After the Storm
Grand Bahama Island: Come December: Hurricane Who?
Sunday, November 21, 2004
The worst view on Grand Bahama may be the first: The pink stucco tower of the international airport greets arrivals with a gap-toothed stare, with several windows missing and plywood plugs galore. Far worse, the entire domestic terminal behind it is little more than neatened-up rubble.
It's not the best harbinger after the 30-minute hop from Miami. Fortunately, there's a brand-new international terminal big enough to handle the flights. And with damaged navigation gear replaced, the airport was soon back to handling daytime and nighttime landings after its trial by hurricane two months ago.
"We're about 70 percent there," said Grand Bahama International Airport manager Randy Robb in late October. "By mid-December, we'll be up to capacity."
And that about sums up the post-hurricane recovery on Grand Bahama: It's about there. Most of the significant damage in the Bahamas took place on Abaco and on this 1,632-square-mile island 113 miles northwest of Nassau. Grand Bahama was tousled, but not tossed, by back-to-back slaps from Frances on Sept. 3 and Jeanne on Sept. 25. The island is still covered in scratch marks: Many a tile is missing from many a tile roof; the police headquarters on the road in from the airport simply advertises "LICE"; most of the palms -- stripped bare -- still look like bent Q-tips. But these are mere blemishes considering the berserker winds that mauled this island.
Grand Bahama is the second-most popular tourist island in the Bahamas, behind New Providence Island to the south (home to Nassau and Paradise Island). With 50,000 residents, it boasts two major hotel districts, Freeport and Lucaya, with resorts, condos and time shares scattered around its western side. (The more remote eastern end of the 96-mile-long island is sparsely populated and little visited by tourists.) It's surprising, given the island's Hurricane Alley locale, that these were the first hurricanes to really pound Grand Bahama in 75 years, according to Terrance L. Roberts, the Ministry of Tourism's director of business development on Grand Bahama.
Hurricane Floyd's glancing blow in 1999 was "a joke compared to these," Roberts said. "We'd never seen anything like it. The wind meter at the airport broke at 135 miles an hour. But some of the old fellows say it easily got up to 145 or 150."
The first major hurricanes in a long lifetime -- and a two-fer at that -- is news. But the real story may be how quickly this island has righted itself. As part of a small country with limited resources -- it produces more conch shells than drywall -- Grand Bahama has outpaced a lot of other hurricane-recovery efforts in the region. The roads, blockaded by tree trunks and branches after the storms, are not only passable but clean. Power, water and phone service have been restored almost everywhere (most of the exceptions are properties not repaired enough to receive it). And the finer stage of recovery is obvious from the ubiquitous tattoo of hammers and whine of power saws.
It's entirely possible that an oblivious tourist, hellbent on getting into a lounge chair, could make it all the way to the beach without ever knowing that devastation paid two calls on this island in recent months.
"We had 1,200 telephone and light poles down after the first hurricane, and then a week later, Jeanne hit," said Pam Allen, manager of Goldilocks Jewelry. Outside her Port Lucaya store, in a waterfront warren of wood frame tourist shops, three Rastafarian-looking workers painted the wood trim in only-in-the-islands shades of hot pink and sea green. "But people are making a real effort. It's come back."
Well, not entirely. Grand Bahama offers roughly 3,000 hotel rooms. About a third of them were habitable when the storms had passed, or very soon after. Another 1,000 are expected to be back in service by the middle of December. But the final third -- the hardest hit -- probably won't be ready for guests until next spring.
The bulk of those are at the Crowne Plaza at the Royal Oasis, a blocky high-rise hotel that is the centerpiece of the island's mid-range package trade in Freeport. With a sizable casino and almost 900 rooms, the place is normally lively even during the autumn doldrums (Grand Bahama tourism picks up after the holidays and starts cooking in February). But the hotel remains sealed with chain-link fence, and it's all but deserted in the surrounding neighborhood. At the back of the resort, garbage sits moldering with what looks like old carpets and drapes.
The spoiler here was rain, torrents of it that soaked floor after floor after the roof gave way.