JUPITER, Fla. — Della Ingraham heard the dire warnings about Hurricane Dorian as it approached through the Atlantic Ocean, but she wasn’t worried. Born and raised in the Bahamas, Ingraham can easily recite the names of the destructive storms that passed by her neighborhood in Marsh Harbour — Betsy, Floyd, Frances, Jeanne — but each of them came and went, and still the community stood strong.
The Bahamian government this time ordered the Abaco Islands to evacuate, telling residents plainly: “If you stay, you’ll die.” Ingraham still felt she would be more secure in her home than elsewhere in the Bahamas, and she even turned down an offer from a wealthy friend in Florida who offered to fly her and her family off the island as the storm turned and grew into a Category 5 monster.
“We were all in the house, I had my family with me, and we’re thinking, ‘Okay, we did hurricanes before, we can handle this,’ ” Ingraham, 56, said.
By the time Ingraham and thousands of others realized how dangerously different Dorian was, it was too late to leave. The walls were coming down around them, the water was rising fast, the winds were roaring and tearing and tossing everything in their path.
“One of the windows in the bathroom blew out, so we took a mattress to try to block the wind, but the wind was just too strong for it,” she said. “Then we heard other windows blowing out, just ‘poof, poof, poof’ all through the house. We ended up in my bedroom in the walk-in closet, but that room started deteriorating. We ran into the living room and the ceiling was coming down. We were huddled in the corner, and we started to pray. That’s when the back door came flying through the house straight through the front door.”
She and nine members of her family — including two grandchildren, ages 4 and 8 — scrambled outside with the family dog. A neighbor across the street implored them to run.
“So we’re running across the street to his house. Things are flying around. I’m terrified,” Ingraham said. “We got to his house, and it started breaking up. We had to leave from there, and we all went to my sister’s house. Then that started deteriorating, so we had to leave from there. We ended up spending the next two days inside a liquor store, sleeping on the floor on some boards.”
Outside, as the sun emerged, Marsh Harbour was in tatters, with most buildings obliterated. “When I walked down the street, through the business area that I’ve known so well for 30 years, I thought, ‘Where am I?’ ” Ingraham said. “Everything was gone.”
The lucky ones — those who survived their homes imploding and were not dragged out to sea — had almost nothing. Many fled to Nassau, the capital to the south. Thousands, like Ingraham, have fled to the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say approximately 3,900 evacuees from the Bahamas have landed in nearby Florida, a sizable number of them U.S. citizens. Without offering specifics, a CBP spokesman said “a very small number” of Bahamians have been turned away — largely because they were unable to pass criminal background checks or were otherwise inadmissible.
Ingraham fled the Bahamas for the United States via the wealthy benefactor in Florida who had offered to fly her out ahead of the storm. Nicholas Mastroianni, a Florida developer and businessman, had vacationed in the Bahamas for more than two decades, and the people he met there became close friends.
When Mastroianni flew in to rescue Ingraham and her family, he saw the utter devastation from above. Houses broken into sticks. Every tree gone. Caskets in a cemetery sitting aboveground, raised out of the earth by the storm surge.
“The loss of life there is tremendous,” Mastroianni said. “Marsh Harbour is gone, it’s rubble. There are bodies everywhere. There’s no green left at all.”
On that first trip, he brought Ingraham and about 45 others to Jupiter, a seaside town in Palm Beach County, Fla. But he felt he had to take more people away from what was left of Marsh Harbour.
Mastroianni has since spent $350,000 of personal funds and has directed an additional $700,000 from the Mastroianni Family Foundation to help in Dorian rescue efforts. He chartered three cargo planes, two helicopters and two passenger planes to get supplies in and evacuees out.
“We’re now a full-blown rescue and cargo mission,” he said. “One of the big needs is medical. We’re running doctors and nurses to the people in the outer islands.”
He estimated that his planes are taking 50,000 pounds of cargo to the hard-hit northern islands daily and that he has evacuated more than 200 Bahamians. Dozens of them are staying as his guests in the Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place, the retail area Mastroianni developed, where rooms during the winter season go for $620 a night.
His foundation has helped place other refugees with family members in Florida. Mastroianni said he asked other businesses to help out, and many have come through with donations of goods and money.
The Grand Celebration cruise ship, which normally offers two-night trips to the Bahamas, picked up hundreds of refugees and brought them to the Port of Palm Beach on Sept. 7.
“We left with 300 tons of supplies and 400 volunteers, and we brought back 1,400 Bahamians,” said Anita Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the ship’s owner, the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Mitchell said most of those refugees went to the homes of family members who live in Florida.
Palm Beach County is providing temporary housing for about 60 refugees, county spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda said.
“We’re working with them while they reconnect with their families and friends,” De La Rionda said.
Reconnecting has been a difficult aspect of the recovery in the Bahamas — many who were in Marsh Harbour when the hurricane hit were left without phones, and tens of thousands are homeless. Bahamian officials have said the official death toll stands at about 50, but they expect that to rise significantly as recovery workers sift through the widespread wreckage. Thousands are still listed as missing.
Some of those who have made their way to the United States are hoping to establish a new life while they recover from an unthinkable trauma.
“I would like to further my career here, find a job here,” said Petra Rolle, 24, who was a chef at the Baker’s Bay resort. She is staying at Mastroianni’s Wyndham Grand hotel, having heard about him from co-workers. “I lost everything. I don’t have anything left,” she said. “The hurricane was horrible. I had to fight for my life, and for my mom’s life. We were stuck for two days in an unfinished house. The water was waist-deep. The roads were blocked. There were people who couldn’t walk through the water, who couldn’t swim.”
Livingston Cornish, 59, who was on the maintenance crew at Baker’s Bay and is now staying in Jupiter, said he is concerned about his future, not knowing when — if ever — it will be possible to move back to his home.
“I try to take it day by day,” Cornish said. “Everything needs to be cleaned up. There are a lot of dead bodies. … I would like to get a job here in Florida so I can have funds to go back to the Bahamas.”
Ingraham said she is grateful that she and her family are together and safe in Jupiter, but like Cornish and Rolle, she is worried.
“We have nothing to go back to. Every one of my family members lost their homes. I really, really want to see my islands built up and come back, but it’s not going to happen for a while,” Ingraham said. “Every day I wake up with tears in my eyes, thinking, what’s next?”
Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida.