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Special Report: ‘We were the lifeline of the islands’
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By Member Rimon Reshef
October 8, 2019

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.”

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