Blog: Reflections on the Bahamas

 - September 6, 2019, 5:16 PM

Little more than two weeks ago, I was in the Bahamas, ill-fated Grand Bahama Island specifically. I was a guest of the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, on a trip to demonstrate how that island, which had lackluster tourism numbers compared to its sisters, had worked to rebound from 2016’s direct hit by Hurricane Matthew. Last year, the Bahamas set tourism records, attracting more than 6.6 million visitors, and was on a pace to exceed that amount.

That is until September 1, when Hurricane Dorian arrived. The monster storm, ferocious even by Category 5 standards, stalled and sat on top of the chain’s major northernmost islands, Grand Bahama and Abaco, wreaking havoc. According to satellite imagery, by the second day of the storm, more than 60 percent of Grand Bahama was under water. Online and television images show structures at Freeport International Airport in shambles, with the shredded carcasses of light aircraft unable to flee Dorian’s wrath, strewn like playthings broken by gigantic unruly children.

My visit coincided with a meeting of the Bahamas Aviation Ambassadors, a group of GA pilots from the U.S. who flew to the area so frequently and encouraged their friends to fly there in train with them so often, that the government decided to formalize the arrangement and establish the ambassador program. Through them, the Ministry (which just recently had the “and aviation” part added to its title) promotes the islands to general aviation pilots, hosting events such as the one I was invited to, to educate them about island destinations.

If a pilot was interested in flying to the Bahamas but uncomfortable about operating alone over open water, they could contact one of the ambassadors who would offer to escort them, and maintain radio contact with them during the trip, from takeoff (usually from Banyan Air Service in Fort Lauderdale) to landing. The ambassadors also lead scheduled groups of GA aircraft to the islands after major aviation gatherings such as Oshkosh and Sun ’n‘ Fun. Some of the ambassadors have served that role for more than 20 years, and are currently flying relief missions to the islands.

One of them with me on that trip was Terry Carbonell, international director of women’s pilot organization The Ninety-Nines, who has flown to the Bahamas dozens of times. “These people are our friends,” she told me as the reports of Dorian’s devastation there continue to filter out. “When I saw 185 mph hit the islands, and knowing that our friends are there, and people that we love, it's heartwrenching. To see how everybody is suffering and we had such a good time there, such a short time ago, it just doesn’t seem like it could really happen.”

I know exactly what she means, for it is hard to juxtapose those memories of an island paradise with the harsh realities of today.

During our trip, our accommodations were at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach, a resort located, as its name would suggest, right on the beach. I’m told it was situated on the leeward side of the storm and hope that it received some measure of protection from that. But the island's power grid was most likely destroyed, along with other vital infrastructure, and unlike similar situations here in the U.S., there’s no line of repair trucks waiting to come in.

Other stops on our tour included West End Airport, a quiet 6,000-foot strip on the other side of the island with no tower or fuel. Inbound aircraft simply notify the Old Bahama Bay Resort and Marina (which oversees the airfield) with their arrival time and a van with customs officials will meet them.

We toured (and sampled) the Bahamian Brewery, a modern facility that produces several varieties of beer (including passionfruit and grapefruit-flavored radlers) for the local community only, no export. But with likely power or water outages, let alone storm damage to the facility itself, those taps could run dry. Another destination was the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO), a nine-acre lagoon which is home to a group of dolphins, and hosts encounter sessions with these magnificent animals. One of only a handful of locations that allows the dolphins access to open ocean, I remember in chilling retrospect the then-innocent question asked by one of my companions. “What happens to the dolphins during a hurricane?” “They know better than us when one is coming, and head out to sea,” was the reply.

One of the trip’s highlights was observing the summer-ending Junkanoo celebration where huge groups of elaborately costumed dancers and musicians marched in competition, all to the beat of drums fashioned from oil drums, and raucous whistles. It was Mardi Gras in a microcosm, and while most of the musical instruments looked well-worn, they were surely family treasures.

While there, I met with airport executives to discuss the airport-owned FBO and general aviation handling operation. The 11,000-sq-ft GA terminal was a recent addition, which was well received by its customers. One Challenger 350 owner who arrived during my visit described how the GA facilities used to be contained in a trailer. “Now its as good as any FBO in the Caribbean,” he told me. I have no idea if or in what condition it survived the storm.

I’ve attempted to reach my contacts there, but have had no reply as of yet. Even if they are able to read my emails or receive my voicemails, I can imagine that getting back to me is either at, or very near the bottom, of their list of priorities, somewhere below finding clean water, food, and shelter for themselves and their families. I wish them and all the Bahamians the best and hope that they will recover their islands as they have done in the past. For those pilots flying relief missions, I salute you.