Off the Tracks

Hope to Hope Town: Part Two

January 22, 2020

After a rainy and delayed start to the morning, we left Ft. Lauderdale in a small twin engine plane bound for Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco.

I asked the pilot about flights in and out, from his personal experience. ‘The last flight I made in there was not many hours prior to the hurricane. Taking people out, I assumed. ‘No, crazy enough, I flew people in, to their homes. They wanted to be there.’ The drone of the propellers made it tough to hear. ’48 hours later, I flew the same people back out.’ It was crazy for a few weeks, so many flights trying to get people out, relief workers in. The last evacuation flight was a few weeks ago - with 18 dogs, for a rescue operation.’

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

The island of Great Abaco came into view, it was cloud covered, Flat. Very, very flat. Marshy. The pilot made a beautiful landing and we taxied down the short airstrip. ‘Airport was closed for 2 days, it was totally flooded, debris all over. But a few runways got cleared.’ I looked over at the tower. The top was ripped off, debris hung on the sides.

‘How does it operate without a tower?’ I asked.

‘We don’t work through a tower, we talk to each other, plane to plane. It works fine.’

We swung around and headed for the small private area and pink customs house. The ferry operator had sent a truck for our equipment, and we could see it waiting at a chain link fence. ‘that must be your pick-up,’ the pilot said.

Apparently when Brid had contacted the ferry operator to see if he could load 1800 pounds of equipment on the ferry, the operator had offered transportation. ‘You’re doing this for Hopetown, we can do this for you,’ he said.

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

We walked through the tiny customs building with a list of equipment that needed to be approved. For that, we’d have to go to the government customs house. The ferry didn’t leave for a couple of hours, so we took off in a separate truck for the government house.

Marsh Harbor, at first glance, was a war zone. Piles of debris that had been houses, destroyed cars and trucks lay where the storm surge left them, glass and twisted iron and furniture and wires were everywhere. Most of the cars or trucks that were operational had broken or no windshields.
I had heard from Rob Wilder that Jose Andres had a World Central Kitchen operation in Marsh Harbor – I texted him before I left Florida and asked where it was, and received a screenshot of a map that pinpointed the location. After leaving Customs House, I leaned over and asked our driver, a pastor, if he knew where the WCK was – ‘yeah, sure, it’s a mile or two from here.’ ‘On the way to the ferry.’

We stopped at the huge dome, introduced ourselves, and got a short tour. The dome that has been developed is completely portable – it fits into a 4x6 foot plastic container. The operation was efficient and amazing – they were preparing 800 meals that day, 4 months after Hurricane Dorian devastated the area.

Cat, the chef in charge, showed us around, while supervising the tremendous vats of chicken curry and rice pilaf lunch, delivered hot to the surrounding islands still in need.


She showed us the map with the areas still served. ‘Ground zero for this hurricane was Abaco and 4 or 5 Cays. Man O’War, Elbow, Guana, Green Turtle – Freeport, Grand Bahamas. It made landfall as a category 5 at 185 miles an hour, sustained, with gusts up to 220.’


Someone had said to think of Abaco as Florida. ‘Florida has keys, Abaco does too.’ We were heading to Elbow Cay, a 30-minute ferry ride to the east.

The large map showed location drop offs and numbers of meals needed. Twice a day, large foil containers of hot meals were delivered by ferry. Small individual containers and cutlery were provided, with fruit for dessert. Apples, oranges, bananas. They used helicopters and sea planes for the first few weeks, prior to the ferries being back in operation. There was also the question of docks – most had been destroyed and there was no place to tie up.

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

The operation is efficient and self-contained, and has made a name for being in place and offering hot meals within hours of a disaster. Later, when in Hope Town, I talked to an NGO who told me that other food-based operations deliver rice and canned food supplies, but the World Central Kitchen delivers hot meals. ‘It all helps, certainly. But sometimes people have nowhere to cook a meal, they’ve lost everything, or utilities are down. But having hot meals twice a day? World Central Kitchen saved lives, lifted spirts, provided hope.’


We said our goodbyes and headed for the ferry and met the ferry operator who had sent the truck. We asked him how the boats did through the storm. “Well, we had 17 ferry boats before the storm. Sheltered half of them in Man O’War, the rest on land, and tied up at various docks. One survived, the one you are on.’ He pulled away from the dock. ‘On Man O’War, a barge broke loose and crushed 6 of them as if they were toothpicks.’


As we made our way to Hope Town, the lighthouse came into view and we rounded the bend, coming into the harbor. We stood silently as we saw the shoreline in the late afternoon light. It was hard to describe, so very different than 4 months ago. No one had died here, I reminded myself. How? I wondered as I looked at the shoreline. Buildings gone, twisted, mostly missing. The lighthouse was still standing, the keeper’s house was tarped as were most of the buildings around it.


I thought about the lives lost in Marsh Harbor, the families, and wondered how no one died here on Elbow Cay.


I had not yet heard the stories of survival.

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Hope to Hope Town: Part One

January 19, 2020

‘It seems the guest house we were going to stay in might be uninhabitable,’ my friend Brid said, calling me in early December.

I put him on speaker and opened the two pictures he sent me.

In what appeared to be the main living area, there was sand on the floor in varying depths, higher in the corners, up to 3 feet around the center beam, which was listing to the front side of the house. The door hung by one hinge, a chair was on its side, up against the wall.

‘Wait. I thought you said this cottage was on the ridge along the top of the island, near the center…’

It is.

The ocean came through the house??

There were a few seconds of silence as I took it in. I pictured the wind pushing the storm surge up from the Atlantic on one side, the harbor on the other. I could see the wind pushing sand and water against the doors and windows until it finally won, coming through and then receding, then surging through again, the winds ripping house parts loose, the water carrying them away.

‘You need to know exactly what we’re looking at,’ he continued, ‘before you decide to go.’

I opened the second picture, of the bedroom. It looked better than the living room, but everything must have gotten soaked. There were gaps in the corners as if it had shifted off the foundation.

‘There is also the issue of mold,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I answered.

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

‘So, I’m still going – I’m taking a tent, and an air mattress, a generator for charging devices an hour in the morning and an hour at night.’
But I wasn’t sure if you’d still want to join me.’


In March of 2019, we had taken a wonderful trip to Elbow Cay. It was one of those romantic, spring break getaways to a beautiful island with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. We had a golf cart to get around, a boat to visit nearby islands, there were 5 or 6 restaurants, several bars.


It was a tiny island brimming with color and vibrancy and beautiful breezes and nice people, the kind of place in which island kids stand with their backpacks and lunch boxes on one of the roads crisscrossing the island and tourists and residents alike offer them a ride to school in the center of town. They always said thank you at the long set of stairs leading up to the school, the sounds of the kids and teachers and tiny playground reaching the road below, lined with palm trees. The schoolhouse sits at the top of the steps across the road from the harbor, but from the playground at the top looking east, the ocean is directly on the other side, down a slope. This is the ridge that I remember that runs along the center of town, with cottages and the Hopetown Harbor lodge and a little further, Vernon’s market (Vernon makes fresh bread daily}, the basket shop and an ice cream store. Golf carts are allowed on the ridge, but not in the center of town, pedestrian traffic only.


It reminds me a bit of ‘Sconset in Nantucket, with little winding streets that connect cottages with names like ‘Southern Fancy’, but also intertwining islanders who have lived there for two and a half centuries, and whose families are boat makers, basket makers, carpenters, bakers. The essence of the community, of the island.


Six months after our Bahamian adventure, on September 1st, 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck, a category 5 storm that stalled over the Abacos for 48 hours, with winds of up to 220 miles an hour. So really, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the 1st, but stayed into the early hours of the 3rd. In that time period, 22 tornadoes touched down, taking houses that had not been washed away by the storm surge, and ripping apart buildings and trees that had managed to survive the wind and water force of the hurricane.


And now, in December, we are ready to go to the Abacos, to Elbow Cay, to help in any way we could. Brid owned a construction company for 30 years, and has put together 30,000 nails, screws, an assortment of power tools, devices that I cannot even describe (a ‘come along’ to straighten posts?), a variety of battery operated tools, a generator, living supplies. We’ve both had tetanus, hepatitis, shingles and typhoid vaccines, flu shots. A friend who is a doctor put together a medical kit.


‘Why don’t you think about it,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to expect but I’m going to charter a plane from Fort Lauderdale so I can get all this equipment down to Marsh Harbor. From there, I’ll take a ferry to Elbow Cay, and hopefully find help to get it to the house. I’ll clear the sand out to make space for the equipment. I’m pretty self-sufficient, I don’t want to burden the island by needing anything.’


‘Think about it and let me know.’

‘OK,’’ I said. ‘I’ve thought about it. When and where do I meet you?’

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My Christmas Story

December 29, 2019

I am a closet ‘I wish it was over’ Christmas person. As I was driving to the rehabilitation center yesterday, I longed for the radio stations to play normal music. I was waiting for the constant reminders of Christmas closeness I did not have – waiting for them to fade away into the new year.


Our family history of Christmas is difficult, and tense, full of stress from childhood through my own divorce, leading to more stress around the holidays and a fractured family structure. There is huge tension around our big family gatherings among my siblings. My brother and his wife go on an annual trip to an island, any island, to get away from Christmas. I secretly wish that they would take me with them every year.


Our mother, our anchor, is still here, and for that reason I have decorated, wrapped, cooked and danced my way through Christmas for many years. My sons have lives of their own and come and go. For our mother, however, it is a very important and traditional event.


So yesterday, one of my 5 siblings and I agreed to take a mid afternoon lunch to our mother in her room at a rehabilitation facility. She knows her house is decorated and waiting for her, and a party will welcome her home in about a week.


But it was still Christmas day.


As I parked and walked in the facility, the sun was streaming through the front doors. The halls were buzzing with families and gift bags and grandchildren spilling out of rooms. There were hospital beds, and oxygen and medical carts and nurses in the hallways, yes. But I could also see family gatherings full of Christmas colors, I could hear music, I could see people sitting on beds and in sunny windowsills.


As I approached our mother’s room, I paused and thanked her nurse for being there on Christmas day. She smiled and said, ‘this is my family here, my co-workers, my patients. There is no where else I’d rather be today.’


I opened the door quietly, and my mother was sound asleep, the sun streaming through the windows onto her bed. Another sister had been there that morning, our mother had on a beautiful red sweater, there were new books scattered around her.


I put my bags on the floor and settled quietly into a chair next to the bed, looking around the room. I saw that the paperwhites on the windowsill had burst into bloom this morning. I noticed that the flowers and Christmas arrangements and cards were suddenly overtaking every available surface. I heard the faint buzz of activity in the hallway.


And so our Christmas unfolded. My sister arrived, our mother was helped up and into a wheelchair, we cleared the magazines from her tray table and put a freshly ironed large linen napkin on it as a tablecloth. We had bright yellow lemon dinner napkins, white chicken chili in paper bowls, my sister’s famous hominy and fresh soft bib lettuce salad. We made toasts with chilled sparkling cider in paper cups and she opened a few presents - the perfect pair of low winter fur topped boots for the snow that is sure to come, a gift bag from a Georgetown friend with ‘the most beautiful’ chocolate covered cherries, and cat socks. She showed us a catalogue of horse paintings she had been given, she asked about the annual Christmas Eve party she had been unable to attend the night before, and we told her all about it and showed her pictures. Another sister called and they talked about the music the night before at her Christmas Eve service in New York, about the luncheon guests they had invited, about the menu, about her dogs.


We sat, relaxed and laughing and telling stories around her tray table in her rehab room and I thought that maybe this was what the closeness was, that feeling that was so elusive. It was, I thought, the perfect Christmas.


We packed up and as we were leaving my brother and his wife breezed in from the airport, full of sun and the healthy disheveled glow of a week at an island, bearing rum cake and coconut candy and pictures of the sea and beautiful views. They brought a beautiful pink conch shell they had found, and we all took turns holding the shell up to our ears to hear the sea; you could almost taste the salt in the air and feel the sea breeze. As I left, they were tucked in telling stories and talking about horses and the upcoming foaling season and the farm, eating coconut candy and laughing.

This was the moment that you grab and take with you. Not the storybook Christmas that I was always looking for, but one – this one - of sharing and closeness and hope, whatever shape it takes, wherever you might be.

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