Cat Island hit hard by Category 3 Irene; help slow in coming

A home, seriously damaged by the storm surge from Hurricane Irene, on Cat Island Friday. A group of Bahamian officials and journalists toured the island, the first people to visit the island since Irene hit.

By Kimberly Miller

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

CAT ISLAND, BAHAMAS -This untamed sliver of land 130 miles southeast of Nassau is the kind of place where asking the name of the main road elicits a lively debate, followed by jokes that it’s the only road, and then finally it’s settled: Queen’s Highway.

It’s a place where 51-year-old minister Birthlon Newbole has lived all but three weeks of his life and where the wealthy touch down on a private airstrip for fishing tournaments and laid-back days at a handful of small resorts.

And it’s a place where many of its 1,800 residents will be sleeping on their floors tonight and nights to come.

Friday afternoon, nearly 24 hours after the worst of Hurricane Irene’s Category 3 winds raked this boot-shaped island, the first contingent of Bahamian government officials and journalists landed at Arthur’s Town Airport on the northern tip of the island.

There had been no communication from residents on the south side of island and only limited information from the north. The National Emergency Management Agency, headquartered in the Bahamas’ capital city of Nassau, was releasing scant details about any of the family islands — formerly the out islands, which includes all areas except New Providence and Grand Bahama — saying that cell phone service was spotty and cloud cover impeded satellite phones.

Word-of-mouth conveyed that Cat Island was hit hard, but no one knew the extent of the damage until Parliament member Philip “Brave” Davis wrangled a 19-person plane to make the half-hour trip from Nassau.

What he found was an island recovering, without any outside assistance yet, from winds that pried roofs from homes and a storm surge that pushed seawater 200 feet inland and chest high on residents who struggled in the pitch dark to stay safe during storm.

Soggy mattresses, that will take days to dry in the high humidity were set outside everywhere. Kitchen tables and chairs, recliners, clothes, framed family photos, black and white composition books — all sitting in the still muddy yards of Cat Islanders.

Some residents were frustrated by what they felt was a lack of preparation and response by government officials. Women came out to the road to scream at the passing bus carrying Davis, angry about being abandoned.

“No communication, we didn’t see one person in authority on the island,” said Frank Brown, a 56-year-old fisherman, who said he and other residents have been left to fend for themselves, including rescuing a woman and baby from a collapsing home.

Part of the challenge Hurricane Irene posed for the island nation of the Bahamas is that as it finished with the settlements in the southeast of the 700-mile stretch of islands, it was just getting started with the capital. That thwarted communication and immediate help to the areas initially hit.

For whatever reason, few residents went to Cat Island’s shelter.

Doreen Farrington stayed in her two-story house in the Stephenson community with her 8-year-old niece, Shenika Farrington.

On Friday, a strong ocean breeze blew through what was left of her home after Hurricane Irene sucked bedroom and kitchen walls into the sea, along with her refrigerator, stove and other still unaccounted for belongings.

Two men make temporary repairs to the roof of a home damaged by Hurricane Irene, on Cat Island Friday.

“Everything is gone,” said Farrington, who had raced to the second floor in the dark as water tore through the first.

Further along Queen’s Highway, which is dotted with husks of old huts built with stone and conch shells, are more ruined homes whose southeast facing walls are either gone or were so broken up by the ocean that seawater flowed freely through houses.

Sherita Wilson, 30, was in her home with her sister and brother when the roof came off in one strong gust of wind. In the pitch dark and spraying sea, they fastened belts together and held onto them as a lifeline as they struggled through waist high water to a neighbor’s house.

“My brother led the way and we had to push the door open because of the water,” Wilson said. “The only thing I was thinking was, ‘Lord, save my life and my son’s life.'”

Wilson’s mother and son had stayed farther inland for the storm.

Miraculously, considering the damage to some homes, there were no deaths or injuries reported on Cat Island.

But with an untold number of electric poles snapped, there is no power to most, if not all of Cat Island. The Davis contingent could only get so far Friday because of the still blocked roads and didn’t make it to resort areas such as Fernandez Bay Village or Hawk’s Nest. Calls Saturday to both resorts were either met with busy signals or voicemails.