‘Like I was watching death in the eye’: A Bahamian banana farmer loses everything

Hurricane Dorian’s floodwaters surpassed the floor boards, already five feet off the ground, so Freeport banana-farm owner Alpha Celestin, 61, busted a hole in his ceiling, propped a ladder there and climbed inside with two of his workers.

He knew the other men couldn’t swim, so when he spotted the water creeping up to 15 feet inside his home, he tied Styrofoam from his ceiling around their chests to keep them afloat. They stayed perched there for 48 hours.

“This is the first time I’ve ever come so close to death, like I was watching death in the eye,” he said. “I never knew of such a hurricane.”

Celestin and his two employees crawled down on Tuesday and walked two miles through chest-high water to high ground. There, they hitchhiked to town and called their families.

“Everyone expected to pull a dead body from that house,” he said. “When I called they were very happy.”

When Celestin returned to his farm off Grand Bahama Highway near the airport on Thursday, he found all of his plants were ruined. His home was still intact, but it was so wet it was as if the walls and everything inside needed to be wrung dry.

As the government still searches for the missing in the neighboring Abacos islands, farmers like Celestin in Grand Bahama are on their own for now, wrestling with how to start picking up the pieces.

Celestin doesn’t know where to start. A native of St. Lucia, he grew up farming bananas with his family there. He bought his farm outside Freeport 10 years ago, and it hasn’t been easy.

“I’ve never had much of a profit,” he said. “I just love farming. I love to see plants grow.”

After Hurricane Dorian, Alpha Celestin, 61, returned to his banana farm on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, to find his crops had been destroyed by the storm. Pedro Portal

He wandered his property on Thursday, touching his growing banana plants, noting that they won’t have the chance to fully develop. If it had rained after the hurricane, he may have been able to salvage the land, he said. But the salt has now made its way into the soil, jeopardizing any harvest for the season.

Last Sunday, he planted a field of tomatoes. Now, downed irrigation lines are preventing him from driving all the way up the driveway to his house.

A metal chair sits mangled beneath a leafless tree that used to provide him shade during his afternoon rests.

Celestin estimates the hurricane has cost him around $250,000 in sales alone, and he can no longer employ the 10 people who worked for him. His furniture sits scattered in the dirt in front of his home. His carefully placed Bible airs out in the sun atop a laundry machine. One of the workers who rode out the storm in the ceiling washed clothes in a tin basin.

As he stared at the fields of doubled-over banana plants surrounding his soaking home, he kept repeating the same question: Why?

“I’m just wondering why? Why is it like this? Why are we having this type of hurricane? What caused it?”

Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.