I’d been bracing myself for the worst, but nothing could prepare me for the scene that greeted me when I arrived in Abaco in the north western Bahamas this week.
Abaco lay at the heart of Hurricane Dorian, which pummelled this once idyllic archipelago last week, killing 45 – so far – wrecking airports, ports and roads, and leaving thousands homeless and missing.
We’re all bracing ourselves for the death toll to rise substantially: when we first landed in Nassau a lot of people we spoke to there said they had family they hadn’t heard from – and when you see what Dorian left behind it’s clear there will be many more victims.
The short journey from the airport made it clear the size of the challenge that lay ahead: devastation lay all around.
It looked like the Battle of the Somme – one of the bloodiest in WW1 – with debris as far as the eye could see – all that was left of a once thriving community of 17,000 people.
Coconut trees had snapped in half, roofs had been whipped from houses leaving concrete pillars and everywhere was a tangle of upturned boats, trailers, wood and metal – all now illuminated by the fierce Caribbean sun that had come in the wake of that violent, prolonged storm.
It was surreal: I couldn’t help thinking that in the rest of the Caribbean people were sipping margaritas, lying on a sun lounger enjoying their holidays. Meanwhile here people are facing a battle for survival.
This is my eighth disaster – and one of the worst I’ve ever seen
I’ve confronted a lot of tragedy in my line of work: after 20 years in the Army where I saw active service in Bosnia and Iraq I joined the Army Reserves, and from there, three and a half years ago, I joined British disaster response charity Team Rubicon, which is entirely funded by donations and staffed by volunteers.
Rubicon goes to the frontline of national disasters, and since I joined I’ve deployed to Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and Indonesia to deal with the aftermath of the tornadoes earthquakes and tsunamis that have blighted these beautiful countries.
So when Dorian struck I was expecting the call, and when it came on Tuesday last week I had my bags packed ready to go.
By then I’d already been inundated with calls from people that I’d worked with and helped in previous deployments, including those who had been caught in Hurricane Irma, which struck the British Virgin Islands two years ago.
Emotions were running high – many of them knew the despair that Dorian’s victims would be feeling. Like Emma, who lost everything when Irma struck, and who messaged me to say her heart went out to everyone caught in Dorian’s path. “These people are total strangers, but they feel like kin” she told me.
The hurricane sat here for three days without moving, a relentless violent force reaching 225mph, leaving almost nothing undestroyed: infrastructure, but also people’s homes and their livelihoods.
“It felt like it went on for ever” one local told me, her face still wearing the blank expression of the totally traumatised.
Many people are still struggling to digest what happened
By the time we arrived in Abaco a lot of people had been evacuated, but the few that remain from this once bustling community are clearly shell-shocked.
Many of them had been sleeping in makeshift conditions in the town’s community centre, the only place left with some form of roof and which now is doubling as a medical facility, although a rudimentary one.
There is a desperate lack of medical supplies, and while aid workers are doing their best it’s chaos.
Two nights ago as we arrived, one man was taken out by air ambulance in a diabetic coma from lack of medication.
Other survivors have been left with physical injuries – cuts, bruises and lacerations – but I know from experience that in the future it will be mental health that proves the most challenging as the people here come to terms with the way their lives were turned upside down out of nowhere.
Like Mimi, a lady in her fifties I found wandering near the community centre with one of her four rescue dogs.
She had lived on a boat for 40 years, but it was destroyed in the storm taking everything with it.
I gave her a hug, and she wept in my arms. I told her that the world had been watching and that people are grieving for them.
Conditions are basic for us too
Team Rubicon are predominantly ex-military and so we don’t mind roughing it – we’re sleeping in mosquito pods strung up outside the community centre and we live off ration packs. We’re completely self-sufficient.
One of the first things we do in any area is a needs assessment, finding out what and where help is most urgently required.
Because we’re tough, we can also make it into parts of the community that other aid agencies haven’t reached – including here in the Bahamas.
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The challenges ahead are huge
The infrastructure is a nightmare – the bridges and causeways that connect large parts of this archipelago are down, leaving communities isolated and making it harder to deliver the much-needed aid.
On our trucks we have water, tinned good, nappies, chainsaws – everything you can think of – along with the heavy-duty tarpaulins they are desperate for to provide makeshift shelter for the weeks ahead.
It’s a tragedy, but I try not to dwell on it too much: while a human touch can be one of the most powerful tools I have in my kit I also have to put my emotion to one side to do the job I came to do.
To donate please visit teamrubiconuk.org