Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, but it only made The Abaco Club family stronger

April 15, 2020
Elie Petitphait, The Abaco Club’s beach supervisor, returned to work three months after sustaining life-threatening injuring from Hurricane Dorian.

Forward Upward Onward Together. That’s the motto of the indigenous islands of the Bahamas. On Sept. 1, that mantra was put to the test when category 5 Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the Abaco Islands. Forward Upward Onward quickly turned into Downward Upside Down Backward. The only thing that remained for Great Abaco after Dorian was the Together.

Tropical storms are nothing out of the norm for the Bahamas, but Dorian was not the norm. With wind gusts that surpassed 220 mph, 20-foot storm surges and 30 inches of rain, this was the most powerful storm ever recorded to hit the Bahamas. Whatever was in Dorian’s path didn’t stand a chance. Homes were tossed like rag dolls. Miles of trees were unearthed, launched as battering rams. Colorful, historic towns full of culture and character were now nothing more than piles of rubble.

Dorian erased what took generations to build. Seventy people died in the storm, 60 in Abaco alone, and the nation suffered $3.4 billion worth of damage.

*****

From a propeller plane last month, I was given a glimpse at what Dorian left behind. Upon landing at Marsh Harbour airport — well, what’s left of it — you could see the destruction. I was there to visit The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, an under-the-radar golf club located 18 miles south of Marsh Harbour. It’s a seasonal and vacation spot, mostly, for roughly 250 members that live across the globe. Given its proximity, nearly all of the club’s 178 employees reside in Marsh Harbour and neighboring communities. During my ride from the airport, Giavanno Bowe, a concierge agent for The Abaco Club, spoke of the destruction around us. “I wish you could’ve seen all of this before Dorian,” said Bowe, smiling as he remembered the pre-hurricane palace. “Town was full of special places and special people.”

Homes in Marsh Harbour were turned after being hit with hurricane Dorian's full wrath.
Homes in Marsh Harbour were turned after being hit with hurricane Dorian's full wrath.
Getty Images

Bowe possesses the kind of upbeat personality perfect for the hospitality industry, but when he spoke about how Dorian affected him personally, the tone in the car quickly changed. “Man, um, I don’t even know where to begin,” he said, struggling to get the words out. “Life won’t be the same for a long, long time.”

As our 25-minute drive down Great Abaco Highway continued, you could sense the discussion was therapeutic for Bowe. He’s remaining focused on what lies ahead for himself and the people of the Abaco Islands rather than dwelling on the past. He said he came away with a newfound perspective on life post-Dorian. He even enrolled in online college courses. “I’m never going to take life for granted again,” Bowe said. “After Dorian, I decided I’m going to do the things I always said I was going to do.”

The strong sense of gratitude from Bowe would be an ongoing theme from the people I spoke to over the next few days.

*****

The Abaco Club was miraculously spared Dorian’s full wrath. Make no mistake, the club was still hit hard by the outskirts of the hurricane, but it endured minimal damage in comparison to the rest of the island. The property lost countless trees, roofs were torn apart, windows shattered, storm surges flooded homes and the golf course, and much more cosmetic damage was done.

Six employees from The Abaco staff stayed behind to look after the deserted property. Brian Shaver (director of golf), Kevin O’Malley (project executive), Matt Dimase (director of agronomy), John Wiley (food and beverage manager), Nikim Johnson (security line staff) and Charles Stuart (Abaco chef) rode out Dorian together perched up in the club’s fitness center and spa, its highest point above sea level. They stocked up on ice, food, drinks, alcohol and cards beginning on Saturday evening. Cell service didn’t last long. A satellite phone came in handy, but even that was touch and go. Loved ones watched in horror on TV as Dorian hit Great Abaco and devilishly hovered over the area for an abnormal amount of time. During the few calls the men were actually able to complete, they asked family members to spread the word to other families that they were holding up OK.

On Tuesday, when the worst of the storm had finally passed, the club staffers snuck outside to assess the damage. It was clear a lot of work awaited them in the days, weeks and months ahead, but they also knew the club had caught a break. Then they learned of the off-site devastation.

The Abaco Club from above pre-hurricane Dorian.
The Abaco Club from above pre-hurricane Dorian.
The Abaco Club

Elie Petitphait, the club’s beach supervisor, saw the worst of it. Living in Marsh Harbour, Petitphait decided to stay put rather than flee the island. In a miscalculated step, he went outside during the early stages of the storm in hopes of gathering belongings located a short walk away. He instead found himself in the middle of Dorian’s wrath.

Wind gusts made it impossible to see what was just a few feet ahead and a storm surge knocked him off his feet — suddenly he was helplessly drifting away. Petitphait gasped for air and struggled to stay afloat. He remembers cars being flung like tin cans above him. While waving his arms in desperation, looking for anything to grab onto, Petitphait found a piece of wooden fencing and held on for his life. Just when he thought he had caught a break, something slammed into his left arm, leaving him with just his right arm to hold on. He still has no idea how long he was clinging to that fence. “It felt like an eternity,” Petitphait says.

Suddenly everything went still. The high winds tapered and the water calmed as Petitphait, in the eye of the storm, was able to get his bearings. What he saw was shocking. His neighborhood was non-existent, save for one home he saw in the distance standing above sea level. By Petitphait’s estimation, the home was a few hundred yards away. “I thought to myself, If I could live through that I can make it to that home with one arm,” he said. “My will to live is the only thing that kept me going in that moment.”

When Petitphait got to the property, a familiar hand was waiting to pull him to safety. As fate would have it the house belonged to his friend, Ace. Petitphait’s arm left a pool of blood on the floor, and Ace wrapped him up to control the bleeding until he was able to receive the help he desperately needed. Knowing he was in bad shape, Petitphait left Ace’s home two days later to embark on a seven-mile walk to seek medical attention. He stumbled upon a makeshift triage center and they treated his arm. “I can’t believe you’re still alive,” a nurse told him.

Elie Petitphait, The Abaco Club’s beach supervisor, returned to work three months after sustaining life-threatening injuring from Hurricane Dorian.
Elie Petitphait, The Abaco Club’s beach supervisor, returned to work three months after sustaining life-threatening injuring from Hurricane Dorian.
Tim Reilly

Petitphait was put on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to receive life-saving treatment for all the blood he had lost and had to undergo surgery to put a metal plate in his left arm. “It was my first time in a helicopter,” Petitphait said. “It was a pretty cool experience, to be honest.” (That sums up Petitphait’s positive outlook.)

*****

After footage of the carnage in Marsh Harbour was plastered all over the TV and social media, many of the club’s members frantically offered to help. There’s a special bond between the people at The Abaco Club. This isn’t a place where people are worried about who they are seen with or who they’re talking to. The staff and members know each other. Like, really know each other. Actual conversations are had. Real relationships are formed.

Kristi Hull, The Abaco Club’s director of sales, was bombarded with texts and calls from members. “My phone was ringing off the hook,” Hull said. “Everyone wanted to know about the staff.” Once it became overwhelming to answer everyone individually, Hull formed a WhatsApp group to provide updates for more than 100 concerned members, many of whom created a shared document to track the whereabouts and status of the club’s staff. Members started calling those whom they had grown close to, checking in with nearby shelter registrations, scouring social media for updates and looking for any connections they could make until they had accounted for the entire staff. It took 10 days to accomplish this.

Much of the staff was left homeless, but without hesitation, members offered up their residences to those in need. Quickly the club was filled with misplaced staff. The Winding Bay Fund was established to specifically assist the people of Abaco in the form of food, shelter, medical aid and supplies, and to provide assistance in the island’s clean-up and rebuilding efforts. To date, the fund has raised over $3 million through donations from members, friends, family and visitors of the club.

The Abaco Club replaced its golf flags with Bahamas flags that don #abacostrong to display the unity in Great Abaco.
The Abaco Club replaced its golf flags with Bahamas flags that don #abacostrong to display the unity in Great Abaco.
Tim Reilly

Some of the funds were used to provide temporary housing for more than 100 people. Thirty-four trailer homes were purchased and placed on the club’s property to form what is referred to as “Abaco City” for staff members to live rent-free until they could get back on their feet. For those rebuilding their homes, they informed trusted members of their supply needs and it all comes out of the fund.

Hull’s husband James is one of only a handful of doctors in the Great Abaco area. With an alarming need for medical attention throughout the island post-Dorian, the fund also purchased a 34-foot mobile medical truck that Hull has put to good use, treating more than 600 patients to date.

The members joined together to ensure the staff was taken care of with roofs above their heads, food so they didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from, medical treatment and funding to help with the rebuilding process. Addressing the education system is next on the to-do list.

On Oct. 28, less than two months after Dorian made landfall, The Abaco Club was open for business. Every employee pre-Dorian was offered a job to return and virtually all of them did. Many had continued working throughout the club’s closure to help with the cleanup process.

*****

Members seek out The Abaco Club for an escape from reality. For the staff, returning to work was an escape for them, too, momentarily allowing them to forget the reality of Dorian’s damage.

If you had never been to The Abaco Club before, like me, you would hardly notice a Category 5 hurricane had come through. The beaches are pristine, the golf is stellar and the club is repairing while simultaneously expanding with new homes and a recent opening of a yacht club. With each day that passes, normalcy slowly returns. But if you ask locals what they need, their answer is going to be your business. People will thank you for coming. You will be treated with a sense of gratitude simply for visiting. When tourism returns, that’s when normalcy will truly return.

In Great Abaco, there’s only one way forward: Forward Upward Onward Together.

The Abaco Club on Winding Bay re-opened for business on Oct. 28.
The Abaco Club on Winding Bay re-opened for business on Oct. 28.
The Abaco Club

After a long recovery process, Petitphait returned to the club on Dec. 24, just in time to see members visiting for the holidays. “It’s a slow process, but we’re in a better place now,” Petitphait says. “Over a dozen members called me, and frequently, to check in during my time in the hospital. They went above and beyond and even paid my medical bills. I laid in my hospital bed daydreaming about tending to my beach every day. It’s different here. Other clubs I’ve worked at members won’t even make eye contact with the staff. The relationships we have here are all genuine, and the way they stuck beside us during these trying times, and continue to do so, is a testament to that.”

Five months later, Petitphait remains in a full-arm brace, and daily physical therapy is required as he slowly works toward regaining movement in his left hand. But that hardly slows him. In fact, he politely excuses himself to go back to work. One of the member’s young daughters had been waiting patiently for the past hour at a nearby table, counting down the minutes to arts and crafts time with Elie.

“Excuse me,” Petitphait says. “I have to go paint seashells now.”

You can donate to the Winding Bay Fund here.

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