HIGH ROCK, BAHAMAS - Pastor Jeremiah Saunders stood in the golden afternoon sun and barely blinked as he debated what to pick out from the ruins of the church he built 22 years ago in the seaside village of High Rock on the eastern end of Grand Bahama island.
A black-and-blue tie floated nearby in a pool of water and beyond that a ruptured set of drums toppled. Nearby, bone-white sea shells nestled in tufts of grass, flung by surging floodwaters that a week ago carried Saunders for 200 yards until he grabbed hold of a large pine tree and spent two days on a branch after Hurricane Dorian hit the island.
“I spoke to the water: `Peace, be still.' It never listened,'' Saunders said Wednesday with a wide smile.” But then he grew serious as he focused on the daunting cleanup task facing the tens of thousands of Bahamians who live on the two islands in the northern Bahamas that were devastated by the Category 5 storm.
It will be slow process that some are tackling in very small steps. Saunders picked out two hammers, five screwdrivers and three treasured Bibles.
In contrast, 67-year-old Mary Glinton in the nearby fishing village of McLean's Town wasted no time getting rid of all her ruined possessions. She created three piles of clothes stiffened by mud and water and set them on fire. A white lace curtain, a bright pink wind-breaker and an old pair of black pants soon went into the flames. She most lamented that all her church clothes were ruined.
“I love blue, and most of my dresses are blue,” she said standing near the fire in green flip-flops, her legs caked with mud. She also lamented the loss of her 1-year-old pet hog, Princess.
A preliminary report estimates Dorian caused a total of some $7 billion in damage, but the government of the Bahamas has not yet offered any figures. Crews have started to remove some debris on both islands, but they are moving slowly to avoid accidentally disturbing any bodies lying in the rubble. The official death toll stands at 50, and Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said he expects the number to significantly increase.
About 2,500 people are listed as missing in the hurricane's aftermath, although the government has cautioned that it still needs to check names against the rosters of people evacuated from the devastated islands or staying in shelters.
But as cleanup continues, the first hints of normalcy could be seen in Freeport, a city on Grand Bahama that is operated by a private company, which provides utilities and charges residents without any government intervention. Lights began to flicker on in some neighborhoods, and crews were seen repairing transformers in other areas.
Among those celebrating the return of electricity was rental car company driver Clifton Williams, who was driving home from work when he saw an illuminated streetlight for the first time since the hurricane.
“I didn't expect that so quickly,” he said. “First thing I do, I cut on the fan and cool off myself,” he added, saying he slept well for the first time in more than a week thanks to the fan.
But the small villages that dot the eastern coast of Grand Bahama have barely received any help. Some residents hitchhike daily from Freeport to their destroyed homes to sort through their belongings and clean up.
Tereha Davis, a 45-year-old fisherwoman, said she was unable to find a ride one day and ended up walking eight miles under the blistering sun. Davis was setting up piles of things she salvaged until she could find someone who could give her a ride back to Freeport with all her possessions. On Wednesday, she walked through McLean's Town wearing bright purple surgical gloves, taking a break from cleaning as she looked for something sweet to drink for a boost of energy. She found nothing.
She and others said they had not seen any government officials and have only received food and water from some nonprofit groups.
The prime minister acknowledged the situation in a televised address late Wednesday.
“There have been problems in the coordination of this aid due to the magnitude of this devastation,” Minnis said, adding that he understands the deep frustration of those dealing with ``bureaucratic roadblocks'' and pledged to reduce the red tape and bring in more aid and extra personnel.
“There are no words sufficient to describe this tragedy,” Minnis said. “No Bahamian has ever seen anything like this in their lifetime.”
As they wait for more help, people across Grand Bahama waded into the cleanup, tossing out mattresses, tearing off roof shingles and clearing branches and power lines as they stood near concrete walls that Dorian knocked down.
At his Beulah Land Ministries church, the 61-year-old Saunders had been preparing to open a small boarding place for visiting mission groups before Dorian hit. He stood surrounded by gleaming white toilets and sinks, piles of shiny brown tiles and soggy rolls of burgundy carpet.
“I am going to rebuild,” he said in the ruins of his church. The only thing that remained unscathed was a wooden crucifix that he nailed to a wall 22 years ago.