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"Big Bahamas is dead now": a first-hand look at Dorian's destruction



It is impossible to fully capture the devastation we see every day. We are only about 80 miles from Florida, but the kilometers of the Dorian wreckage left behind made this part of the Bahamas as remote as any place on Earth.

On August 30, CNN sent the three of us to Freeport, Grand Baham, to cover the storm. The trip was so last-minute that we bought many of the clips of the hurricane-covered airport newspaper: beef, peanut butter and as many water bottles as we could carry.

We had to fight to catch 3489 flight from Miami to American Airlines, which turned out to be the last one from the US to Grand Baham before Dorian struck.

Our first sign that this hurricane would be extremely dangerous was when a gate agent announced through the intercom that only residents of the Bahamas would be allowed to fly. All hotels will be closed, he said. If you didn't live there, you wouldn't be left anywhere.

Then the warden went and canceled him.

"These are the guys who are in the rain on television," he said, moving toward us. "If you want to risk your life, keep going."

Cut off from the outside world

The plane was almost empty. In minutes we landed in Freeport on a sunny day. With the storm and the airport approaching because of the closure, the customs agent waved us a glance.

We clutched our gear in a rental car and ran to the beach to report live on CNN about the coming storm. [1

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When we were done for the day, a man and a woman walking on the beach stopped to ask what we were doing. Without a moment's hesitation, the couple – Christine and her boyfriend Graham – invited us to chase the storm with them into their apartment overlooking the ocean.

Late the next night, Dorian began pumping Abakos and Grand Baham as an insanely powerful Category 5 hurricane. Our forecasters told us that if there was a Category 6 ranking, Dorian would qualify.

The storm blew for hours in the dark. Wind and rain showered the building on all sides. The daylight finally came, but the sun never showed.

  Jose Armio shoots live Patrick Patman from the balcony of an apartment overlooking the ocean while Hurricane Dorian pounded the city of Freeport on September 2.

The apartment had a secure balcony and we were able to continue transmission during the storm, even when we lost power and cell service.

We learned that a storm had invaded the island on Sunday night when a group of neighbors bumped into the lobby door and asked to enter. Their houses were under water and most of them could barely understand him with their clothes on their backs. Several had managed to carry their pets. One woman was sobbing that she couldn't find her two cats when the water came in.

A group wore a wet, wet, elderly woman who fell and broke her hips while rushing to escape from her home. We brought them towels and shared our supplies as they settled for the first of several nights on the lobby floor.

One man said he saw his wife drown.

On Tuesday, Dorian's winds subsided enough that we dared to investigate the damage. Power lines and trees were cut off. A submerged school bus blocks one lane.

We came to an area called the Bridge, where a hastily organized rescue operation was mounted to rescue hundreds of trapped people in their homes.

There we found that the bridge itself was underwater and used as a ramp for launching Jet Ski and lifeboats in the flaming waters. The storm was still blowing with the force of the hurricane and volunteers told us that several boats had flown into the winds.

There was little coordination or organization for rescue efforts, but boundless courage.

Many evacuees had been holding on the edges of their flooded homes for hours beaten by wind and rain. We asked where their houses were, but could we understand just a few roofs and trees in the distance. There were hundreds of homes there, rescuers told us we just couldn't see them.

  In some cities in the eastern part of Big Bahama Island, residents say that most of all homes have been destroyed. Many people are still looking for relatives taken by the storm.

When rescued evacuees descend from Jet Skis in the water to the deep waist, many collapsed and had to be carried safely.

"People are exhausted," savior Rochelle Daniel told us that moving winds forced rescuers to cease operations. "Some we had to carry, others we couldn't even make it."

  Howard Armstrong
As we fled from the worsening weather, the anger of a man in red rain approached us and whispered, "I lost my wife."

He said his name was Howard Armstrong, he was a crab fisherman and hours before he saw his wife Lynn sliding underwater in their home while awaiting salvation.

"My poor little woman got hypothermia and she stood on top of the cabinets until it fell apart," he said. "I kept it with her and she just drowned on me."

Armstrong said he then swam to his neighbor's house. She was also dead, he said.

The airport was crippled

The next day we left for the airport where we had arrived five days before. As we approached, we saw a small plane, facing its side.

One of the terminals was open on all sides. Shrapnel was scattered inside the inner terminal and the storm threw the wing of the aircraft with such force that it broke through a wall and lay scattered on the floor.

The other two terminals were still standing but were under water for days, and the only runway at the airport was littered with debris.

It was the only airport on the island. We all knew we would be on the island for a while.

Although there was no electricity or running water, we did the best we could in Christine and Graham's apartment. We slept with the windows open in the heat and pulled the water ladders up three stairs from the pool to make the toilets work.

  The interior of the Oppmann apartment team used as a base, seen on September 3. Graham Couser and Christine Mills found CNN's beach crew taking live photos the day before the storm hit, and insisted they use their balconies to save and stay with them throughout the storm.

Whatever the challenge, none of us would choose to be anywhere else.

In the days following the storm, Bahamian officials kept saying "estimates". Port Assessment, Airport Assessment, Electrical Network Assessment. There were many evaluations, but too few actions.

The aid that came to Freeport – the island's largest city – improved the conditions, but only slightly. Cellphone service is back for the most part, some shops are open and you can even get casual hot food and cold beer.

As soon as one leaves Freeport, these meager privileges disappear. Residents say that the help they need has not come.

Apocalyptic ruins are where houses used to stand,

Residents say the storm in some places exceeds 30 feet and tears entire houses off their foundations.

A grim Washington Smithie Smith was sitting in the front yard of the house he built in the city of Bevans. Dorian tore off the roof and drilled holes through the cement walls. The gas station he owned on the other side of the street was also completely destroyed.

"Big Bahamas is dead right now," Smith said, a trauma incised in his face.

"One of the bad parts about all this … is that I have never seen a government official say, 'Here's a bottle of water' or see what's going on."

Government assistance is also slow to reach the town of High Rock, a few miles down the road.

There, resident Marilyn Lying tired of waiting for officials to appear and instead organized her own help system, with water and food delivered by friends and family.

At least 14 people remain without a trace from this city of about 300 people. Another five have been confirmed dead, residents say.

  CNN producer Jaide Timm-Garcia and photojournalist Jose Armijo created a painting from the heavily affected city of High Rock on Grand Bahama Island.

A man was sitting, almost catatonic, on a white plastic chair. Neighbors say three of his family members, a daughter and two grandchildren, were swept away by the raging waters.

A US Coast Guard helicopter was flying over a wooded area in search of the dead. Residents say they usually know that another body has been found.

When the wind rises, you feel death.

Lying says that she must continue to work to help others in her ruined community, or despair will overcome her.

"I have no words to say how bad," Laing said. "Maybe one in 10 houses stands."

We borrowed her a satellite phone so she could contact her family to tell them she was alive.

Nearby, a man who lost his house took small sips of a bottle of water. He knew he would have to make every last drop.


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