When Hurricane Dorian leveled entire towns on Grand Bahama, Abaco and the northern out islands Sept. 1, South Florida’s boating communities, along with many industry groups, were eager to respond. But the Category 5 storm, with 185-mph winds and gusts exceeding 200 mph, dumped up to 20 inches of rain and sat over the islands for 40 hours. Dorian then took two days to move up the Florida coast, forcing good-Samaritan boaters to delay relief efforts.
As flotillas of private boats organized after the storm, reports came back that the Coast Guard was turning away small boats, fearing they might get stranded and have to be rescued.
Sean Quinn, his son Brandon and a friend were determined to get to Walker’s Cay — one of the northernmost islands — despite rumors of debris fields and pirates. Quinn, who had been running to and from to Walker’s Cay from Palm Beach for nearly 35 years, loaded the cockpit of his Jupiter 31 center console, Tuff Cookie, with 3,500 pounds of food, water, fuel and medical supplies.
“Marsh Harbour and Hopetown were devastated, so I knew there was nothing I could do there,” Quinn said. “But I knew everyone on Walker’s Cay. We reached them by sat-phone and found 165 were still on the island. Everyone was alive, but water and food were going fast. We felt like we had to go.”
On Thursday morning, Quinn stopped loading Tuff Cookie as soon as the “bilge pumps kicked on”; hours later, it was the first American boat to make it to Walker’s Cay. “We unloaded the supplies and looked around the island,” he said. “About 90 percent of the roofs were gone, but there were no serious medical issues. We didn’t feel like we had to evacuate anyone.”
The three returned home after leaving the supplies and arranged for a trip back that Sunday with another load. In the meantime, he was contacted by hundreds of other boaters on social media who read about his trip. The next day, Quinn said, an “onslaught of boats” went in convoys from Palm Beach, loaded with supplies. Most focused on the smaller outlying islands where help might take longer to arrive.
With the Bahamian government overwhelmed and non-governmental organizations focusing attention on larger islands, private boats became the link between Florida and the smaller islands. “You’ve heard of the Cajun Navy? This was more like the Southeast Florida Navy,” Quinn said. “A helicopter can carry half as much weight as a boat and a small airplane a few hundred pounds. We were the lifeline of the islands during those first few weeks.”
Donation stations launched by churches and private groups sprang up across Florida, as news broadcasts showed images of destroyed communities with thousands of islanders missing. It was a humanitarian crisis closer to home than Haiti or Puerto Rico for thousands of Floridians who have family or had spent time in the islands.
Billionaire Carl Allen pressed his superyacht, Gigi, into service, running relief missions between South Florida and Walker’s Cay. His Go Fund Me account raised $200,000 in the first week. Allen vowed to match contributions to $500,000. The 240-foot motoryacht Laurel was used to transport construction goods and food from Florida, rescuing 60 dogs from Marsh Harbour on the return trip.
Boaters from outside of Florida also lined up to help with relief efforts. Gary DeSanctis, president of Active Interest Media’s Marine Group, publisher of several boating magazines (including Soundings Trade Only), gathered his editors the day after the storm to see if they could organize a convoy of boats for rescue and relief. A firefighter in New York’s Westchester County, DeSanctis felt the call to get to the Bahamas.
AIM’s South Florida contacts advised caution, warning about unnavigable channels and no dockage. AIM threw its efforts behind Hope for Hopetown, which raised $300,000 in less than a week (now up to $450,000) for rebuilding the Abacos.
DeSanctis was also a member of Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, a group of veterans and first-responders who do search-and-rescue missions after natural disasters. The group of 12 — Marine Corps, Air Force and Army veterans and another firefighter — assembled in Miami 10 days after the storm, initially expecting to help in Florida. But when the storm hit the Bahamas and missed Florida, they changed plans.
With sleeping bags, tools and enough food and water for a week, the group was prepared to sleep on the deck of an old barge. Instead, they boarded a cruise ship transporting hundreds of other relief workers. Joining them were firefighters, doctors and nurses, animal rescuers and grief counselors.
When the group reached Freeport, the evacuation had been finished for nearly a week. The neighborhoods were mostly abandoned, looking like war zones. Collapsed houses, fetid water and the stench of raw sewage were everywhere.
The Sheep Dogs made contact with a Baptist church, and for the next days they cleaned out the church and put temporary roofs on 25 houses in the neighborhood. The group also cleared out three homes of elderly, handicapped people near the church. That involved throwing away furniture and clothing, and cutting away walls and floors to save the outer structure. Located on higher ground, the neighborhood had been hit by 3-foot floodwaters, making some homes salvageable. Other parts of the island, where water as deep as 20 feet flooded houses and businesses, were in ruins. There was no electricity anywhere.
“Despite all that, the people were amazing,” DeSanctis said. “Here we were, taking everything they owned and throwing it out on the street. Their gratitude for us being there was beyond anything I’d ever experienced.” The locals who hadn’t evacuated routinely stopped the Sheep Dogs, offering thanks and saying prayers over the group.
Sgt. Major Lance Nutt, USMC (Ret.), who founded Sheep Dog Impact Assistance in 2010, has participated in multiple disaster-relief missions and visited hundreds of sites around the world in his 30-year career as a Marine. “I’ve never met people as friendly and appreciative to see us,” Nutt said. “That made us even happier that we were able to make a positive impact.”
Working side by side, the Sheep Dogs quickly bonded, even adopting a few locals as temporary members. “There were no malingerers,” DeSanctis said. “We did all the dirty work together. We’d set out to do one house, and someone would come up to us and ask us to do theirs. We couldn’t refuse.”
Another hurricane was moving north, so the group had to depart early. “Besides the construction, we were also there to get people into hope mode,” DeSanctis said. “They were scared, and nobody had come to help them. I think we accomplished some of that.”
On other parts of Grand Bahama, Dorian’s onslaught was even more extreme. Dr. Alison Thompson, founder of Third Wave Volunteers, brought a group over right after the storm. They started in Freeport and made their way east to High Rock, where much of the destruction had occurred. “We had to cut through miles of electrical wires and chainsaw through trees to just to get through,” Thompson said. “It was like a huge bomb exploded. Everything was just gone.”
The group met stunned islanders standing around with vacant stares. One area of High Rock had 17 residents washed out to sea, as Dorian’s winds and waters left no refuge. In McLean’s Town, bodies in the cemetery had floated out of graves. Thompson saw concrete slabs that had fallen on villagers. The stench of death was everywhere. “From High Rock to McLean’s, I know where the bodies are,” she said. “It was the worst destruction I’ve ever seen.”
The group passed out solar lamps to survivors and joined with churches in Freeport to distribute food. In marinas, they siphoned gas from boats and used it to get vehicles running. They eventually made it to Sweetings Cay, where the Coast Guard had dropped off supplies for the remaining locals.
Backed financially by the National Marine Manufacturers Association and other industry groups, Third Wave plans to stay in the Bahamas for the foreseeable future, bringing in volunteers with different skill sets to help in the recovery. Thompson, who spearheaded efforts in the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and 2010 earthquake in Haiti, told Trade Only Today the group will be there until the islands recover. Its Bahamas Strong relief effort already has funded the transport of 5,000 tons of supplies to Freeport. “We love the Bahamas and want to bring it back,” Thompson said. “There’s always hope, but it’s just not there right now.”
With Dorian out of the daily news cycle, other groups plan to be involved for the long haul. Duane Kuck, whose wife, Cindy, has family ties to the Abacos, flew to the Bahamas before Dorian had passed up the Florida coast. He had to get special permission from flight controllers in Orlando. “We did helicopter operations coming out of Nassau and landed on Elbow Cay, Man-O-War, Green Turtle Key, Treasure Key and Marsh Harbour,” said Kuck, who is president of Regal Boats. “The destruction was exactly what you’d expect with a Cat 5 storm. It took down everything in its path.”
The Kucks’ chartered helicopter evacuated more than 20 people the first day and continued to fly rescue missions for the rest of the week. Weeks later, Kuck was still involved in relief efforts, but from his base in Orlando. “Where I’ve been able to help most is here,” he said, adding that he and Cindy threw themselves into relief efforts for two weeks following his visit to the Bahamas. Cindy’s father grew up on Abaco, and her first cousin lost a marina and waterfront restaurant in Marsh Harbour to the storm.
“You hear about disasters, but unless you’re thrust into the middle of it, you don’t understand how many moving parts there are,” Kuck said. “Everything’s so urgent — you try to problem-solve as you go along.”
Establishing a 501 (c)(3) called First Orlando Foundation for donations, the Kucks and their “loose band of brothers and sisters who care,” as Duane calls them, started the Love Abaco group. At first, they coordinated evacuation flights and air-dropped food and supplies. The group then connected with other volunteers — some homegrown outfits such as theirs, but also international groups, including Samaritans Purse and Medicorps. Missionary Flights International had DC3 cargo planes that could transport large amounts of supplies. “They helped us with that, and we helped them with the helicopters to make sure their medical teams got back and forth.”
First Orlando Foundation also established the Abaco Forever warehouse in Ocoee, Fla., to store donated supplies. After two weeks, the effort transitioned from rescue to relief. First Orlando still sent food and medical supplies, but it began to focus on construction supplies by week three.
“Transporting goods by aircraft is not inexpensive, but we’ve continued to do that,” Kuck said nearly four weeks into the effort. “We want to make sure the goods get where they’re needed. We also still need to get a few people back and forth.”
The group partnered with Water Mission International, providing a helicopter to get a 30,000-gallon-a-day clean-water machine to Abaco and smaller filtration systems to other islands. It has also carried generators to the islands.
Transporting fuel has become a concern, especially to outlying islands. The donations of hundreds of generators made sense for turning the lights back on, but accessing and paying for fuel presents a dilemma for islanders. The Kucks are involved in a group called Fuel Relief Fund for those issues.
Finding fuel has also been a problem for boaters trying to move supplies to the smaller out islands. “Boats can get in and out of Grand Bahama no problem,” said Paul Berube, owner of the Boater’s Exchange, a dealership in Rockledge, Fla. “But it gets tough when you try to get to the Abacos.”
Berube and the dealership’s co-owner, Jerry Butz, immediately threw themselves into the relief efforts. They took over a 501(c)(3) charity called Project Light of Brevard and started fundraising and collecting supplies. The dealership solicited help wherever it could, including participants of its Bahamas and Back Tournament. The participants donated about $35,000 and plan to transport building supplies on their boats, forming a work party for Green Turtle Key.
Project Light of Brevard also has received about 50,000 pounds of donated items. “We’ve received truckloads,” Berube said. “One church donated 50,000 disaster-relief meals, along with two pallets of water. I’m getting stuff shipped to us anonymously.”
The focus is on generators and power tools. “It’s not clothing they need,” Berube said. “It’s hammers and nails.”
Jerry Gilpin, a broker at Denison Yachting in Fort Lauderdale, grew up on Walker’s Cay. After Dorian, Gilpin organized the rescue of friends on nearby Guana Cay but has since thrown himself into relief efforts. His family owns two warehouses in Stuart, and he has been behind the transport of 100 pallets to the Bahamas.
The effort is still receiving 200 packages a day. “A guy just drove down from a little town in South Carolina with a truckload,” Gilpin said. “He wanted to make sure we got them.”
Like Kuck, Gilpin said it was initially about “improvising” relief efforts, but now he has a network on smaller islands sending requests for specific items. Instead of private boats and aircraft, barges are transporting construction goods to the islands. “A core group on each island is trying to get infrastructure up and running,” he said. “They’re hampered by no electricity and little man power because so many people evacuated. It’ll take years to get things back to normal.”
Gilpin has yet to return to life as a yacht broker. Instead, he has become one of the “go-to guys” in South Florida for supplies. He doesn’t see that ending anytime soon. “People like me, who know a lot of people in this effort, are getting the calls,” he said. “They tell each other, ‘Call Jerry, he can get it there.’ There are a half-dozen of us down here that are moving the big assets.”
Gilpin’s boss at Denison Yachting, Bob Denison, also has been behind the relief effort from the beginning. Denison organized a GoFundMe page and funneled clients’ offers to help into donations for the fundraiser.
“South Florida is the hub for the recovery efforts,” Denison said a month after the storm. “A bunch of industry people have been making big sacrifices with their money and time. Many, many companies have pushed their differences aside and are working together.”
Denison cited Atlantic Yacht and Ship, HMY, MarineMax and Bradford Marine as leaders in the effort. In the early days, NMMA, Maverick Boat Group and Contender Boats each donated $10,000. The Marine Industries Association of South Florida joined an effort called Mission of Hope to fund a relief ship. Brunswick Corp. donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross for relief efforts. Volvo Penta of the Americas also donated $50,000, a Volvo generator and construction equipment, for a total value of $100,000.
“That will help with cleanup and reconstruction support in the Bahamas,” Ron Huibers, president and CEO of Volvo Penta of the Americas, told Trade Only Today. “Duane Kuck shared with us that the island nation will be in need for a long time to come.”
Kuck plans to be involved for the foreseeable future. “I’ve been super-impressed with the response from so many people stepping up to help,” he said. “We’re in it for the long haul. The situation is obviously different between the outer islands and metropolitan areas. We’re ready to help fill in the blanks as needed.”
The Sheep Dog Impact Assistance crew is heading back to Freeport in October for another stint. “We’re looking at 10 days, with twice the volunteers,” Nutt said. “We’ll be back in that same community, focusing on repairing more homes. The idea is to help the people get back on their feet so they can recover their lives.”