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Storm Ravaged Island in Bahamas

By Jonathan Freedland
The Washington Post

NASSAU, Bahamas

The first hint of trouble is at the tiny airport on Eleuthera, the most northeastern of the Family Islands of the Bahamas. A small plane is perched upside down, wheels to the sky.

Then come the surreal images in the little settlement of Current -- children's clothes hanging in the trees, not to dry, but tossed by a wave that topped a 30-foot ridge between Current and the Atlantic Ocean; a car nose deep in tree branches and sludge, and a row of coffee jars that stands even though the cupboard and house that contained it is not in sight.

It was on the small Caribbean island, population 10,000, that Hurricane Andrew first came calling about 5 p.m. EDT Aug. 23, and north Eleuthera took considerable punishment. Nassau, the capital, and nearby Freeport were almost unaffected.

Only 10 percent of Current's few hundred houses are standing, the rest reduced to piles of timber and shattered glass so familiar in Florida and Louisiana, Andrew's subsequent targets.

The hurricane's main weapon on Eleuthera was not wind or rain but the sea. Residents said Monday that Andrew sucked water three miles from shore, then blew it back again in a mighty wall of water. U.S. weather forecasters confirmed that Andrew hit Eleuthera with at least an 18-foot tidal surge but said wind speeds could not be clocked for lack of anemometers.

On Eleuthera as in the United States, early warning about the hurricane held down the death toll, authorities said. The dead included a woman who drowned because she refused to seek refuge in her attic, and a man, 90, who suffered a heart attack before the storm arrived.

Although everyone in Current survived, there is suffering. The island's only road -- known, in a reminder of the Bahamas' British colonial past, as the Queen's Highway -- is impassable to most vehicles, parts of it under three feet of water.

There is no sewer system, and the sea unhelpfully heaped garbage and debris in a now-putrid depression.

Andrew's arrival virtually coincided with installment of the first new Bahamian government in 25 years. Hubert Ingraham had been prime minister for four days when the storm came, and he inherited a bureaucracy composed entirely of appointees of Lynden O. Pindling, whom Ingraham defeated in an election.

While all signs pointed to possible official paralysis after the hurricane, the opposite has been true. Help arrived quickly on Eleuthera.

U.S., British, Jamaican and Bahamian forces are on Eleuthera, working in a mini-coalition to help the islanders. Within hours after the storm hit, HMS Cardiff, a British Royal Navy destroyer on regular Caribbean patrol, arrived. By the next morning, its helicopter was delivering ice and water to locals, who promptly festooned even the most broken roofs with "We Love You Cardiff" banners.

The British Navy has since been replaced by Royal Engineers Corps commandos particularly skilled in emergency construction. Veterans of disaster relief in Kurdistan last year, they flew from their base in Belize with plywood, nails and plastic sheeting to establish shelters for the homeless. Food and water are now deemed to be in sufficient supply.

"The relief effort has been going extremely well," Ingraham said in an interview here Tuesday. "We are extremely grateful for what has happened."

The multinational force operates from the tiny airstrip. This week, some of 300 sailors from the USS Ashland, an amphibious ship, gathered on Eleuthera to discuss rebuilding efforts with community leaders. The Ashland stopped there last Thursday en route to Norfolk, Va., from exercises in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Ashland sailors have paid particular attention to American enclaves on the island, primarily second homes. In fact, most visitors since the airstrip opened have been property owners in search of insurance adjusters.

Ironically, help has even come from Florida. Residents of Jensen Beach sent clothes and food to their sister town, Gregorytown, with which their city co-hosts an annual pineapple festival. Volunteers from churches in St. Petersburg flew in Monday wearing "Hurricane Busters" T-shirts and bringing tools and food.