For those of you who don’t know, I’m in The Bahamas, in Nassau, the capital. In the last few years, hurricane activity has been high (as it has been in Florida). In the map I’ve linked to, you should be able to see just how big the Bahamian archipelago actually is; our northern islands are further north than Miami and Fort Lauderdale, while our southern islands are just north of Haiti. So when hurricanes travel, they can affect different parts of our archipelago, rather like hurricanes affecting Florida.
So anyway. Wilma is travelling. She’s battering South Florida as I write, and her outer bands are also beginning to affect our north-western islands. Bimini’s the first to feel storm conditions, and Grand Bahama’s next in line. For people who don’t know, the Grand Bahama’s where the second city is, and then Abaco, which is next in line, is where the third city is. Nassau’s a little out of the line of fire right now. We’re going to get tropical storm winds, but unless the hurricane turns, hurricane winds are not expected.
At the same time, though, Alpha, which is again a tropical depression (which means that we cheated a little; there’s been a big fuss about the fact that we’re into our 22nd/23rd named storm, record year, yadda yadda, but in truth past meteorologists, who didn’t have the benefit of satellite photographs, didn’t name tropical depressions and sometimes didn’t even name weaker tropical storms. This is an active year, yes, but unusually active? I’m not yet convinced), is moving up the Bahamas chain, and affecting the southern Bahamas. So most of the archipelago is under cloudy skies and is getting nice windy weather.
But I wanted to write about evacuation and survival. The Florida Keys are under a mandatory evacuation, which is all very well and good, considering that they are all linked to the mainland by causeways and other feats of engineering. The evacuation of major Bahamian islands, even little ones like Bimini, is far less of an option. In the first place, the size of planes that land in Bimini warrants their grounding even in tropical storms, and the seaplanes that can also serve it are parked and anchored. Bimini’s tiny, and it’s got sea on both sides. People don’t evacuate the island; they go to the churches (which are shelters, and are built on the highest ground) and wait storms out. We’ll see what happens.
Thing is, houses don’t fall down in The Bahamas. Even in Andrew, which was Cat 5 when it bulleted through the northern Bahamas, and which had lost strength and organization when it hit South Florida, didn’t wreak the kind of devastation in The Bahamas that it did in Miami. It was more than critical mass; it was the quality and the solidity of buildings that made the difference. The storm surge was a problem; some people drowned in their houses. Wind damage affected fleets of boats, and ripped off roofs. Newer houses, build according to American designs, did more poorly than old Bahamian houses. In Harbour Island and Spanish Wells, it was the newer houses that were damaged, while the old wooden ones stood.
Key West was built by Bahamians from Abaco; this is why people in Key West are called Conchs. It’s a Bahamian name. Several of the houses in Key West are replicas of buildings in Abaco and New Providence; the octagonal Hemingway House is a double of the old Gaol in Nassau, which is now a library. Those are the houses that ought to stand, having been built by shipwrights. It’ll be interested to see what damage was done in Key West in comparison to what’s done elsewhere.
There’s a poem (another) somewhere in me about hurricanes.