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Surviving Dorian: A Story from the Abacos

By Margaret Cross Rice Woody and Margaret Rice rode out Hurricane Dorian in their home in Sugar Loaf Cay in the Abacos. It was a hellacious ordeal. For more on Hurricane Dorian, its impact on the Bahamas, the state of the Abacos today and the response to the storm, read the January/February issue of InTheBite magazine.   In 2008 Margaret Cross Rice and her husband, Kenneth L Rice, Jr.(Woody), retired to Sugarloaf Cay in the Abacos. On September 1, 2019, Margaret and Woody and their two friends, Simon and Melay, survived one of the worst hurricane disasters in recorded history.  Friday night, August 30, we were 90-percent ready for the storm. I still needed to plan a couple of meals and get all the plants off the porch and inside the upstairs house.  I began taking items such as clothes and our all-weather jackets with the life vests to our downstairs bunker. Melay, one of our Sugarloaf helpers, wanted to stay across the pond at the house he usually occupies during a hurricane.  Eleven property owners share this pond on the horseshoe-shaped 62-acre island off the Eastern Shore of Marsh Harbour. No one else was on the island. Most of the residents leave right before or sometime during the summer months. Simon, our neighbor to the east of the pond, was on the island for a few weeks and came to stay with us on Saturday morning at about 11 a.m. He had his little Chihuahua Peanut in tow.  We had our less than three-pound Papillon that we rescued 12 years ago. I thought that I should charge my Nook and bring some playing cards. The weather reports at this point were rather grim, but no one said that Dorian would be 200 plus miles an hour. Weather reports indicated that we could expect a slow-moving category 4 or 5. Since my husband and I had been through many hurricanes such as Hurricane Donna in the early 60’s, etc., and my mom was pregnant with me during the 1949 hurricane, my husband Woody and I thought we would be fine. After many preparations, we focused on the water situation. Having enough water was vital. The electric would go out and we would switch to our generator before the hurricane started. If the generator stopped, we needed extra water, and of course, we ran out of diesel because Dorian lasted so long. With the food and water we had, a hurricane of this magnitude would be survivable for us. My husband had built our Bahama home beyond the International or Dade County building code which became mandatory for all new homes built in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. All four of us believed, according to slightly different weather reports, that Dorian would come in at 8 p.m. Saturday after some tropical storm business. Well, the next report on Saturday was that Dorian would now hit us about 8 a.m. Sunday morning after the opening tropical storm winds. Woody and I knew that our downstairs was a concrete bunker as safe or almost as safe as our being in the President’s underground bunker in Washington, D.C. And that’s what I told my sister who thought Woody, Simon, and I were akin to the Three Stooges. That became the moniker Anne used when she called Simon’s family who could not understand why Simon did not get out of Abaco while he could. Woody and I did not leave because our house is a large investment and Woody is also the island best friend. I tried to explain to my sister and brother and friends why we were staying, and only my brother seemed to understand that my house would be incredibly safe. Early Sunday morning, after about an hour’s sleep, my husband said, “the winds are increasing, we need to get downstairs while we can.” We took quick showers, the last ones we would take for three days. At four in the morning, we went downstairs to the bunker where Simon and Peanut had already spent the night. Our little dog Papi stayed in his carrier most of the time because he is so old, but he and Peanut eventually worked things out, as animals usually do. The tropical storm, Act I, began picking up speed at about 11 a.m. and Dorian was soon upon us. Upstairs we have Pella hurricane impact windows that are supposed to last through a 140 miles an hour. At 200 miles an hour plus, the upstairs windows held. In our bunker downstairs we have double glazed windows and the aluminum shutters on top of the windows. Nothing blew out. Dorian’s first slam lasted about five hours; then came the eye of calm. All three of us went outside and surveyed the damage, stunned that the next-door neighbor’s house was gone and the neighbor’s cottage to the south was gone. His main house, however, appeared to be standing. The other houses to the east, including Simon’s, appeared to be intact. Our house had some water damage upstairs because the house to the north of us must have hit the edge of our roof. After about an hour of total calm in the eye, the monster winds began again for phase two. This was the real horror. Our home of poured concrete shook so badly that the bed we were sitting on began vibrating. The deafening rain and wind were hitting the aluminum shutters with no relief. The three of us had evacuated to the bedroom after the living room sliding glass doors, protected by shutters, appeared to be coming apart. Simon and Woody put wood in the bottom tracks, preventing the glass slider from ripping and exploding inside. While we huddled in the bedroom with the two dogs, Simon saw the back door begin opening. He raced over and shut the door. Then Woody and Simon attached a piece of covered wire to a new nail in the door casing. Problem solved. This second Dorian slamming lasted hours and hours. On Monday afternoon the hurricane moved its huge bloated self slowly away as another tropical storm came in to take Dorian’s place. About 5 p.m. Monday afternoon we surveyed the damage again. Because of the heavy rain, we could not see much, so the three of us assumed that everything looked as it had during the eye on Sunday. Not exactly. The main house of our neighbor to the south was standing but gutted and the entire Eastern Shore of Marsh Harbour looked like the aftermath of a bombing.

Photo courtesy Ron Methot

Our house had another leak, probably due to a neighbor’s shed blowing over us. Woody, Simon, and I began working to dry everything, including the tile floor downstairs. Our double-hung windows were good downstairs in our bunker, but the 200 plus winds had pushed the rain through the windows. During Dorian, I had used every towel but three to mop up the water that just kept coming in. We knew the water was not rising, just raining, no flooding. The tide did come up but not near the house and not near the front door. Meanwhile, our friend Melay was stuck without a radio at the only surviving house next to Simon’s. All four of us had forgotten to make sure he had a radio.  When the generator blew over at this surviving house, Melay lost power during the second phase of the storm. On Tuesday afternoon the tropical storm was still raging, but not the worst we had experienced.  Woody and Simon walked the island to rescue Melay, who was fine but out of food, although he had plenty of water. All three of them came back to our bunker after a quick survey of Simon’s house. He had some roof and gutter damage and a small hole in one of his walls due to another house’s debris slamming into his place. Going and coming around the island was another nightmare for the men. They had to climb over the island jungle that had now collapsed; bits and pieces of houses and boats and smaller personal items were blocking the way. By Wednesday, September 4, Woody was able to get the water flowing from our cistern, and we had quick showers. We get our water or did get our water from a pipe running from Marsh Harbour’s Eastern Shore. No more water pipes thanks to Dorian.

Photo courtesy Ron Methot

We stored the city water in our three thousand tank cistern, but before the storm hit, we were down to 1200 gallons. The one pump broke. Unfortunately, the hurricane also caused a leak, and the day we thought all was well was the beginning of the end for both the cistern and then the generator. They failed us early Friday morning. September 6: We had been using the generator only at night, which meant the generator worked for 12 hours on and 12 hours off, but I suppose it too became traumatized by the storm. So…Friday morning Woody was able to get our neighbor’s Boston Whaler working. This is the only working boat on the island. The rest are destroyed. Three houses out of 12 on the island made it through Dorian. Saturday morning. September 7: Melay, Woody and I motored to Simon’s house to take showers and have coffee. Four hours earlier, Woody, Melay and Simon had taken the generator from another neighbor’s demolished house. They hooked it up to Simon’s electric panel and changed his burned-out water pump. We were now able to have showers, do laundry, and charge our phones and VHF radios. Woody and I bought a Satellite phone years ago which we have been using to call the U.S. No cell service yet since the top fifty feet of the main cell phone tower was blown away. On Sunday afternoon friends came by in their boat from Florida with food and water and diesel. Although our experience has been and is awful, we are really blessed that Melay, Simon, Woody, and I are alive. Melay no longer has a home in Marsh Harbour, so he will be living with us. One of my friends almost drowned in her house during Dorian and lost everything. Other friends also lost their homes or parts of them, while clinging to each other for hours and praying to survive. My U.S. family and friends keep asking why Woody and I don’t leave. The answer: looters will take over our home. This is not the U.S., and we need Martial Law established in Marsh Harbour. As homeowners on Sugarloaf Cay, Woody and I must stand our ground.   Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts and prayers. Please help the Bahamians survive and rebuild. If this 200-plus storm had hit Florida, the same horror would have happened there. Margaret Cross Rice Sugarloaf Cay Marsh Harbour Abaco, Bahamas