Tip Burrows dropped a low-grade expletive when she saw the beach by Banana Bay Restaurant, on the south side of Grand Bahama Island.
"Holy [bad word]!" said the islander, peering into a freshly carved trench. "That wasn't here before."
On this mid-October afternoon, nearly two months after Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Burrows, who runs the Humane Society of Grand Bahama, was still discovering new evidence of destruction — in this case, an inlet on Fortune Beach.
The storm surge that had swept away a section of the beach had not come from the ocean lapping at Fortune’s feet, however. It had traversed the island from the north and pushed the sand out to sea like a scene from an eco-horror film.
"We lost two feet of beach," said Danilo Rulli, the restaurant's owner, "but it will slowly come back."
And so will the Bahamas, at possibly an even faster clip than Mother Nature.
“We’re going to bring the sparkle back to Grand Bahama,” said Steven Johnson, an official with the Grand Bahama Tourism Office who is already working on new initiatives, such as expanding the West End as a seafood destination.
To be sure, Dorian was devastating. The strongest storm ever to strike the Bahamas caused at least 65 deaths (with hundreds of people still missing) and damaged or destroyed more than 13,000 homes on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, both in the upper reaches of the 500-mile-long archipelago of 700 islands.
Economic loss could rise to $7 billion, more than half the country’s gross national product. But the Bahamas are moving forward — rebuilding homes, reopening businesses, and restoring the spirit of the islands and its people.
With the end of November comes the end of hurricane season, followed closely by the tourism high season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April. While recovery efforts proceed, the country has started singing a refrain common among destinations rebounding from a natural disaster:
If you want to help, come visit. Money spent on a vacation is a direct deposit to the country’s economy. Plus, you can show the islanders that the world cares, that you care. Is a trip to a hurricane-ravaged destination easy? Not always. Is it gratifying? Absolutely.
When we say Dorian hit the Bahamas, we need to add a qualifier. The hurricane didn't pummel the entire country, only the top portion of the archipelago — specifically, Grand Bahama and the Abacos.
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation unveiled a campaign a week after the hurricane highlighting the 14 inhabited islands that were unaffected by the storm. It assured travelers that airports, cruise ports, hotels, and attractions were open.
To further entice visitors, it listed deals and incentives on its website. Individual hotels and the islands' tourism boards also spread the message through special promotions and hurricane-related programs, such as Baha Mar's Pack With Love. Guests staying at any of the chain's three resorts in Nassau can help assemble parcels of supplies bound for the neighboring islands. They can also distribute goods at Nassau shelters housing evacuees, or simply drop the items in donation boxes set up in the lobbies.
That information from the Bahamas travel industry is useful if you want to soak up the sun on any of those 14 islands. But to visit Grand Bahama and the Abacos requires research: One was ready for low-maintenance travelers; the other was not.
"The airport is running on a generator. The water is back on in Marsh Harbour, but it's trickling in slowly and is not consistent," Patricia Clarke, who works at the Leonard M. Thompson International Airport on Marsh Harbour in the Abacos, told me. "It's going to be a long, long time before we come back."
The Abacos are still nose-deep in recovery efforts. Parts of Great and Little Abaco, the two main islands, plus the smaller cays, still lack electricity and running water. The few hotels fit to open their doors are housing relief workers. For now, the concept of "helping through visiting" does not apply.
The situation is much less dire on Grand Bahama. The island, home to Freeport, the country's second-largest city, is quickly hitting its goals. More than 1,200 of its 1,670 hotel rooms are welcoming guests.
Carnival Cruise Line returned to Freeport on Oct. 13 and planned nearly 40 more dockings between then and the new year. Most of the beaches are open, especially around the main tourist areas of Freeport and Lucaya. At Crystal Beach, the 22 pigs are back in the water, porcine-paddling for apple slices. And on a recent Saturday night at Port Lucaya Marketplace, visitors and residents crammed into the warren of restaurants and bars.
I did encounter a few stumbling blocks. For instance, at that time only domestic flights could land at the Freeport airport, so international air travelers had fly to Nassau and catch a connecting flight on Western Air or Bahamasair, the regional carriers. (Resumption of full service still seems uncertain.) To avoid the multi-flight hop, I traveled through West Palm Beach, Fla., and booked a cabin on a Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ship to Freeport. The one-way trip was 14 hours longer than the flight, but I easily passed the time eating, drinking, and salsa dancing — and grimacing at the twerking contest.
To spend more time on the island than the ship’s allotted eight hours, I booked the cruise-and-stay option, which included two nights at the Lighthouse Pointe at Grand Lucayan. When I checked in at the terminal, an employee told me that the hotel was closed. Her colleague concurred. When I showed them my reservation, they shot me a concerned look.
The hotel was indeed open, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. There was no air-conditioning. No fans, either, except for the giant propeller that blasted hot, humid air in the lobby. My room was on the ground floor, so I couldn’t keep the porch door open. Instead, I sat on my bed and stared hard at the ocean, trying to cool off through visualization.
I also unexpectedly swallowed a mouthful of Dorian. The storm surge had penetrated the aquifers, contaminating the water with a high level of salt. I learned about that only after filling a glass from the bathroom sink. I marched to the lobby and filled my arms with bottled water. Thankfully, the resort is all-inclusive.
"Hello! Can I get you some cold water? You want a food bag? Do you have a kitty cat?" shouted Cheryl Waugh at a man crouching in the door frame of a hollowed-out home. The young islander approached Waugh, who was standing by the back of her pickup truck. She reached into a teetering mound of supplies and started handing the man rice packets, baby wipes, cheese crackers, toilet paper, and water chilled on ice. Cold water was a luxury. She gave the man an extra bottle.
Since mid-September, Waugh had been picking up passengers from a Bahamas Paradise ship who had chosen volunteering as their shore excursion. (The cruise line ended the program Oct. 22, but if you want to volunteer, email her at email@example.com and she will help match you with opportunities.) Three of us signed up. Waugh referred to us as MAM, for Mat, Andrea, and Melanie.
"This to me is a really good reason to be here," said Mat Everhart, "even if it's just for one day."
The married Pennsylvania couple, who own a timeshare on the island, last visited in July. Mat said he seriously considered quitting his job as a chef to assist with recovery efforts, and Melanie sported a tattoo of the Bahamas tourism logo.
Waugh had a long list of jobs she wanted us to complete before Mat and Melanie had to sail back to Florida. We started at the Humane Society, where we dropped off shoes and clothing for the staff. The women held up jeans to their waists, eyeballing the sizes. The men strapped on empty backpacks, modeling for each other.
We next drove to a warehouse run by CrossReach, which has been providing groceries to low-income families for 20 years. Sundries covered every inch of space. The group had distributed more than 6,000 meal bags since the hurricane.
"We've literally done 10 years of distribution in six weeks," said Steve Crane, a team leader.
At the Garden of the Groves, a botanical attraction with birds, butterflies, trails, and a cafe, we met Wayne Hall, who manages the aquaponics farm. His boss, Erika Gates, also owns Grand Bahama Nature Tours, which operates bike, Jeep, ATV, kayaking, and birding tours. Before Dorian, many of her excursions included a stop at the garden for shopping and lunch. Until the property reopens — scheduled for Dec. 1 — she sends guests on bikes and ATVs to Banana Bay Restaurant instead.
Hall lost a greenhouse, 20,000 plants, and all but seven of his 4,000 tilapia. Then birds swooped in and ate two. We donned work gloves and cleaned out a storage building that had been swamped by 5 feet of water.
For the remainder of the afternoon, we drove around the East End, doling out supplies house by tent by house. The mountain of goods dwindled to nothing. We popped over to Smith's Point, which hosts the Wednesday night fish fry, and ordered a round of beer. Next door, a wedding party streamed out of a church.
Life, and love, goes on.