As ships dock in Freeport, desperate Bahamians seek a seat to flee Dorian’s destruction

The pitch-black darkness that enveloped Antoinette Haughton and her three young children when they arrived at Freeport Harbour at 5 a.m. Friday perfectly embodied the lack of hope they had been feeling since they first evacuated their home in Abaco last week.

“Crying is an understatement,” she said scoffing as she started tearing up and her voice broke. “I’ve cried, screamed, pulled my hair, get depressed. Everything you can imagine, I’ve actually done.”

Haughton, 38, withstood the storm at a friend’s house in Freeport. But she lost everything after Hurricane Dorian pounded through and lingered for a few days in the Bahamas. She grew worried about how long it would take for her children to go back to school, so she decided to leave.

Full of equal parts despair and determination, Haughton had a single mission engraved on her mind at dawn Friday: to board a MailBoat ship scheduled to leave that night for Nassau.

Florence Dean, 53, watches passengers board the Grand Celebration cruise ship as she waits for her daughter to clear customs at Freeport Harbor in Grand Bahama Island on Friday, September 6, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

“Nassau is a safe sanctuary. It’s a godsend,” said Haughton between sobs. She has been sleeping in a soaked mattress for the past few days and said she was impatient for a warm bath, a cold glass of water and a dry bed.

She stood in line flanked by her 6- and 15-year-old kids and pushing her 18-month-old’s stroller for five hours until she finally got their free tickets around 10 a.m. Then she waited another seven excruciating hours until they finally started boarding at about 5 p.m.

The MailBoat was one of at least three ships set to depart from the devastated island that night — the Bahamian Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration, the first humanitarian cruise to dock in Freeport early Friday, was heading to Palm Beach, and Baleària’s Jaume ll planned to go to Fort Lauderdale.

A crowd of more than 500 Bahamians and Americans packed the harbor, all anxious to leave aboard a vessel — any vessel — and leave behind the horrific scenes on Grand Bahama Island, which, like the rest of the northwestern islands, has no water and no electricity yet.

In order to head to Florida, refugees had to have a passport and a U.S. visa, or a police record vouching for them. But even with that documentation, it was extremely difficult to hitch a ride somewhere.

Hundreds of people waited under the hot sun for hours trying to board a ship at the Freeport Harbour in Grand Bahama Island on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

It took more than 10 hours for the Yaldas from Chicago — 62-year-old Manny and 52-year-old Suzana — to finally get a glimpse of light. They were left stranded in Freeport during Dorian after they had traveled to the island Aug. 19 to finish building a house they recently bought here. They planned to board Jaume ll on Friday and start their way home.

The port site grew chaotic around noon Friday, when the scorching sun became suffocating. People started arguing over cutting in line and documentation. Some refused to make way for the entrance doors to open and the Bahamas police had to intervene at times. Several witnesses said they saw a woman pass out due to the heat, and a baby suffer a seizure.

Cruise line volunteers passed out water bottles and sodas, which quickly left the ground littered with trash, attracting mosquitoes and other insects.

For passenger Dayle Deveaux, 17, who was traveling with her blind uncle on the MailBoat, the water kept her alive and standing through the long day.

“I’m scared, but I have to do what I have to do,” she said before boarding the boat. “I’m leaving family behind so I need to find an apartment and a job as soon as I get to Nassau and start sending money back to my people here.”

Caught in the middle of the multitude sat 38-year-old Shantell Johnson, who was been in a wheelchair since her leg was amputated from her knee down due to a gangrenous injury last December.

Shantell Johnson, 38, who is disabled, left the customs line after waiting under the sun for more than 12 hours at Freeport Harbor in Grand Bahama Island on Friday, September 6, 2019. Johnson was trying to board the Grand Celebration cruise ship headed to Port of Palm Beach in Florida to meet family members. MATIAS J. OCNER

At 5 p.m. sharp, after sitting in line for 12 hours, Johnson finally gave up. She has a passport but no visa, so she was repeatedly denied access.

She returned to her boyfriend’s parked car in the port’s lot, the same spot she planned to sleep in that night because she had nowhere else to go. She lost her home in Explorer’s Way when Dorian passed through.

“It ain’t even a home anymore. It’s just plywoods lying around,” she said.

As soon as she climbed inside the car, she pounded her fists on the steering wheel and wept.

She was unsure of what she would eat or drink in the coming days, but she was quickly running out options.

“Only God the almighty — that’s the only one I can turn to right now,” she said.