They have resolved to help rebuild the battered archipelago.
“For the most part, folks here are a little relieved, but there’s a lot of hurricane guilt,” said Marlon Hill, a Miami lawyer and community activist focused on the South Florida Caribbean diaspora. “That damage we see in the Bahamas could have been here or any one of the counties up the east coast.”
Food drives and other recovery efforts started in Florida before Dorian left the Bahamas on Tuesday afternoon, after pummeling the islands with relentless wind and rain for more than 24 hours as a Category 5 storm, the most powerful ever in that region.
“The Bahamas and Florida, we are connected at the hips,” said Jaffus Hardrick, president of Florida Memorial College in Miami, where 12 percent of the students are from the Bahamas. “South Florida is what it is because of the impact of the Bahamians many years ago. We’re in this together. When they hurt, we hurt.”
He said several students hadn’t been able to locate family members back home as of Tuesday.
“We’ll be doing everything in our power to assist these students,” Hardrick said. “We’ll have counselors and support to help them deal with the emotional challenges of not being in touch with family members.”
An estimated 20,000 Bahamians live in South Florida. The island chain is close to the state; only 52 miles of ocean separates Bimini, the westernmost island, from Miami. Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, is 143 miles directly east of West Palm Beach.
For a while, the storm was predicted to travel east from Grand Bahama and make landfall in Palm Beach County. Residents up and down the east coast of Florida were told to watch and prepare for the worst, but the storm had largely stayed offshore as of Tuesday evening.
In the Bahamas, though, the devastation was unimaginable, and worries about landfall on the mainland turned quickly to fears about family members in the islands. Frantic scenes from cellphone videos taken in the Bahamas and posted on social media alarmed relatives stateside.
Shanda Roberts received videos from her relatives, who evacuated their homes in the Arden Forest neighborhood in Freeport.
“When they left, the water was up to their ankles,” said Roberts, who lives in Cutler Bay, Fla., about 20 miles south of Miami. “Then it started coming up to their chest. They were almost drowning when a man in a tractor came by and saved them.”
Her aunt, Rosalie Robinson, sent a video of another bulldozer plowing through deep water, with the driver honking the horn and calling for people to come out of their houses.
“I’ve been crying since yesterday. I think I’m physically sick from all this,” she said. “I can’t even imagine the terror and horror of people who were in it.”
Her aunt took shelter in the Church of the Ascension, a hurricane shelter in Freeport. She said some people who didn’t evacuate when the order was given Saturday afternoon were forced out of their homes when the rains and storm surge poured in quickly.
“It was a terrifying situation,” Robinson said. “We started with 33 persons in this shelter. It grew to 363. Some of them came in with only their shoes on their feet and the clothes on their backs.”
After more than 48 hours crammed in the shelter, hearing the roaring winds of Dorian outside, Robinson said, four pastors in the church decided to hold a liturgical service Monday night.
“We prayed, we sang songs together, we found encouragement,” she said. “I had a good night’s rest. The only noise was the sound of the winds blowing on the roof. It sounded like a freight train. But everybody was very peaceful.”
Robinson said Bahamians now need the basics: food, clothing and shelter. “And we would find some comfort if the world would pray for us,” she added.
At the Koinonia Worship Center in Broward County, volunteers lined up Tuesday to unload donations — flats of water, medical supplies, boxes of cereal and sanitary supplies — from a steady stream of vehicles.
Among the volunteers eager to unload the donations was Robert Stephens, 27, who heard Tuesday morning that his 89-year-old great-aunt and her son in Nassau, the nation’s capital, had escaped their severely damaged home and made it to a shelter.
A friend of his also evacuated into a Bahamian shelter.
“He is terrified to go back to his home. He doesn’t know what happened to it, if it’s even standing,” Stephens said.
Another congregant of the church, Latisha Dean, 35, said she heard through a chain of Facebook messages that her uncle and his family in the Abaco Islands were able to escape their home and go to a nearby church on higher ground.
“It’s nerve-racking not to know where your family members are, if they are alive,” she said by phone from her workplace. “But thank God they are. Pray for the whole island.”
Her father and sister, in Nassau, also survived and had enough power left in their cellphone batteries to call Tuesday morning.
“It could very well be us experiencing what the Bahamas are experiencing now,” Dean said. “People at work want to help. I told them we will really need supplies, and we need to rebuild.”
Ever since the Rev. Eric Jones and his son, state Rep. Shevrin Jones (D), put out a call on social media for people to donate supplies for hurricane relief in the Bahamas, volunteers and donors have flooded into the Koinonia Worship Center.
Vice Mayor Brian C. Johnson said that outside of a large community of expatriate Bahamians in Miami, West Park in Broward has the largest per capita population of Bahamians in the United States.
“There will be an enduring sense of loss” after the storm passes, he said. “I serve in a community where the culture, the flag, the memories of the islands are readily evident every day. The Bahamas are just that close to us.”
Roberts said the closeness between the two countries will be important in rebuilding the Bahamas.
“One thing about Bahamians,” Roberts said, “they look out for each other.”