Miami’s Bahamian community sends relief home to islands devastated by Dorian

During anxious moments at Christ Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, Sandra Martin was on the verge of tears as she watched eyewitness cellphone videos from Grand Bahama while the island was thrashed and submerged by Hurricane Dorian.

The images of drowned houses, roofless buildings and snapped power lines were frightening and heartbreaking. Martin was raised in the Bahamas and still has relatives living in Freeport.

“They are crying because it’s really bad,” she said.

Alongside Martin, Alice Eason was monitoring reports of destruction on the northernmost of the Bahamas’ 700 islands and cays. She was worried about family members stuck in the storm’s crosshairs, too.

“Horrible, horrible,” she said. “The pictures are deceiving. It’s going to look worse when it’s over.”

Martin and Eason could only watch and wait from the hub of Miami’s Bahamian community, a 118-year-old church founded by Bahamians who left their island homes to become contract workers, hired to build a nascent subtropical city at the bottom of the Florida peninsula. They settled in Coconut Grove.

Church members are determined to help the Bahamas recover. Christ Episcopal, whose former pastor was civil rights activist Theodore R. Gibson, and the nearby 123-year-old Greater St. Paul A.M.E. Church, also founded by Bahamians, are leading a drive for relief supplies to be delivered to victims by seaplane. In less than a day, they had already collected stacks of canned food, bottled water, diapers and toiletries.

By early Tuesday morning, Dorian’s wind speed slowed into Category 3 range but its core, located 100 miles off the coast of West Palm Beach, was still parked over Grand Bahama and causing massive flooding. When Dorian made landfall at Elbow Cay on Sunday as a Category 5 storm with 220 mph gusts and a surge two stories high, it became the worst hurricane to hit the northern Bahamas. Five deaths have been reported so far.

“People have lost everything,” said Jonathan Archer, rector at Christ Episcopal. “We were spared, thankfully. Why not send our hurricane supplies to those who truly need them?”

Archer, a native of Nassau, had previous church postings in Eleuthera and Long Island, where he and his flock weathered four hurricanes.

“Bahamians are resilient people,” he said. “Hurricane season is a part of life like marriage — it requires your constant attention.”

Jonathan Archer, right, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, and church member Alice Eason are among the volunteers collecting relief supplies for Hurricane Dorian victims in the Bahamas. Linda Robertson Miami Herald

A few blocks away at Greater St. Paul A.M.E. on Thomas Avenue, the Rev. Nathaniel Robinson III was gratified with the generous response at the church, which still has descendants of original members in the congregation.

“Hurricanes have made people more empathetic,” Robinson said. “Irma hit hard. Then Maria, Michael. People understand what these more powerful hurricanes can do and they want to help. After Irma, other A.M.E. churches sent money and materials to us when we were hurting. Now it’s our turn.”

The churches are collaborating with Fort Lauderdale’s Tropic Ocean Airways, which has offered to donate the services of its pilots and seven Cessna Caravan cargo seaplanes to deliver supplies as soon as weather permits.

“So much of our city’s roots are right here,” Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell said from Christ Episcopal’s social hall. “Many original signers of the city’s incorporation documents were Bahamians. The Bahamian settlers built Miami from the ground up. People who moved here from the North did not know how to farm in this climate and soil, so they hired Bahamians and paid them with this land and suddenly we had a large black home-ownership community in Coconut Grove.”

Silvia Castro drops off relief items for the Bahamas at Christ Episcopal Church in West Coconut Grove. Linda Robertson Miami Herald

Silvia Castro, owner of a Grove art gallery, brought water, diapers, medicines, cans of tuna fish, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “They need help. You never know — tomorrow maybe I’ll need help.”

The items most needed during the initial phase of recovery include water, first-aid kits, toiletries, diapers, baby food and formula, canned goods, flashlights, batteries, small generators, insect repellent and sunscreen.

“If there’s any silver lining, we are trying to bring attention to the West Grove to preserve it,” Russell said, referring to the ongoing gentrification of the historic West Grove. “It’s a battle. This land has become prime real estate. A tragedy like Dorian can rally the community around the Bahamian ethos.”

As the hurricane’s threat to Miami dissipated and reports from the Bahamas grew dire, Russell asked the city’s 14 fire stations and West Grove churches to be collection sites. He’s encouraging people to follow the #BahamaStrong Twitter hashtag he created and check the city’s BahamaStrong website for addresses and updates.

“We have all these emergency supplies we can donate and we can expend our own anxiety by helping others,” he said.

Christ Episcopal Church, founded in 1901 by Bahamian settlers, is a collection site for relief supplies for the Bahamas. Linda Robertson Miami Herald