacuated on boats that sailed from Spanish Wells. From there, Brandan spent two weeks in the United States before returning home to the destruction.
Temporarily, he’s living in a tent provided by a relief organization.
His parent’s house, along with his boat and truck, were destroyed by the storm. The work and money he put into his boat, which would have been his new home, was lost.
Prior to being injured at work 15 years ago, his father had filled in a mangrove swamp that had been Crown land. While the family applied unsuccessfully to the Crown to get the land transferred to them, Brandan has re-applied with hopes that the destruction on the island will prompt a positive response.
The small plot, about 75 feet by 100 feet, now houses a shed where he hopes he’ll eventually live. He also has plans to build a house for his family.