Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hurricane Memoirs: Frances (2004)

We watched in awe as the powerful 140mph winds flipped cars down the street like tumbleweeds, tore plywood off of windows like scotch tape, and snapped palm trees and utility poles as if they were nothing more than cheap #2 pencils. Hurricane Frances was finally making its long awaited landfall in Palm Beach, Florida.

Fortunately for us, we were not eyewitnesses to this destruction. But as we nervously watched it transpire on CNN from the safety of Estela’s sister’s home in the Dominican Republic over 1000 miles away, we couldn’t help but wonder how our own home had fared as Frances had spent the previous forty-eight hours crossing over the Bahamian archipelago.

A few days later, our arrival at the American Eagle terminal in Miami was greeted with an eerie silence. The normal hustle and bustle of passengers boarding shuttle buses to catch their planes, fidgety children, loudspeaker announcements, whining babies, and blaring televisions was mostly absent. What would normally be a miserable three-hour layover turned out to be a pleasant evening. As we walk around the terminal and checked the locations of the outgoing flights, all but one—Nassau—were destinations within Florida. While Miami International Airport was theoretically open, the destruction left behind by Frances meant that most folks had evidently decided to cancel their vacation plans to Florida and the Bahamas—leaving us to enjoy the quiet of an empty terminal.

After catching a forty-minute flight back to Nassau on a half-empty plane whose passengers were mostly returning Bahamian nationals, we were relieved to see the city lights of Nassau from the air as our plane prepared for landing. During the taxi ride home, we asked our driver about the hurricane. How long was the electricity out? Three days. Was there a lot of damage? No, not really. How much flooding was there? What do you mean there wasn’t hardly any rain? Hmmm . . . don’t believe everything you see on television.

Upon entering our house, our first surprise was that everything was basically intact, exactly as we had left it. Glass windows remained unbroken. Pictures were still on the walls. Curtains hung in front of open windows, seemingly undisturbed. And even an old pair of flip flops sat untouched on top of the propane gas tank on our patio. Truly amazing, though, was how much dirt and debris the hurricane strength winds were able to push through the window screens while leaving everything else unscathed.

We were lucky. It only took about two days to clean up all the dirt in our house. Our fellow Nassauvians, who make up two-thirds of the population of the Bahamas, were also lucky. Overall, damage was minimal. Sure, there were plenty of downed fences, trees, utility poles, and traffic lights. And the trees that are still standing are mostly leafless. Tap water was rust colored for a few days and water pressure is still low. The Ministry of Education canceled classes for the first week of school so people could clean up after the hurricane. But in a few more weeks, everything will basically be back to normal.

Apparently, storm conditions are not uniform in all areas affected by a hurricane. While other Bahamian islands were being whipped around by 140mph gusts, wind speeds in Nassau never exceeded 115mph. The most dangerous thing about Frances was the rain, especially after its winds slowed down significantly over the Florida peninsula. In many places, flood related water damage was much more serious than anything the wind destroyed. Yet ironically, Nassau remained mostly dry throughout the entire episode.

Other Bahamian islands were not so lucky. The Bahamas’ 700 islands are spread out over an area the size of the state of California so each island was affected differently. The hardest hit were heavily populated Grand Bahama and Abaco in the northwest as well as more sparsely populated San Salvador in the southeast. In Abaco alone, over 600 homes were destroyed. Grand Bahama was worse. Airports, phone lines, electricity, and water were totally disabled on both islands. And while limited services have been restored in high priority areas, such as hospitals, during the past week, most people will have to wait for weeks, or even months, before things get anywhere close to normal.

On Sunday morning, we attended worship at Emmaus Baptist Church. For the most part, we found that the members of Emmaus—not unlike members of other local churches we’ve been in contact with—managed to survive the hurricane with minimal damage. One exception is Mme. Dolean Joseph, a member of Estela’s women’s group, and her husband. The roof of the house that the Josephs share with two other families was seriously damaged during the hurricane. In order to make repairs, the landlord has asked all three families to move out by this coming Saturday. Although the Josephs have spent the week looking for another rental, they’ve not been able find anything they can afford. In the meantime, the members of the women’s group are brainstorming ways that they can help out. Even though storm damage was minimal here in Nassau, there are undoubtedly many exceptions like the Josephs who are in need of help.

The islands that suffered the worst damages, Abaco and Grand Bahama, both have large Haitian communities. While we don’t work directly with churches in either of those communities, we have been in contact with the Haitian Ambassador who plans to visit both locations early next week and assess the damage. Even though substantial relief efforts are now underway on both islands, we are concerned that Haitians may be underserved or even overlooked altogether. Meanwhile, we await more information.

By the time it’s over, 2004 will definitely be on the books as a record breaking hurricane season. Just three weeks before Hurricane Frances’ visit to Florida and the Bahamas, Florida was hit by Hurricane Charlie. As we write, Hurricane Ivan heads through the Gulf of Mexico to the southern U.S., already having left serious damage behind in Grenada and Jamaica. In the meantime, Tropical Storm Jeanne is picking up speed as it heads towards the Bahamas and will likely be reclassified as a hurricane within the next twenty-four hours.

Dan often says that he’d much rather deal with one of Colorado’s annual hundred-year record breaking blizzards than live through another hurricane. Hmmm . . . maybe next year we can try to break some more records by asking God to send us some snow to the Caribbean.

This article originally appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing on 14 September 2004.

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