Guana Cay - The Little Island With a Big Heart
16.09.2019 - 20.09.2019
The Stages of Grief Dorian
1 DENIAL: The “It Can’t Be That Bad” Stage
“It’s not going to be that bad,” I said. “I’m sure the media made it look worse than it really is. They exaggerate everything.”
We were landing at the Marsh Harbour airport 2 weeks after hurricane Dorian.
It was the smell that I noticed first.
A cloud of decay, the smell of rotten meat that has been left in the sun too long, overwhelmed me as soon as we opened the door of the plane.
I stepped out into the hot glare, seeing this place that had always welcomed me immediately with the fresh smell of sea air, a balmy breeze rustling through the bright green trees, and the smiling faces of the guys on the ramp as they greeted us warmly with a hearty, “Good Morning!” like I was seeing it for the first time.
It was just 15 days after Hurricane Dorian came screaming through, ripping across tiny Abaco like a vast beast, bent on destroying everything in her reach. Dorian, the 2nd most powerful Atlantic hurricane since records of hurricanes began, left a massive trail of destruction, reducing this gentle island I loved so much to nothing more than a cosmic pile of rubble, debris, and tangled power lines.
The smell was ever present as we stepped out onto the runway. What was part of the airport was now a twisted hulk of metal…hanger, airplane, vehicles….all rolled into one inseparable mass. The surrounding trees were sheared off, knocked over, those that still stood were stripped and brown. Helicopters buzzed overhead and giant camouflage painted trucks sped past. I looked around as several dirty, rag tag vehicles, salvaged from what was still running made their way around the rubble. Most had significant parts missing, a door twisted off, no mirrors, a cracked windshield. Some had been cobbled together with wire or duct tape. It reminded me more of a scene from Max Mad than my gentle Marsh Harbor airport, what was usually a happy gateway to an anticipated week of bliss.
Marsh Harbor was chaos. It was the wild west.
There was no customs. No immigration. No officials. No one asked to see my passport. There were just the ramp guys.
Still, they were smiling and greeted us warmly with a hearty, “Good Morning,” but their eyes looked weary. I handed them a box of Dunkin’ Donuts that I carried in my lap from Florida. It was a small gesture for these men that had lost so much.
After a long, hot wait on the tarmac, not really knowing what the plan was, a dusty Mercedes with a busted windshield pulled up.
We hopped in and headed toward town.
Or should I say, the heap of wood and metal and cement that used to be town?
Windows down because almost nothing on the car still worked, the smell rode with us. It was everywhere. It was everything. As I looked out the window, my eyes couldn’t take it all in. I simply couldn’t process what I was seeing.
I had seen the photos. I had seen the videos.
Nothing prepared me for the reality.
Beautiful Marsh Harbour was a wasteland. It was as though a giant had taken his fist and simply crushed everything in sight. I guess a giant did, Dorian, that monster.
It was just piles of wood and debris, caved in buildings, flipped over cars, and boats everywhere that a boat didn’t belong. Virtually nothing was left standing and what was standing was utterly destroyed. As I breathed in the smell of decay, I prayed it was only rotting groceries.
Our first task was to try to locate our boat and several others’. We knew approximately where they were and parked the car in the general vicinity.
The guys disappeared quickly, leaving me standing alone in the middle of the street with all our supplies and a busted up Mercedes.
I never once felt unsafe.
There were people milling around. They paid me no mind. I even had one of the “dangerous looters” go by. He had his arms full of boat electronics…probably from our boat….and he simply nodded his head, smiled, and said, “Hello.” I smiled back and said, “Hello.” He waved with the arm that wasn’t full of looted boat parts and continued on down the road.
He was just trying to survive. I don’t begrudge him that.
I looked around at the massive destruction and what struck me most was the randomness of seeing perfectly intact, normal, everyday objects. It was surreal. There was a twisted heap that used to be a house and lying on the sidewalk was a perfectly good spatula.
I was startled by something behind me and turned around to see a medium sized dog. Its fur was wet and matted and the skin on its nose was raw and stripped. I spoke gently, “Hi there,” and turned to get a sandwich out of the car. By the time I turned around with the sandwich, the dog was gone.
I sat in the street and cried.
It was just too much.
Eventually I saw the guys crawling over an upside down boat. They had found everything they needed.
It was time to go to Guana Cay.
I wasn’t sure I was ready.
Back at the airport, we abandoned the Mercedes for a pick-up truck that we filled with a generator, endless tarps and roofing supplies, mold spray, tools, fans, drinking water, and a lot of tuna packs. The truck drove us to a recently repaired dock where we simply waited, again, not really knowing what the plan was. We were flying by the seat of our pants.
After some time, a small 18’ boat arrived.
With 25 mph winds….this wasn’t going to be a fun ride.
The ride over might have been one of the most painful experiences of my life to date. Matt and I took the bow, to spare the others the worst of the ride. They were here because of us, we owed them that. We were on our hands and knees (to save our spines) on top of canvas bags filled with tools…not the softest or most forgiving surface. We both white knuckled the rope tied to the front of the bow for dear life. The little boat slammed down repeatedly, as though it was hitting cement, as wave upon wave met us. Each time it slammed down, we were washed with a fresh wave of salt water. We alternated between grunting, screaming, crying, and laughing. Then it started to rain.
I looked at Matt. “Really?” I said. We laughed again. And then we cried.
After an hour, we saw Guana Harbour. As we motored slowly up to the island, my heart felt like it was being squeezed. There was nothing left. The bright and happy harbor that I had pulled into so many times, was a pile of pick up sticks, broken cement, and dead gnarled trees. Everything was broken and brown.
We put on a brave face. There wasn’t any time to be sad. This wasn’t a time to mourn. We had too much work to do.
The boat pulled into our dock which was surprisingly intact. About 4 other boats were tied up. I looked at Matt. “Looks like we’re the public dock now!” We were happy to do it. We were happy to still have a dock.
As the guys unloaded, I ran straight for my house. I know that is selfish, in the face of so much loss by so many, but I could no longer contain it. It had been my refuge, my peace, the place where my spirit felt happiness. I needed to see it.
Bikini Hut was standing. She wasn’t only standing, she was beautiful.
I ran inside, not knowing what to expect.
Everything looked exactly like I had left it except it was all wet. And dirty. Everything fabric was soaked. The rugs were saturated. The walls, floors, and everything inside had a fine layer of funk laying on them. But to me, it was beautiful. Because it was THERE.
I ran upstairs, knowing we had lost a window, so I was prepared for the worst.
It looked like a bomb of glass, sand, mud, trees, and sheetrock had gone off in my bedroom. The bed was covered with what was left of the window and the wall. The floors and walls were covered with everything else.
Amazing that I could look at this and feel lucky. No, not lucky, BLESSED. God blessed. How this home had survived to this degree was simply a miracle. I felt guilty that my home had been spared when almost everyone I loved had lost theirs.
No time for that, I ran back downstairs to start cleaning.
It was 4:00 and we had only a few hours of daylight to get the downstairs clean and dry so we could sleep in there.
We ran over to the Command Center to check in before I got busy making us a dry place to sleep.
The church recreation hall located next to our house had survived, and now served as the new Guana Cay Command Center. It was an amazing bustle of activity. Supplies were being brought in on our dock and transported there. They had the big generator running and inside were tables lined up, supplies, food, water, a kitchen, and the smiling faces of the people we have grown to know and love. They invited us to join them for dinner and asked if we needed anything. Determined not to draw on their limited resources, we thanked them but let them know we’d eat what we brought, but that we’d take all the hugs and smiles they had to offer. They gave plenty. These people who had lost so much.
I was so impressed by how organized and productive they already were. It had only been 2 weeks and the Command Center was already serving as a base of operations for the locals remaining on the island.
We put our name on the board, shared hugs all around, and I got back to the house to do the world’s fastest post-hurricane cleaning ever.
With just a few hours of daylight, I was able to strip all the wet things and drag them outside. Matt said, “Throw all that away,” but I refused, putting everything in piles on the porch where I could try to clean and dry it later. You guys already know how neurotic I am, so this should not surprise anyone…..I was not going to lose any of it. I was determined.
About 15 minutes after dark, what remained downstairs was dry and clean. Using an inflatable solar lamp any my tiny backcountry camping stove, I made us a quick dinner using summer sausage, a pouch of pre-cooked rice, a plastic container of corn, and a pouch of black beans. That night, it tasted like filet mignon. We drank some delicious warm bottled water with it and followed that with a lovely bath taken by sitting in the (now clean) bathtub with 1 gallon of cold cistern water.
I learned that night that I can wash my hair with shampoo, rinse it, condition it, rinse it again, and wash my body with 1 gallon of water. Don’t tell Matt. I don’t want him to have unrealistic expectations for the future.
With no electricity, we opened all the doors and windows and had 2 on the guest bed, one on the couch, and one on the floor. We were tired, but dry and strangely happy to be there. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
2 BARGAINING: The “I Can Fix This” Stage
The rooster was behind the house.
“Are you kidding me?” I rolled over and said to Matt. “That’s one tough rooster. He survived a Cat 5 and is now going to raise a race of super chickens on this island. We should be very afraid.”
“I guess he’s telling us to get up,” Matt said.
We hadn’t slept well. We were all wound up and exhausted at the same time. And it was so HOT.
“Shut up you two,” we heard from the couch. “It’s only 4:30.”
“The rooster doesn’t agree,” Matt said.
There was nothing to do but get up and get busy.
We had SO. MUCH. TO. DO. We didn’t even know how to start. We felt paralyzed by just how overwhelming it all was.
Coffee. I decided to start with coffee. We had a quick breakfast of instant coffee and cold oatmeal and then it was time to face all that needed to be done. We had so much to clean and dry, drywall and flooring to rip out, roof and siding to repair, and someone had to see if they could get us some running water. We had to flip the generator over and see if we could get it working, try to patch up the golf cart and see if it ran, and eventually go see what was left of Teeny Bikini. The water pump was busted, the gutters were off, and there was a dead tree attached to the porch.
Everyone got busy.
You would think we would have taken a look around. We didn’t.
You would think we would have gone over to Teeny Bikini to see what was left. We didn’t.
We weren’t ready yet. It was easier to just start working. I felt like, “If I can just get these rugs cleaned, everything will be okay. If I can just get the glass out of the upstairs bed, everything will be okay.” Surely there was enough mold spray and tarps to make everything right again.
I worked most of the day without even looking outside. As long as I was inside my house, everything was the same. I could pretend there was no Hurricane Dorian as long as I didn't look outside.
3 DEPRESSION: The “It’s Hopeless” Stage
By about 4:00, I was at the point that I needed to be able to use fans and a washing machine to finish my job. We hadn’t had any luck with the generator at this point, and had no idea if the generator from the other house survived, so I was stuck until we got some power and water going.
“I think I’m ready to go see the little house,” I told Matt. “I’m going to walk down.”
We hadn’t been successful getting our golf cart running. It was sitting in the yard, with no seat, looking quite forlorn.
“Let’s go together,” he said.
We walked down to Teeny Bikini. It was my first real look at things. Front Street was a war zone. Almost everything was reduced to a pile of lumber sprinkled with random, everyday objects. Very few building were standing. Trees were on the ground with electrical wires wound around everything. A huge crater had opened up in the middle of the road in front of the dive shop. Boats sat in snarled piles, some inside buildings, some in the middle of the road. Everything that was lush and green was brown.
I was in shock.
Somehow, with everything shattered around it, the little house stood. She looked pretty rough, but she was standing. I had SO MUCH HOPE.
I had to crawl in through a hole in the door where something had busted through because the doors were screwed shut with plywood. When I stood up inside, I could see she was lost.
The floors and walls inside were bent and twisted at the wrong angles. The bedroom was a foot higher than the kitchen, a huge crack opened up between them where I could see the ground through the floor. The house had been picked up by storm surge and knocked off its foundation. The floors were covered with mud and sand. It was all broken inside.
“I’m sorry,” Matt said.
“Can you leave me alone in here for a few minutes?” I asked.
Matt crawled out to go check on the tools and generator sheds.
Y’all….I know it is just a house, but that little house was such a part of my soul. I sat on the wet couch and had a long, ugly cry. The kind where you make terrible noises and snot runs out your nose. The kind that makes you worry you might die. My heart was broken. I remembered exactly 4 years ago, coming down with Matt and Bella and Rooby to make this sweet little house our own. We painted, we scrubbed, we worked so hard and made it our home. Our home on Guana.
It was perfect and precious.
I cried like someone in my family had died. She went through a Category 5 hurricane and STOOD, but she was still gone. Silly, I know, but my heart was so heavy. It wasn’t the house so much as what the house represented. I love what my friend Chris said, “The house is really just a symbol of the love I have for this place…..”
I think this is how we all felt. No one was sad that they lost a boat or a car. Everyone's heart was broken at the loss of this island we loved so much.
When all the tears were gone, I crawled back out the door. Matt was waiting on the street, among the rubble and debris.
“Want to walk down the street to Grabbers?” he asked.
I wanted to.
I didn’t want to.
I couldn’t count how many times we had made this walk. Shutting Teeny Bikini’s happy white front door, holding hands, heading down the palm lined street to get a frosty frozen Grabber and watch the sunset.
This walk was so different.
Grabbers was gone. Even the pool was gone. Lifted and blown away to who knows where.
Matt sat on a downed palm tree and just looked around in disbelief as I walked around the other side of what was left.
When I came back, I stood and watched him and his grief broke my heart.
We’d been in Abaco for over 24 hours without thinking about the devastation, but it finally hit us. When it hit us, it hit hard, straight into our hearts.
“We can never fix this,” Matt said. “Look around. How can this small island handle this much destruction? How do we even start?”
“One board at a time,” I said.
4 ANGER: The “@##$%&&!!!” Stage
We went through a lot of emotions that first full day. It was like being on a roller coaster.
We got back to the house. It was hot. We were all sweaty and dirty. We’d been working about 10 hours. The stress of the situation was starting to hit me.
I knew I was at my breaking point when John, who had already spent 10 hot hours on my roof told me he used “that rag that was upstairs to clean the baseboards” and my head literally imploded.
I became an insane person.
“WHY WOULD YOU USE A FACECLOTH AS A CLEANING RAG? I HAVE CLEANING RAGS!!!! I HAVE A WHOLE BAG OF CLEANING RAGS AND, LIKE, 3 FACECLOTHS. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??? &*%$##!!@”
As the 3 guys looked at me like my head was spinning backwards and green vomit was coming out of my mouth, I realized how absurd it was.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m not angry about losing a facecloth. I’m angry about losing all of it. All of this. This beautiful island. This way of life. This future.”
The material loss was nothing. What was lost was so much bigger. This place was beautiful. This community was wonderful. Their homes and their livelihoods were important. This life we knew here was so essential to us. And it felt shattered.
I felt hollowed out.
I felt gutted.
I was sad.
I was angry.
I wanted this to be someone's fault. Someone I could punch in the face.
That night, heartsick, we let our island family love us back to life. We let them convince us to join them for dinner at the Command Center. We were grieving and seeing their happy faces gave us comfort. A relief group had brought in a feast of BBQ, mac n’ cheese, baked beans and they were having a party. How could these wonderful people be so full of life and joy in spite of what they had all been through?
They told us stories of hiding in basements that were flooding by the minute, wondering if they would survive, of living in their bathtub for hours with a mattress over their heads, of running from their home as it collapsed in the winds to another home, of being trapped inside their shattered houses for days as the rain and wind battered them long after the hurricane passed.
I couldn’t believe it. As I watched them all gather for a triumphant photo, and saw their joy in the midst of what felt like such despair, my heart lifted. This is why I loved this place.
This is what superheroes look like.
We went to sleep that night knowing we were committed to this place. No matter what it became or how long it took. This was still our place. It would always be our place.
Guana was still home.
5 ACCEPTANCE: The “This is the New Normal” Stage
It was our third day and our second full day on Guana. Our routine had quickly become, get up early, be working around 6:30 a.m., stop for a 15 minute lunch, and work until around 5:00. The days were long and hot and hard. Already, there was no part of my body that didn’t hurt.
I was impressed by the Command Center. The entire island would gather at 8:00 a.m. and share breakfast, and then everyone would go to work.
They were clearing debris from the roads, rebuilding the places where the road had caved in, fixing roofs, getting generators going, shuttling supplies. They would regroup at noon for lunch and return to work. Dinner was a joyful affair at 6:00. Then everyone would go home and do it all again the next day.
I was amazed at how quickly the landscape and strange daily routine became normal. By the third day in Abaco, it just was. It didn’t seem so strange anymore. It was simply the way things were and it was okay.
We had gotten one of the generators sort of working the night before on a very limited basis. Matt swiped the water pump from Teeny Bikini and we cobbled something together that almost worked. I needed to run about 9 loads of laundry. Every single thing had to be washed. Matt said to hurry. He didn’t know how long our patches would last and I couldn’t use the dryer because we needed to conserve fuel.
I washed EVERYTHING. With no clothes line and no dryer, I had stuff draped on everything that wouldn’t run away. I had things strung up with chip clips. It looked ridiculous.
The generator and pump kicked off about every 45 minutes, but I managed to get it all done. I have never washed so much in one day. Somehow, I saved everything in that house except 2 rugs and a couple of throw pillows. I think Matt was very sad that all 12 decorative pillows on the upstairs bed survived.
John spent another long, hot day on the roof. Matt did rip and tear on the upstairs. Bob worked on generators and gutters.
It was so hot we probably drank about 10 bottles of water each every day just trying to get through the day. About halfway through the third day I asked Matt, “Don’t think this is weird, but are you peeing much?”
“No,” he said. “It scared me at first but I guess we’re sweating so much we don’t need to.”
It was weird. But apparently normal.
The new normal.
We ate nuts and dried fruit and lots of tuna. We drank lots of warm water. We were still bathing with gallons of cistern water because the pump was hinky.
Every time I looked out my window, the island was so busy. Troy was working on the generator. Mikey was hauling stuff up the dock from the boat. Nedias was shoveling sand into a washed out place on the side of the road. A crew was pouring cement into the caved in street. I heard a chain saw in the distance. Tami and Christine labored at the Command Center.
The entire island was working so hard. We all loved this place so much and it showed in every hour of sweat equity we put in. They had so much momentum and it was catching.
Sometime after lunch, I pushed my big wheeled beach cart down to Teeny Bikini to salvage what I could. I must have looked like a lunatic, crawling out of a hole in the door desperately clutching a box of tin foil and a roll of toilet paper.
I felt triumphant. I might have lost the house, but by God, I have this roll of paper towels. Take that, Dorian!
After two hot, sweaty trips, I had salvaged plenty of towels and sheets, cleaning supplies, dishes, anything from Teeny that survived. It was all I had left. I even managed to get a huge stack of clean facecloths. John could use all he wanted.
It was late afternoon. We were hot and covered with dirt and sweat. We were bone tired and our bodies ached.
“You know what would make us feel better?” I said. “Make us feel normal? The beach. The beach is still there. It’s still the same. Let’s go jump in the water for a minute. It will help, I think.”
It was a good idea in theory.
Y’all….we couldn’t get to the flipping beach!
Every road, every path, every stairway that led down was blocked, gone, or covered with debris.
We briefly reverted back to the ANGER stage.
Then we realized there was nothing to do but laugh. It was sad and funny all at the same time.
Eventually, we found a path that was covered with what was left of two homes and many downed palm trees, but we could crawl over and around it.
We found the beach.
It was different. But it was the same.
For just a moment, we forgot it all. The sand was still the same white sand. The ocean was still more shades of blue than I could count. The salty breeze still made me feel alive.
If I looked behind me, there was nothing but destruction, but as I faced forward, it was beautiful. We just needed to remember not to look back. We had to keep looking forward.
One board at a time.
6 HOPE: The “Every Little Thing is Gonna’ be Alright” Stage
It was our last day. We had to get everything finished so we could leave the next morning and beat some weather to get home.
This was the day everything went from “new normal” to “we got this.”
It started when sweet Christine walked over from the Command Center with a donut.
“You need this,” she said as she put it in my hands. God love her.
Our friend Chris, known island wide for his coffee, had arrived the afternoon before. The damage to his house had been miraculously minimal. More importantly….the coffee machine had survived!
Coffee at Chris’s is a Guana tradition. If the sign on his sunny little yellow cottage is turned to “Hot Now,” everyone gathers on his patio for coffee that rivals any coffee shop I have been to. When Chris told us the night before to come over for coffee in the morning, my heart skipped a beat.
At 8:00 a.m. that last morning, we were sitting on Chris’s patio, sipping a cortado like nothing had ever happened.
Well, unless you looked at the boat in the middle of the road.
With only one day left, we got busy. John was back on the roof, Matt and Bob were still working on the generator and pump, gutters, and putting something over the back of the house where the siding was missing. I spent the day cleaning what was left of the upstairs and spraying for mold where the wet floors had been ripped up.
I wasn’t taking any chances. I sprayed twice with Lemocide. Then I sprayed 3 times with vinegar. I scrubbed with soap and water. Then, I sprayed twice with bleach. I know they say bleach doesn’t kill mold on wood, but the vinegar did and the bleach just made me feel good.
My entire upstairs smelled like I’d been dying Easter eggs.
By late that afternoon, the roof was temporarily patched, the back of the house was temporarily patched, the window was temporarily patched, all of the wet drywall and flooring was gone, the gutters were back on, and the house was clean and dry.
We hadn’t been using the generator for anything but fans and the washing machine up to that point, because it still wasn’t working right, but that last day we invited friends over for dinner and decided to make things as normal as we could. We decided to make ice, run the a/c, and use lights and showers that night! The water pump kicked off every 45 minutes, but we made it work.
It was time to celebrate.
“And Bob said LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
I know God said it first, but Bob said it that night. And it was good.
Our friends brought a pork loin they had brought from home and wine they had salvaged from their house. We had champagne that had survived the storm, cold drinks, rice, broccoli, and pasta. After 4 days of tuna, PB&J, and warm water….. it was a FEAST.
Everyone got a cold shower. It was the best shower ever. Even though the water pump kept shutting off.
As we sat in the now clean den, surrounded by Guana friends, I knew that everything really was going to be alright.
Cheers, to my beautiful little island.
And just like that, it was time to go.
Does it sound crazy when I say I didn’t want to leave? If I could have stayed and worked beside those people indefinitely, I would have. I felt sorry that I hadn’t had more time to do more for them. We barely had enough time to do what we needed to do.
I struggled with the extreme range of emotions we had gone through in so few days. I really didn’t know how to process what I felt. I’m normally very good with words and I had no words.
So I did all I could – I hugged the people I loved and told them I’d see them again.
We pinned up the house as best we could, knowing we’d have to return in a few months to put a permanent fix on things.
As we climbed on the boat for another violent and wet ride, I looked back at Guana.
“I’ll be back,” I said in my best terminator voice.
And then I held on for dear life.
I smelled Marsh Harbour before I saw it.
A very wet ride later, we found ourselves once again on Great Abaco with no idea how we were going to get anywhere. Eventually, we simply flagged down a busted up SUV and asked for a ride. He was happy to help.
As the plane climbed, I looked down at the destroyed landscape below me.
Guana Cay is still there. They are alive and moving forward one board at a time.
Their homes are either gone or are damaged and patched. They have no electricity and won’t for probably a year. Their jobs are gone. Most of them don’t have hurricane insurance because it’s simply cost prohibitive. No one is going to come in and help them rebuild.
They put in long, hot thankless hours. When their day is done, they don't go home to a comfortable recliner and TV. They don't have a cold beer. They don't have a hot shower. They don't have a closet full of clean clothes. Still, they get up every day and work with joy in their hearts.
Their only clean drinking water is what you give. Their only food is what you give. The only supplies they will have to rebuild their homes and their lives is what you give.
Their lives are forever changed, but they have embraced it and are determined to rebuild. Their spirits and joy are beautiful. Great Guana Cay will be a Greater Guana Cay, but they need so much help.
If this blog has brought you any joy over the years, I ask that you please give something to the foundation set up just for Guana Cay. Donations are being matched dollar for dollar by an anonymous donor up to $1 million dollars. All funds are tax deductible and 100% of the funds will go directly to Guana Cay. This is administered by someone I know and trust.
Please give anything you can through the Great Guana Cay Foundation.
And please don’t forget about them. They need our help for some time to come.
It’s still gooder on Guana Cay.