Small Bahamas islands face big clean up from Irene

AP News
Posted: Aug 26, 2011 10:08 PM
Small Bahamas islands face big clean up from Irene

Trees flattened by the thousands. Power lines strewn across the road. Part of the roof gone at a church, the prayer books drenched with rain. Homes flooded by storm surge, the furniture hauled out to the front yard to dry.

This narrow island in the southeastern Bahamas took the full force of Hurricane Irene at its most powerful, whipped by winds that exceeded 120 mph in a storm that people said was something they will never forget.

"Oh lord, oh lord, all I can tell you was it was the worst thing I've ever been through in my life," 46-year-old Lena Mae Wright said Friday as she cleared water-logged furniture and clothing out of her house. "It was horrible, horrible."

Wright went to a friend's house for safety during the worst of the wind and rain. When she returned, she found the storm surge had torn off her boarded-over kitchen door and sent water three feet deep into her home. The carpets and couch appeared ruined. Her mattresses had been carried out to sea.

"I met the kitchen door in the road," she said.

The exact extent of damage in the Bahamas was still being tallied, but preliminary reports indicated hundreds of homes were damaged, said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the country's National Emergency Management Agency. There were no deaths or major injuries.

New Providence, the most populated island in the Bahamas, was far enough from the eye of the storm that winds there did not exceed tropical storm force. But Cat Island and other small, sparsely populated parts of the chain were chewed up.

"Devastating, in one word," said Christopher Studds, who has lived on the island for a decade and previously served as its top administrative official. "I put my head out the door and the wind almost took my face off."

Other islands that experienced extensive damage included Acklins and Crooked islands, both in the south with populations around 400. Dozens of homes were destroyed or badly damaged, Russell said.

A full assessment was likely to take several days as government officials travel to affected islands and communications are restored.

"One problem is that on a lot of islands we haven't heard anything and we don't know how well or how badly they are faring," said Darren Adler, chief of operations for the aid group Humanitarian Operations.

The organization was distributing food with assistance of a U.S.-based group, Sea Air Land Security, which lent helicopters and a plane. "We have to make sure there are no families living rough and suffering," Adler said.

As the storm bore down on the Bahamas, officials had said that Cat Island, about 80 miles southeast of the capital, was of particular concern because the storm would be at maximum strength as it passed over.

Their worry was justified. Many people have lost houses and businesses.

The low-lying island is home to about 1,600 people, mostly in modest houses. It is a quiet place that seems a world away from the resorts of Nassau but still draws visitors for the fishing, its quiet, undeveloped beaches and an annual festival devoted to "rake and scrape," a type of music said to have been invented on Cat Island.

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham was expected to visit the island Saturday to assess the damage and meet with residents.

Evelyn Burrows, who runs a combination bar-restaurant-clothing store called Periwinkles, was flooded out when ocean water surged over her back patio, tearing off the plywood that she thought would protect her business. But she was cleaning up and hoped to reopen when the power was back on, though no one could say for certain when that would happen.

"I was born here and grew up here and I wouldn't trade it for anything," Burrows said in her darkened bar.

Julian Russell, the owner or a restaurant, said the storm was a huge blow to the island but he believes it will recover.

"We're hoping we will see some improvement now that we are getting some attention," he said.