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'There's No Normal There:' Bahamians Arrive In South Florida, Unsure Of How Long They'll Stay

Workers at the Health Care District wait for Bahamian arrivals from the "Grand Celebration" cruise ship.

More than a thousand Bahamians emerged from the arrival doors at the Port of Palm Beach on Saturday morning, many looking for family members and friends who were taking them in.

The Grand Celebration cruise ship carried 1,500 passengers from Grand Bahama. Some were visitors from the U.S. and other countries who’d gotten caught in the hurricane, but crews estimated about 1,100 were Bahamians looking for a respite from their hurricane-battered home.

Ismae McIntosh, 47, came from Freeport for a few days’ break, but plans to head back to the Bahamas soon.

“I just came to get a peace of mind for a couple of days,” she said. “It just became so much, hearing about the deaths and seeing family members lost loved ones, and hearing the stories.”

She weathered the storm with her husband and her father, who stayed behind on the island. The storm damaged her roof, but she said she was lucky to have avoided flooding.

The arrivals were greeted by county government officials and members of the emergency management staff – many of whom had just a few days’ respite from long shifts monitoring the storm’s approach before they mobilized again to welcome the ship’s passengers.

Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center activated at a Level 2 Saturday morning, allowing it to call in enough people and resources to help shelter, transport and provide health care to new arrivals. 

Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN
People get help filling lost prescriptions and talking about other medical needs with providers from Health Care District. Several of the organization's red emergency kits are still labeled with the Palm Beach County emergency shelter they came from.

Darcy Davis is the CEO of Health Care District, the county’s safety net health care system. They had five doctors and about 20 other medical personnel at the port to help people get replacement medications, provide them with primary care and offer mental health counseling.

Some of the supply kits they had brought along in their bus had come straight from the county’s emergency shelters.

“I think there was a good solid 24 hours [off], that might be it,” she said. “But we’re in the health care business, and we expect to be available whenever the need arises.”

Rajish Cox was waiting for friends to pick him up outside the port. He’s also from Freeport, but said he’s got family in other parts of the Bahamas, as well.

“It’s very hard, very painful, to see the state we’re in right now,” he said. “They’re still trying to recover their loved ones, still trying to find missing persons.”

According to a Saturday afternoon press release, the county is expecting about 50 people who can't stay with friends or family to shelter at the Therapeutic Recreation Center on Lake Worth Road in Lake Worth. The county is working with the Red Cross and United Way to make sure shelter residents will have clothing, hygiene kits and mental and physical health services. 

Zhenya Dozier drove through the night to get to the Port of Palm Beach from her home right outside Raleigh, North Carolina. She was picking up her aunt and uncle, who she said lost their home near North Bahamia and everything they own in the storm. Her uncle is a teacher, but the school where he taught is completely underwater, and she said her aunt’s workplace was destroyed, as well.

She said she didn’t hesitate to make the 11 hour drive to pick them up.

“The last thing I wanted was for my family who’ve already been traumatized to come off and not see somebody here,” she said.

She has other relatives still on the islands, where she grew up. She said news has been trickling in from her family when they could get service – “Thank God for WhatsApp” – and she and others in her community are  trying to work out how to get food and supplies to their families and other Bahamians in need.

Though many passengers had family members like Dozier to pick them up, others were shuttled to public transportation. The county brought in PalmTran buses to get new arrivals to Tri-Rail, rental car agencies and Palm Beach International Airport. The South Florida REgional Transportation Authority waived fees for evacuees taking Tri-Rail south. 

A spokeswoman for the cruise line said it had been a mostly uneventful voyage. One person had needed to be medically evacuated by helicopter to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Riviera Beach fire and rescue crews were on site at the port once the ship had docked in case anyone needed urgent medical attention. As of noon Saturday, they’d evaluated six people for care, and transported five to local hospitals.

Members of the Red Cross and the county emergency management team passed out water bottles, chips, fruit cups and other snacks to the debarked passengers who were waiting to be picked up.

Edward Culmer, a retiree with grandkids in West Palm Beach, was asking about how to catch the next ship back to Grand Bahama.

He splits his time between South Florida and the Bahamas. He has family there, and says they’re all fine – “present and accounted for.” 

He wants to check on his properties in Freeport to see for himself how they weathered the storm. He’s heard one has roof damage, and a pole is down at another.

“I’m trying to get over there so I can see what needs to be done,” he said.

Teniecia Smith and her four-year-old daughter Jordan had to evacuate their home on the western side of Grand Bahama and stay with a friend in Freeport during the storm. She said they had to move a second time during the storm’s two-day siege.

Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN
Teniecia Smith waits for a car with her daughter Jordan. Their house on the western part of Grand Bahama made it through without much damage, but "with no power, no water, not knowing when I'm going back to work," she decided to stay with family friends in South Florida.

She’s an office assistant at a small company, but said the devastation left her unsure of what to do next.

“With no power, no water, not knowing when I’m going back to work, I just came here,” she said.

She’s not sure how long she’ll stay.

“I guess until we get some normalcy back home,” she said. “There’s no normal there.”

Palm Beach County has set up an emergency supply drive for those impacted by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. A list of approved items and donation sites can be found here