08 November 2005

Bahamas rocked by "Tsunami" from Hurricane Wilma

When Hurricane Wilma ripped through Florida two weeks ago, the devastation didn't stop once the storm left the U.S.

After cutting a swath from Marco Island to Miami, Wilma picked up new strength and made a change in course that local forecasts didn't predict.

Few would realize this, however, until Wilma made landfall the next day, October 24, on Grand Bahama. The small island is the second most populous island of the Bahamas, some 65 miles (105 kilometers) off the Florida coast.

The storm became what many here are saying was the most devastating hurricane the island has ever seen. It has left at least a thousand Bahamians homeless, and hundreds more are still without electricity two weeks after the storm.

"This is the worst one I've been through," said Samuel Mation, 74, as he sifted through the remains of his small home in the village of Eight Mile Rock. "I moved to Grand Bahama in '60, and this is the worst one I've seen."

Small, remote fishing villages like Eight Mile Rock on the island's West End sustained the heaviest damage.

Residents there describe storm surges 12 feet (3.7 meters) high, which swept away more than a hundred homes and killed at least one villager, a 15-month-old child who drowned in the sea swells.

Local media are calling the surge "the Bahamian tsunami."

Now Grand Bahamians are left wondering how to rebuild and what, if anything, they can do to better protect themselves from future tropical storms.

"This was a massive wave that came in, one that was beyond any way to control it," said Sean Davis, 33, of Eight Mile Rock. "You couldn't do nothing with that one."

Davis witnessed Wilma's toll first hand from the window of his small plywood house 50 yards (45 meters) from the shore.

"About ten o'clock that morning, the breeze started to pick up heavy," Davis recalled. "We were in the house, and we were asking God to have mercy on us. And as we were praying the wind began to get loud and then after a while began to die down. I knew that something was about to happen out here."

Davis says he saw "heavy seas" rushing in and realized that, unlike with other hurricanes, the danger of Wilma would be the water, not the wind.

"I saw the wave came up about as high as the roof of this house, and the roof is for sure 12 feet [3.7 meters] or more," he said.

The surge first surrounded a house that sits between Davis's home and the shore. Then it lifted the neighbor's house off its foundation and sent it crashing into Davis's bedroom wall.

"When I saw all this was happening, and water started to pour into the house, I said to my wife, 'It's time for us to get out of here—we don't need to see any more.'"

Davis loaded his wife and four children into his minivan and drove through the thick brush behind his house and inland to safety.

Then he returned to search for his neighbor, Samuel Mation.

Davis found that the surge had flooded Mation's home, and the 74-year-old had climbed into the crawl space above the ceiling to escape the rising water.

"[The water] bust everything through—everything," Mation said. "So I run up in the ceiling. If the ceiling hadn't been there, I'd've been gone, because the water was getting so high.

"I got awful frightened," Mation recalled. "When [Davis] pulled me out he said, You'll be OK, You'll be OK, because I got frightened."

Paradise Cove
Five miles (eight kilometers) west of Eight Mile Rock, Wilma's toll was perhaps less grim but total nonetheless.

Barry Smith owns Paradise Cove, a rustic resort that draws snorkelers and scuba divers with its nearby rum-clear waters and a large coral outcrop called Deadman's Reef.

The resort was not so much ravaged by Wilma as it was rearranged, Smith said.

On the day Wilma struck, "around five [p.m., the day of landfall], my manager called and said, 'Man, everything's moved.'

"I said, 'What do you mean everything's moved?' And he said, 'Nothing's where it's supposed to be.'"

Wilma's storm surge lifted three of the resort's five bungalows from their cement footings and vaulted them 100 yards (90 meters) inland, dropping them in the middle of the road leading to the resort.

The swells also damaged two other buildings and covered what remained with 4 feet (1.25 meters) of sand.

"This one's the worst one I've seen," said Henderson Smith, Barry's father, as he surveyed the wreckage.

Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne caused widespread losses on the island in September 2004, he said, but Wilma brought a different kind of ruin.

"Frances and Jeanne did a lot of damage, but this one's much worse," he said.

"[The buildings] fared very well during Jeanne and Frances," Barry Smith explained. "But they're not damaged by the wind [after Wilma], as you can see. It's the water."

The Smiths sat out the hurricane in the relative safety of their homes in Freeport, the island's principal city, 15 miles (24 kilometers) away.

But they, like Davis and Mation of Eight Mile Rock, were surprised by Wilma's unexpected surge.

"I think it just goes to show how much they don't know about the weather," the younger Smith said.

For most victims of Hurricane Wilma on Grand Bahama, rebuilding will be a process measured in years rather than months.

But on an island where insurance is uncommon and unemployment is on the rise, recovery time can vary widely from one income level to the next.

Speaking of his plans to rebuild, Barry Smith, the resort owner, said, "It's pretty easy, because it's all a write-off," Insurance will cover most of his restoration efforts, he explained. "You got a house and the house is not there, it's a write-off. Here, five houses, five write-offs."

For Davis and Mation of Eight Mile Rock, rebuilding will be considerably more complicated.

The Bahamian government helps fund hurricane repairs, including building new homes for those whose homes were destroyed, but the process is a slow one.

Mation lost his previous home to Hurricane Frances in September 2004. Last Monday, some 14 months after that storm, he visited the site of his future replacement home to find that a roof had finally been put in place.

"Sometimes you don't know when or what is going to happen to you, because there are so many other people in line," Davis explained.

"They might not get to you until next year. And when I say next year I'm not talking about 2006—they might not get to you until 2007, because there are so many houses they have to rebuild."

Source: news.nationalgeographic.com


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