MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas - It was hard to watch the path of Hurricane Dorian — a slow, yet unbelievable powerful monster churning in the Atlantic. Forecast models changed and Floridians took notice. This storm was sure to be deadly and devastating. But where would it go?
After two weeks of watching the storm, it came closer to the United States. Those along Florida's coast scrambled to get ready. Could this be the worst storm to hit the U.S. in decades? Could it smack us as a Category 4 hurricane?
As a reporter, I went into "hurricane mode." Our news team worked around-the-clock to get the latest information on emergency plans and where to get supplies. Evacuations along the beaches began. We know the drill, but it's always a big to-do.
Fast forward a week, and Dorian has its sights set on the Bahamas. That's happened before. The brunt of the tropical systems have missed the islands in recent years. But not this time. The storm grew by the hour, to 185 mph sustained winds and gusts more than 200 mph.
On Sept. 1, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Abacos Islands, in the northern part of the Bahamas. The eyewall moved onshore midday. And then it stopped. Dorian was a powerful Category 5 hurricane. It brought storm surge of 23 feet in some areas. And it didn't go away for 55 hours.
Back in Florida, we were preparing for our own hit. I geared up with my photographer partner, Joe Owens, and we discussed game plans with our meteorologists. We'd start in South Florida and work our way up. We booked rooms in West Palm Beach, Stuart, Titusville, Cocoa Beach and St. Augustine. During the mayhem, I caught a glimpse of the reports coming from the Bahamas. Dorian pummeled coastal communities for more than two days without mercy. Information was scarce, but I knew it'd be bad.
Dorian spared the U.S. St. Johns and Flagler counties saw erosion and large waves. Some neighbors had flooding, with home damage. Rain came and wind. Winds were less than remarkable. For the most part, the effects were minor.
After a week of long days, and a 20-hour day of storm coverage, I was finally off-duty to go home and get cleaned up.
It was a relief. But, with our coverage area out of the cone of concern, I had a chance to catch up on the Bahamas. It was terrible —worse than I could imagine. That night I pledged I'd make it there to tell the stories of the hardest-hit victims. And I told myself I'd get down there soon.
That night, I called all my contacts — pilots, police, military, boat captains and nonprofits. I knew there wasn't enough coverage coming from the Bahamas. I didn't get any answers that night. But I had leads. A day later, there was a big meeting in Jacksonville Beach at the office for Adventures in God's Creation.
Ministry leader Jimbo Stockton, also a pilot, immediately wanted to help. He posted on social media and the community came out — fishermen, pilots, doctors and nurses. People flooded in to help. And they brought donations by the truckload.
But there were concerns: No air traffic control in the Bahamas, debris on runways, no infrastructure and reports of violence.
That same night, I learned that Royal Caribbean Cruises was sending relief in to Freeport daily. I sent them a tweet and an email. Within minutes, I got a response. There was a spot to cover the effort on their ship. It left from Cape Canaveral the next morning. That was my vessel so to speak. Photojournalist Jesse Hanson took my call to go on the trip. I told him I didn't know what we'd see and what our living situation would be like. But I felt obligated to go. So did he. We left Jacksonville the next morning.
Hours later, with backpacks and extra batteries, we boarded the cruise. The Mariner of the Seas was on its regular itinerary with 3,000 passengers. Many were weary of the conditions, but went anyway. When they saw us board (a number of viewers spotted us), they grew curious. We told them it was our fast way to get to the Bahamian people.
As the ship set sail, we broadcast live from the deck. Two miles off, we still had signal for the evening news. After that, the future was uncertain.
There was no time to rest. We met with cruise staff and discussed the plan. That evening, we met in the main dining room. The last of the guests had been fed. And that's when crew members got to work. We were amazed at their energy. They were technically off-duty, but dozens worked on an assembly line in the kitchen and then the dining room to build 20,000 meals — with meat, veggies, fruit and chips — by hand. They were likely the best meal people in the Bahamas would have since well-before the hurricane. The packing went well into the morning, without a break.
At 4 a.m., the ship made its way into Freeport. We met the team on the bottom deck. As the ship got clearance from Bahamian customers, crew and volunteers came from all over to rush the supplies off. They wanted to get it done before most guests woke up. Within an hour, the meals and thousands of bottles of water plus other supplies were on the docks. A line of trucks showed up, driven by community members who were going to take the supplies back to their churches and neighborhood centers. It was amazing.
Then, the not-so-pretty part. Two hundred sixty-one hurricane victims made their way through Customs onto our ship. You could see the pain in their eyes. They were cleared by the government to get a ride on our ship to Nassau, the capital, which was largely spared by the storm. Their homes and belongings were gone. While it was sad, the children lifted the mood. I played with them in the theater. They warmed my heart.
Hours later, our ship arrived in Nassau. The evacuees got off and found rides to shelters. The fortunate ones had family members who took them in. The less fortunate ones asked me to use my cellphone. They were pushed through a government checkpoint into the busy streets. Their future wasn't going to be comfortable.
In the next few hours, it'd get worse.
We caught a ride on a taxi. Then found a couple that decided to take us to the shelters. The government didn't let us in to see the conditions first-hand, but we heard the stories: families stacked on top of each other, no mattresses and no privacy.
Residents, who came from Grand Bahama and the Abacos, appeared in shock.
That evening, we made our way to the ferry boat stop. It's not pretty. Littered with oil and trash, it's not the tourist side Americans typically see. Hundreds of people came off with trash bags full of clothes and food. It's now all they owned.
They weren't met by the government. They didn't have answers. But some aid groups helped get them snacks and bring them to shelters. It was a start.
That's where we heard the horror stories. Death. Destruction. Desperation.
"The Abacos are finished," one woman said. "There's nothing left."
She said she was forced to loot at a local store to feed her family.
That night, we boarded the ship and got to work telling their stories. As darkness fell, our cruise left. The guilt of going back to America stayed with me.
Monday morning, we arrived at Port Canaveral and broadcast what we saw. It was eye-opening.
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But we weren't done. Making calls to some connections I had made, I learned we'd drive to Stuart, where there was a huge operation to get supplies to the Abacos. The worst areas. The spots some describe as apocalyptic.
We found teams going there and asked to tag along. I secured a spot on one small plane to Marsh Harbour. Photographer Jesse Hanson got a seat on a plane going to Treasure Cay. And with that, we were off.
What's next is highlighted in our documentary. I saw the worst destruction I've ever witnessed in my career. And I've seen a lot of disasters.
I smelled death. The death toll was officially at 50. The word on the street was it'd surpass 1,000. I hitched rides on small planes, helicopters and in pickup trucks to get to the worst areas. What I saw was horrific, but I don't regret it. The stories need to be told.
What I experienced was a nightmare. I had nightmares about it, in fact. But it's real. And the problems continue today. Just a few hundred miles from where we sleep tonight, there are thousands of people living in dire conditions.
This documentary is about telling their stories. It's about making them noticed. This is their film.
WJXT Films documentary, "96 Hours of Anguish," was produced by Jodi Mohrmann, Mike Jones and Josh Beauchamp. The hour-long special is a view from the ground and the air like you've never seen before.
I hope it's shocking. I hope it's disturbing. I hope it leads you to get involved and make a difference. It's dedicated to the people of the Bahamas and the revival of the islands so many of us love.
Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.