As the biggest storm ever to hit the Bahamas loomed in the Atlantic Ocean, 16-year-old Akeem Cooper (pictured) was helping others. A junior soldier in The Salvation Army, he was assisting corps officer Major Hendrik Sumter to batten down the organization’s Freeport facility Grand Bahama.
“I was over at the corps hall helping board up the windows,” Akeem explained, “but I eventually had to leave to go home and help my mother and siblings secure our home.”
As the weather conditions deteriorated, Akeem’s thoughts turned to his family. “My neighborhood was quiet and my family and I were getting anxious. That’s when I sent a text to Major Hendrik to ask if he could pick us up and take us to the nearby shelter. It was around 11:15 a.m.,” Akeem recalled. “The major said he would give us an hour to prepare.”
After Major Sumter dropped off the Cooper family at the shelter (Akeem and his brothers Joshua, 17, Lamah, 15, Tamal, 8, and his mother), they went through the registration process. Anyone staying at a shelter on Grand Bahama was required to bring their own bedding, food, snacks and water, so the Coopers took what they could expecting a short-lived ordeal.
“By 8pm [on Sunday, September 1st] we started to feel the winds and it started getting louder,” Akeem observed. “We couldn’t see outside but there was still electricity inside so we felt okay.”
As the night progressed, the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian made its way inland from the east of Grand Bahama, but moving very slowly. Cellular telephone service was still available across most of the central and western part of the island, so there was still some way to communicate with family and friends.
But at about midnight, the hurricane seemed to stop its westward track entirely and hovered over much of the island. The National Hurricane Center reported that at this point the eye of the storm was about 23 miles wide and spanned 45 miles. Putting this into context, Grand Bahama is only 17 miles across from its widest point north to south. Travelling at a speed of just one mile per hour, and sometimes standing still, Hurricane Dorian one of the most dangerous to hover over one spot of land for an extensive period.
While tropical storms are common in the Caribbean, Akeem said, “I’ve never been through a hurricane this bad and for so long! Almost two days of wind and rain, wind and rain and being in the dark with no electricity, no running water, dead cell phones and portable chargers, and overflowing sewage as the shelter began to flood.”
Everyone who sought refuge in the shelter, including Akeem and his family, had to move to an upper floor. “I knew as a Christian I had to trust God, but not knowing what would happen is fearful,” Akeem confessed.
Conditions in the shelter began to deteriorate. Late on Tuesday afternoon Akeem’s mother decided she wanted to return home. Even now, the winds had not yet fully subsided; reluctantly, Akeem escorted his mother and two younger siblings on the walk home. As they entered the gate to their home, a neighbor shouted out to them that the water had been as high as five feet, and when they entered their home it was still under 18 inches of water. Brother Joshua had remained at the shelter to watch over the little they had taken with them, so after leaving his mother and brothers at home, Akeem returned to the shelter on foot. The still-heavy winds blew a tree branch that hit him hard on the back.
On Wednesday afternoon Joshua and Akeem returned home from the shelter; the family survived one of the most devastating hurricanes that ever crossed the Bahamas, particularly Grand Bahama Island. The nearby Abaco Islands were hit hardest and recovery will take a long time, perhaps several years.
Nassau, the capital city located on the island of New Providence, was less affected than other parts of the nation, so the Bahamian government offered free passage to anyone willing to relocate there. But Akeem and his family decided that Freeport will remain their home.
Although the waters have receded, homes and businesses across the islands have been destroyed. But as Bahamians are continuing to suffer, Akeem showed up again at Freeport Corps along with three friends to offer assistance because he knows survivors will come to The Salvation Army for support.
“I love helping other people,” said Akeem. “I’m glad for the opportunity to serve.”