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What it’s like to...

Make it through a hurricane

Mike Stafford
Rotary Club of Freeport, Bahamas


We knew that a storm was coming and that it was a bad one, so we were preparing. I run a small shipyard, and we stood down because the winds got to be too much for us to deal with pulling boats and ships out. We’d been through storms before, so we had all our supplies, our batteries. The only thing we had to buy was gasoline for the generators. My wife put up all the shutters.

I knew that we had to evacuate our main house the minute I heard gurgling in the toilets. I looked out a small hurricane window that we don’t shutter and saw water was all the way up to our back deck, which is about 160 feet from the seawall of the canal we live on and 22 feet above sea level. I said to my wife, “Honey, we’ve got to bug out.” That took a little while because we had to stuff our two cats in duffel bags, and cats don’t like getting stuffed in duffel bags with 180-mile-an-hour winds howling outside.

We went to a cottage on our property that’s about 150 feet higher than the house. We were in bed listening to the wind howling. It was about 3 in the morning, and we were holding hands, not sleeping. I was freaking out because you could hear the tornadoes whizzing around. My wife said, “Honey, I know that after this is done, you’re going to go to the water plant because you always do that and you always want to help people. Don’t worry, I understand, because you’re a Rotarian.”

Dorian ran for more than 30 hours. It just parked right on top of us. I’ve been through quite a few hurricanes, and it was like nothing we’d ever seen. The next day, I got halfway to the water plant — which was built with the support of a Rotary Foundation grant — and was greeted by the police who had come to escort me there. When we got to the plant, there were already about 200 people there with their jugs. The police had to clear a path through the crowd for me.

When I opened the door, I knew we had trouble. One-gallon jugs of water were scattered all around, which meant the electric motor for the pump had been underwater. I poured some water on it, sprayed some contact cleaner, and doused it with diesel fuel. Then I turned the switch and the machine fired up. We were making water.

The great thing about being a Rotarian is the response. We set up a system right after the storm. It just kind of fell together. The assistant governor for our area, Liz Knowles, took control. Across the street from the water plant, Christel Lightbourne, of the Rotary Club of Grand Bahama Sunrise, organized a warehouse as a distribution point for food and clothing. Jaims Carey, president of the Rotary Club of Lucaya, was in charge of trucking goods all around to people who couldn’t get out because they had lost their car or they didn’t want to leave their stuff. Billy Jane Ferguson from the Lucaya club is in charge of the sort center for relief supplies. And James Sarles from the Sunrise club is producing videos that he’s sending around, and that’s raising us money. He’s kind of our ways and means guy. We’ve also got individual Rotarians who’ve come to the island to do cleanup, and they’ve heard somehow about the water plant. Plus I’ve got clubs calling from Sweden, Germany, Winnipeg, Toronto, Chicago, and California, sending us supplies and money. It’s just overwhelming. I’m trying to hold back tears as I’m talking about it.

My house pretty much went underwater with all our stuff. We had fruit trees laden with mangoes, avocados, breadfruit, starfruit. That all went under 6 feet of water. Every day is different. Some days are up, some days are down. You laugh, you cry, you get emotional. And then you see something good, like you find your first Paul Harris pin in the corner. Then later you find your second Paul Harris pin way off in another part of the house. Then, while you’re mucking out something, you find your third Paul Harris pin. And now you’re really happy, and you realize that we’ll get through it.

As told to Frank Bures

Rotary International has established a fund to help out after future disasters. Learn more >

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• Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.