GREAT ABACO ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — As unimaginable winds from Hurricane Dorian pushed the Atlantic Ocean into inland neighborhoods far from the seashore in parts of the Bahamas, homes and schools flooded beneath a wall of water more than 20 feet high.
An additional 3 feet of rain poured from the skies as the slow-moving storm virtually stalled over the Bahamas with winds of more than 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph, punishing the islands with its deluge for more than 36 hours.
Water, water everywhere.
Now, weeks later, some of the nation’s public schools even in areas that weren’t badly flooded or escaped major wind damage remained closed – partly because of a lack of safe drinking water for young students. Other schools awaited the slow process of assessments by engineers that buildings wouldn’t collapse once classes filled with returning children.
The Ministry of Education published photos on its website of what it described as public classrooms ravaged from Hurricane Dorian, with ceilings missing, interior walls pushed down, damaged desks overturned and lights dangling from exposed electrical wires.
The lives of thousands of schoolchildren on Grand Bahama and Abaco, like the rest of life on these islands off Florida’s coast, have been put on hold.
Parents and teachers, too, were exasperated waiting for classrooms to reopen. The ministry said Monday that schools on Grand Bahama won’t open before next week.
“Every week they give us a different date,” said Principal Gia Walker at Freeport Primary School, one of about 20 schools on Grand Bahama. “Last week we were told it was going to be by last Thursday, then we were told on Monday it was going to be on yesterday.”
This coverage is based on reporting and interviews by University of Florida journalism students who spent a week on the ground in the Bahamas investigating rescue and relief efforts for the Fresh Take Florida news service after Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Sept. 1.
In the hardest-hit areas of Abaco, homes were laid bare to their foundations. Even weeks later, the stench of death, from unretrieved bodies decomposing beneath rubble, hung in the air. Roads cleared of debris were lined with enormous piles of tree debris and personal belongings, including clothes, shoes, toys, photographs and even appliances. Dorian deposited cars and boats onto the lawns of some homes. Other lawns featured steel shipping containers weighing more than 2 tons, which neighbors described as “flying missiles” that blew here from the island’s container port miles away.
Public schools in undamaged areas, such as Nassau, re-opened Sept. 9, and some private schools across the islands reopened last week for the start of their school year. Students there were instructed to bring cases of drinking water because municipal water remains contaminated and unsafe to drink. At Walker’s school, where many students are poor, that wasn’t an option.
“These children are from low-income families,” said Shirley Henfield, a first-grade teacher at Freeport Primary. “Even though they say that we have to open school as soon as the water comes on, and it still might be contaminated, you know a lot of those children are going to come with no water.”
Inside the teacher’s kitchen, she stacked cases of bottled water for her students whenever classes can resume.
“Anytime someone gives me cases of water, I save them,” she said, pointing to the bottles. “I know there are going to be children there that will come with no bottled water.”
The government ordered parents in the hard-hit areas of Grand Bahama and Abaco earlier this week to begin registering their children ages 4 to 19 to attend schools in New Providence on Nassau, which largely escaped the storm’s wrath, or other schools in undamaged areas.
The education ministry instructed families to come to the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium in Nassau, a mammoth sports complex named after one of the country’s famous Olympic sprinters. “All public school students formerly enrolled in schools in Abaco and Grand Bahama are expected to participate in this process,” the agency said in a statement.
The ministry said it expects about 10,000 students to move to new schools, with the process expected to take at least until mid-October.
Students and parents met with government medical and social services staff in the stadium’s administrative offices. It was processing about 120 students there each day, Education Director Marcellus Taylor said. In addition to health screenings, students were allowed to enroll in sports, music and dance, “so they can continue to have a normal life,” Taylor said.
At least five private schools were among the first on Grand Bahama to reopen after the storm. Freeport Bible Academy, which trucked in trailers loaded with huge bladders of clean water for students, had planned to begin its school year on Sept. 1 – the day the hurricane leveled parts of the islands – so administrators delayed the start of classes.
Classes there resumed last week but teachers spent several days counseling traumatized students, discussing their experiences during the storm and preparing their classrooms, Principal Altamarae Elvie said in an interview. Classroom instruction formally resumed Monday, she said.
Even after the flood waters had receded, some public schools on Grand Bahama were regaining electricity but lacked potable water and approvals from safety inspections that buildings were safe.
On South Abaco, which escaped the worst of the hurricane, Moore’s Island Public School and Crossing Rocks Primary School reopened.
Walker, the principal in Freeport, said school officials recognized that returning students will need psychological counseling and help from social services workers once classes resume.
Henfield, the first-grade teacher, has no answer for frustrated parents who want to know when public schools on the island might reopen their doors.
“Nobody seems to know,” she said. “The children are just sitting there. They’re anxious to go to school. It feels so strange that we just don’t know.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.