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Working With Samaritan’s Purse in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian

October 25, 2019 by

Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama on September 1 as a Category 5 storm. It brought sustained winds of over 185 miles per hour and gusts of well over 200 miles per hour. What’s more, the storm became almost stationary and pummeled the islands for nearly two days. Some residents described it as a monster that sat and chewed; others said it sounded like being run over by a freight train for two days straight. The duration, as well as the unprecedented storm surge (over twenty-three feet), led to unbelievable destruction.

Hurricane Dorian damage in the Bahamas

I have tried to capture some thoughts about working on Grand Bahama Island with Samaritan’s Purse for a few weeks. Let me first say that it was a huge privilege to be able to go and to work with the Samaritan’s Purse team. 

My team got the call to mobilize on September 5 and flew to Greensboro, North Carolina, the same day. On September 6 we flew in to Freeport, Grand Bahama. Arriving at Freeport is an experience I will never forget. We could see debris and trash floating in the ocean long before we could see the islands. The airport was a wasteland of dead vegetation, twisted metal, and broken airplanes. It had been flooded sixteen feet deep in places by the storm surge.

Thirty-five of us arrived on that first flight. After unloading (an interesting task, given the ravaged airport), we rode two or three miles to an empty lot. Our crew’s primary goal was to set up an emergency field hospital there, because the island’s only hospital had been flooded and devastated by the storm.

The crew included set-up people, doctors, surgeons, nurses, admin personnel, IT staff, electricians, and others. They hailed from Canada, England, Australia, and all over the United States. More people arrived every day. Some of these people have become friends that will last me a lifetime.

team of volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse

The first few days involved an incredible effort, a test of strength and will. Daytime temperatures close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity meant we were all drinking two to three gallons of water per day, and still several people developed heat stroke and needed IV fluids.

Our first task was to prepare gravel pads for the hospital tents. We managed to get several dump-truck loads of gravel, but there was no power equipment available to level it. So we formed bucket brigades and spread the gravel with shovels and rakes. Finally the tents started to go up. Everyone went above and beyond, and we were able to open the hospital and begin taking patients by our third day on the island.

Samaritan’s Purse team setting up tents in Grand Bahama

The field hospital sees between 100 and 160 patients a day—the medical team saw more than 2,000 individual patients in the first three weeks. There is a triage tent, an ER, a pharmacy, an ICU, a step-down unit, a fully functional operating room, a twenty-bed men’s ward, a twenty-bed women’s ward, an overflow ward, and all the equipment and staff to make everything work. It was totally amazing to see it all come out of the crates and take shape. Before I left, I did a quick count and estimated that we had put up twenty-five structures.

I could tell a lot of stories about hardships and setbacks and about long hours worked. However, everyone’s tireless optimism and enthusiasm were awe-inspiring. It did not matter that no one had a shower for the first few days or that we worked until 2 or 3 a.m. those first few nights or that the main generator initially failed to function. When we could shower, even just with water bottles, it was amazing. When the generator started, everyone cheered. We had been eating MREs, so imagine our gratitude when a group called World Central Kitchen unexpectedly started bringing us freshly cooked food. We had been sleeping on the ground under the stars, so when the staff housing crates caught up with us, everyone was super thankful to have tents and cots. After a week without coffee, that first cup was a real lifesaver.

Because we were operating the only hospital on the island, I got to see everything that goes on in hospitals everywhere. Probably the hardest case that I witnessed involved a small boy, three or four years old, who had a preexisting heart condition. He came in experiencing difficulty and deteriorated rapidly. The team tried their best but ended up losing him after more than an hour of CPR. What made it more difficult was that his mother had died in the previous hurricane, three years ago—just after he was born. I stood in the corner of the tent and prayed. It was a very shaking experience, and yet it brought the whole team close together and led to some amazing conversations about suffering and faith and the purpose of life.

During my last week on Grand Bahama, I traveled around the island and was able to witness firsthand the incredible destruction. It was eye-opening and sobering to see so many lives and livelihoods torn apart and destroyed. I heard many stories of loss, of survival, and of hope.

hurricane damage in the Bahamas

I imagine that the field hospital will need to operate for five or six months, possibly longer, until the brick-and-mortar hospital is repaired and operational. Going forward, Samaritan’s Purse will be involved in water and sanitation projects on Grand Bahama and in providing temporary shelter. Then it will engage in rebuilding, food provision, and livelihood projects. My guess is that there are about one hundred Samaritan’s Purse staff currently in the Bahamas, and that the work there will continue for at least a year.

Words are poor for conveying the experiences of the past few weeks. I am thankful for this chance to participate, and grateful to my family for being so patient and loving while I was gone.

Two men posing for a picture


Arlo Meier lives with his wife, Edna, and their three children at Fox Hill, a Bruderhof in upstate New York.

 

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