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Thousands Line Up On Grand Bahama Island Looking To Escape To Florida

Daniel Rivero
Thousands gathered to try to get onto a Bahamas Paradise cruise ship. It was the first passenger boat off Grand Bahama headed to Florida.

FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA - After days of living on a devastated island with no electricity or running water, thousands gathered at Freeport Harbour in Grand Bahama this weekend trying to get tickets to the first passenger boat leaving from Freeport to the Port of Palm Beach since Hurricane Dorian struck.

Some started gathering at 3:00 in the morning, and the ship wasn’t scheduled to leave until midnight.

“Yesterday just to get water alone to take a bath -- that took me what six hours just to find water,” said Bentley Williams, who had been waiting in the sun for hours. “I can’t do it no more. I can’t do it no more. I mean, I’ll do anything just to get off the island. I don’t wanna be here no more.”

Like others, Williams has family in Florida, and he saw the ship as an escape valve. The Bahamas Paradise Grand Celebration cruise ship arrived in Freeport last Friday carrying nearly 200 Bahamians who were in Florida when the storm struck. Also on board were hundreds of volunteers and first responders and over 225,000 pounds of supplies like water, food, generators, medical equipment and more, according to the cruise line.

For the return trip back to the Port of Palm Beach, the cruise line offered free trips to Florida for people on the island. A line of cars trying to get into the Harbour stretched for over a mile.

“Everybody wants shelter and the comforts,” said Reniska Cartwright, holding her two-year-old niece in her arms. Around her temperatures flared. People yelled at one another as security struggled to maintain the order of the processing lines. After spending two days inside Hurricane Dorian and the following days with no electricity or running water, people were desperate to get on off the island.

“This could turn into a fight so that’s really crazy, so they need some police or something,” said Cartwright.

Outside the harbour, people were still trying to sort out their lives. Amanda Kellowan rummaged through clothes outside her destroyed home. The facade has holes where walls once stood. Remnants of her past life are thrown across the yard. A broken flashlight, soggy pieces of paper.

“This was my home. I grew up here, I love the island life and everything and never knowing I was gonna face this disaster,” said Kellowan. She was trapped in the attic of her home for 36 hours, until a man on a jetski came to rescue her. A photographer, she lost nearly all her equipment and livelihood in the storm, salvaging only two cameras.

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN
Amanda Kellowan rummaged through what was left of her home in Freeport. The Guyanese immigrant said she hopes to leave to join her family in Florida, but doesn't know how she will get a US passport.

Kellowan moved to the Bahamas from Guyana thirteen years ago. She has family in Florida, but doesn’t know how she will get a visa to get to the US to join them.

“I’m trying to move and go somewhere. Wherever God wants to take me he can take me. Somewhere, anywhere. But not in the Bahamas,” she said.

Not everyone wants to leave the island. 

Sterling Albury lived in a small community outside Freeport called Lady Lake. The walls to his home were  blown open, and virtually everything was swept away in the twenty feet of storm surge. The only personal belonging left in his house is a poster-sized photo of him and his wife on their wedding day. But Albury is gonna try to stick it out on the island.

“I gotta look for higher land, cuz I’m not gonna build here,” said Albury.

As departure time for the cruise ship approached, the situation was getting desperate. Some people began fainting in the hot sun. Volunteer medical teams from Florida treated people for heat exhaustion and dehydration. 

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN
A crowd of people waiting to see if they could board the Bahamas Paradise cruise ship in Freeport in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

In the end, about 1,500 people from the island made it onto the cruise ship. According to Bahamian Paradise, about 1,100 of them were Bahamian nationals.

“My house is done. We find three fishes in the yard, snakes, centipedes, everything. Clothes is out to the yard. My passport I almost lost. It was in the grass,” said Domonique Dillette, who was joined by her three-year-old son and husband. “It’s depressing to even be here. That’s why for the opportunity to come on this boat today everyone was out there.”

Some people on board wanted to go for a few days to buy supplies and return home to start the rebuilding process. But others wanted to see if they could start new lives in Florida, with the help of family on the mainland.

Dillette wondered out loud if the US government would give her a work permit. She hoped to stay with family in West Palm Beach for as long as the US government would allow.

“I don’t think Freeport can bounce back,” she said.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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