As the deadly Hurricane Dorian – one of the most powerful hurricanes on record in the Caribbean and the strongest ever to make landfall in the Bahamas – stalled for nearly two days over Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands, ravaging everything in its path on Labor Day weekend, the Bahamian students at Central State University gathered at the one place on campus that offered them some comfort and communal strength.
“We all went to the Sunken Garden to share our thoughts and to pray for our country,” said Emmitt Higgins, a sophomore sprinter from Freeport on the CSU track team.
“We’re a praying nation,” said Andrea “Dream” Bowleg, a junior basketball player from New Paradise, Bahamas. “We believe strongly in God and in times like this, when you don’t know what’s going on, when you’re frightened and feel helpless and sad, you have to pray. You have to believe.”
There are just over 100 Bahamian students at CSU. Some are high-profile athletes and others are prominent social figures on campus. Nearly all of them are standouts in the classroom.
The average GPA of the Bahamian students is 3.5. Bowleg – who came to CSU this year from Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) where she was a rebounding and shot-blocking star – has brought along a perfect 4.0.
Like all CSU students, the Bahamians recognize the Sunken Garden as a cherished spot on campus.
“It’s the place where people come together when anything happens that is real meaningful or real catastrophic, anything that affects a lot of people,” said Justta Campbell, a junior from Nassau.
For generations the Sunken Garden has been the place where freshmen are welcomed to campus in a candlelight ceremony. It’s where graduating seniors used to march to during commencement exercises and it was the revered grounds that alumni rebuilt after the April 1974 tornado destroyed 80 percent of the campus and killed four.
As Dorian’s 185 mph winds raged hour after hour, the Bahamian students lost all means of communication with their families back home and that heightened their fears.
“You’re in a panic,” Bowleg said. “You can’t sleep, you can’t eat. All kinds of questions go through your mind:
“’Is my family going to be safe? Why aren’t they texting me back? Are they drowning? Did the wind blow them away? Will I ever see them again? If they aren’t OK, will somebody be able to rescue them? Do I need to go home? Is our home destroyed?’”
“Just watching the hurricane, it seemed like a slow-moving horror movie,” said Chrystal Finlayson Bowers, the Coordinator of Recreation and Intramurals at CSU and a former Marauders’ track star from Freeport.
“And once there were some communications again, you started to hear the stories of what happened and they were extremely mind-blowing.”
Saturday, Bahamian officials said 1,300 people still were missing and there were 50 confirmed deaths due to the storm, a number that surely will rise as search efforts continue.
The World Food Program estimated Dorian destroyed 13,000 homes in the Bahamas and left 70,000 people in need of food and shelter. Over 10,000 children need new schools.
Yet, the staggering numbers don’t carry the same emotional punch for the Bahamian students as do first-person accounts from family members and friends back home.
“My uncle’s son – A.J. Farrington, he was just five years old – he was pronounced missing and we think he was killed in the storm,” Marauders’ sprinter Isreal Williamson said quietly.
According to the Nassau Guardian, Adrian Farrington of Murphy Town on the Abaco Islands put his son A..J. on a roof to escape rising flood waters that were shark infested. Suddenly a wind gust blew the boy backwards.
As he tumbled off the roof into the rough waters, little A.J. cried out “Daddy!”
The elder Farrington, who had a broken leg, dived in but could not find his son.
Campbell recounted a brief conversation he had with one of his best friends:
“He was stuck on Abaco, one of the islands most intensely affected by the hurricane. He had to swim through the water (the storm surge reached nearly 30 feet) to get to his home and inside he found two dead bodies. He said the stench of the bodies everywhere was unbearable.”
Bowleg has heard accounts of a man having his wife pulled right out of his arms during the storm and she drowned.
“The sea levels got so high that my one cousin had a shark swimming in his house,” she said. “He has a video of it.”
Finlayson Bowers’ cousin told her a harrowing tale, as well:
“She stays out in the Fortune Bay area by the water and for a couple of days after the hurricane, she and her family were missing. They were in the attic of their apartment and the water got so high that they had to go on the roof.
“Finally, they had to break a hole into their neighbor’s apartment because the water wasn’t as high there yet. They managed to get to a dinghy boat and they tried to dog paddle out to get rescued. Her husband fell in the water and they nearly lost him.”
As she’s heard the gripping stories and seen photos of the apocalyptic devastation in parts of her country, Bowleg said she’s felt both helpless and guilty:
“I’m here and not helping my family…It makes you feel selfish. They’re going through all that and I’m here safe.”
Campbell agreed: “If we’re hungry here, we can go to the (Café) and eat. Back home they have to fight to find food. And then they have to stand in long lines.”
CSU sports information director Nick Novy said school officials have tried to comfort the students:
“Last Tuesday we brought the Bahamian students in just to get together with them and make sure they were okay. We went through our resources, trying to get them whatever they might need and letting them know we’ll do anything we can to help their families back home.”
Bowleg said the counseling could help students:
“There’s only so much you can do here, but that’s not easy when you know the people at home are struggling.”
To underscore her point, she took out her phone and showed a pair of videos her uncle had sent after he’d searched for her aunt, who’d been trapped in her home by flood waters.
One clip showed her uncle slogging through the wreckage and finally seeing her.
“Thank God she’s alive!” he can be heard saying in a lilting Bahamian voice that wavered with joyful, near tearful relief. “Everything else here is destroyed, but thank God she is alive!”
Making their mark
Bahamian athletes already were making a mark at CSU more than a half century ago.
Sterling Quant, now a lawyer in Nassau, was a 6-foot-8 standout on the Marauders 1968 NAIA national championship basketball team and became the first Bahamian ever drafted into the pros when he was selected by the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association in 1969.
In the years since there have been several notable Bahamian athletes at CSU, especially in track. That list includes Finlayson Bowers, who would transfer to Bethune Cookman when CSU temporarily did away with the program for financial reasons.
She went on to become a high school and college coach and the mother of four before returning to work at CSU, where she’s a mentor to Bahamian students.
The school’s embrace of the Caribbean nation began in earnest in 2014 when it took part in the first Bahamas HBCUX Classic, a bowl-type football game in Nassau that pitted the Marauders against Texas Southern.
After that a partnership was forged between CSU and the Bahamian Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which hoped to encourage areas of study that are in demand, but not specifically taught in the country.
That gave rise to the Bahamian Student Merit Program, which provides CSU scholarships for up to 10 public school graduates a year from the nation that includes some 700 islands.
From that relationship, CSU also has expanded its athletic recruitment. This season the Marauders track team has four women from Nassau and three men from Freeport.
As for Bowleg, her recruitment – first to the Philadelphia community college – was self-initiated.
Back in New Providence, she was known as a soccer and volleyball player, a model and a beauty queen contestant. She was named Miss Teenage Paradise Island and Miss New Providence and she competed in the Miss Bahamas pageant.
When visiting her cousin in Philadelphia, they drove past CCP and on a whim she decided to register for classes.
“My nickname is Dream because I’m a dreamer,” she said with a laugh. “I believe that everything I think of I can do. I always come up with ideas and then chase after them.
“I’m a dream chaser.”
Her college dream quickly became reality at CCP. She paid her own way the first semester and soon was spotted by Kenyatta McKinney, the new women’s basketball coach.
He convinced the 6-foot-2 Bowleg she could be a standout on his team, even though she had never played the sport.
“I had been a keeper in soccer so I could catch a ball and I had played volleyball, so I could block a shot,” she said. “And I had done track so I could run. He told me I could build on that and all he wanted me to do was rebound and block shots.”
Soon she had a new nickname.
They called her Block Party.
She set school records against nationally-ranked Camden County, blocking 13 shots in that game and grabbing 23 rebounds. She averaged 5.7 blocked shots a game her first season, third best in all of Division III junior college basketball. Her 10.9 rebounds a game were 24th best in the nation.
She said when the Marauders’ coaches recruited her they treated her like family and she felt comfortable with them. At CSU, she’s studying to become a social worker.
“For a while in the Bahamas I worked for the National Emergency Management Agency,” she said. “It was right after Hurricane Matthew (another Category 5 storm) did so much damage in 2016.
“Lots of people lost their belongings and I saw first-hand how social workers helped people in distress. And that made me want to do that, too. In a time of need, I wanted to be able to give people peace of mind, counseling, welfare, all those things.
“And now I think that even more.”
‘We need some help’
As her mind swirled with the burdens her countrymen now face, Bowleg’s voice filled with emotional urgency as she began to verbalize some of those post-storm needs:
“They need counseling because people have PTSD. Physically, they need water, clothes, shoes toiletries.
“Children need supervision. They need nutrition. Everybody needs words of encouragement, blankets, sheets. They need building supplies, trees, fertilizer.
Later Justta Campbell began his own list: “We need prayers and money.”
Junior sprinter Baron Wilson added to that: “People need food. They need their roofs fixed. And they need jobs of their own.”
On the CSU campus a couple of groups have begun collecting donations for the Bahamian relief effort.
Bowleg said the women’s basketball team has gathered some of the most-needed items and is sending them on the Bahamian officials in Washington, D.C.
In two weeks Campbell and his friend Lee Burrows – they both went to C.C. Sweeting Senior High School in Nassau before coming to CSU – said Bahamian students will pair up with the Marauders’ athletic department to put on a fundraiser called “Ballin’ for the Bahamas.”
There will be a three-point shooting contest and various other basketball efforts that both participants and spectators can take part in.
All of the Bahamian students know the rebuilding process back home will be long and difficult.
“Surviving this and trying to rebuild Is beyond our nation’s capabilities right now,” Campbell said. “We need some help.”
The United States’ refusal to grant Temporary Protected Status to Bahamians – as America often has done in the past to people who are fleeing environmental disaster and need a temporary place to live and work until they can return home – is dismaying to some of the Bahamian students.
“We had just started recovering from the hurricane in 2016,” said Wilson. ”Our economy was starting to get better and now this is a major setback. It’s going to take a lot to build back up again.”
And that’s where they come in said several of CSU’s Bahamian athletes.
“When I start to think about all this in class, I just close my eyes, say a prayer and then try to focus on my school work again,” Isreal Williamson said. “I can’t let what has happened keep affecting me here. My job is to go to school and get better, so I can actually go home and help people.”
This is the fourth straight year a Category 5 hurricane has threatened the Caribbean and the southeastern United States.
Scientists say the storms are intensifying because the oceans are warming, the sea levels are rising and the reefs and mangroves that once helped provide coastal barriers have been diminished.
That situation especially compels Higgins, who is working toward a degree in environmental engineering:
“One day I want to be out there trying to save the world because the world is deteriorating really fast. We’re seeing the effects of climate change and it affects small nations like ours first. I want to try to help stop that, so I need to prepare myself the best I can while I’m here.”
That’s a point all of the Bahamian students need to embrace now Williamson said:
“We have people counting on us. People believing in us. And if I’d lose my focus and drop out of school or fail now, it would hurt a lot of people. Especially my parents.
“They did so much to get me where I am today and to see me lose that, it would be like they were getting hit by another Dorian.”
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