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Bahamian family makes it to Collingwood nearly two weeks after Dorian destroys their town

'At one point, I did not think we were going to make it,' said Brianna Hepburn who survived part of Hurricane Dorian huddled in a closet with her husband and six-week-old baby

Huddled in a closet clutching her six-week-old baby and listening to the ceiling above her bouncing up and down on the cement house frame, a moment came when Brianna Hepburn thought she and her family would die in Hurricane Dorian.

But she and her family survived and eventually made it to her grandparents home in Collingwood with nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they left their home in the Bahamas.

Hepburn lives in Marsh Harbour on the island of Abaco. She has lived there her whole life. Her father lives in the same neighbourhood and her mother and step-father moved to Collingwood in 2015.

Hepburn was in Collingwood for several weeks leading up to the birth of her son, Gunner, who was born six weeks premature. She returned to Abaco on Aug. 18, just a couple weeks before Hurricane Dorian hit.

“I’ve been through numerous hurricanes,” she said. “We have a generator and a gas stove and a water tank.”

Usually, Hepburn and her family wait out the storm and use the generator and water supply until power is restored.

In preparation for Dorian, she did a “big shop” at the grocery store to stock up. She filled some five-gallon water jugs with water, and she and her husband, Frankie, put the shutters on the windows - they are bolted into the cement house frame.

“Everyone there is so used to going through hurricanes, you hunker down, you have games, sometimes you have a hurricane party,” said Hepburn’s mom, Layna Cartwright. “We know the drill. We went through Hurricane Floyd, through category 2, 3, 4 storms. Cars flood, trees fall, hydro poles come down. There are still structures left. There’s still a community.”

But Hurricane Dorian tore down all the houses in Marsh Harbour, all the medical clinics, the stores, the banks, all the infrastructure.

Hepburn, her husband and her son were inside their rental home when Dorian arrived and ripped it apart piece by piece.

The hurricane hit Sept. 1. Hepburn was speaking with her mom on Sunday morning around 11 a.m. and she said she was scared because the storm was growing.

An evacuation wasn’t an option anymore because all the planes had left the island and were being kept safe in the U.S. Abaco is an island, so there was no way to drive to safety.

When Dorian hit, the deadbolts on the doors at Hepburn’s home were unlocking from the pressure of the wind. The family moved to Gunner’s room in the middle of the house.

From there, Hepburn heard a deafening “boom” sound then watched the shuttered windows shatter.

They moved into another back room and climbed into a tub putting a table over top of them. But a couple of minutes later Frankie told Hepburn “this roof is going” and they retreated into a hallway closet in the middle of the house.

“The whole house is cement,” said Hepburn. “We were pretty safe from what we thought.”

Frankie and Hepburn barricaded themselves in the closet, jamming stools and a tension rod above them to prevent the tornados from sucking them out of the house.

Frankie handed Hepburn one of the jackets hanging in the closet and told her to zip Gunner into the jacket with her. She held tight to her baby while he slept.

"Things go through your mind," said Hepburn. "I didn't know if he would be taken from me." 

It was during the moments spent in that closet with the roof slamming above them, Hepburn thought they might not survive.

The family stayed in the closet for about an hour and a half while the storm raged.

They had no more options. They waited for the eye of the storm. This was just the first half.

When the eye arrived, the winds died down to about 40 to 60 mile an hour gusts. Then came a knock at the door.

Hepburn laughed as she explained calling out “who is it?”

“Little things like that kind of still make you smile,” she said.

Her dad had arrived and they all ran to a nearby great aunt’s house. But that house faired no better than Hepburns, so they ran further to an aunt’s house where 24 people hunkered down for the second – and worse – half of the storm.

They huddled in the kitchen, a back door provided a back-up plan in case a tornado came near enough to destroy this house too.

“We would go out the back door if the roof went,” said Hepburn, recalling her dad’s intensity as he told her to run as soon as he said go. “You hear of people being sucked up.”

Hurricane Dorian brought several tornados. The houses that remained severely damaged but still standing did so entirely by chance, not for any construction superiority.

A two-storey house just a few doors down from their second-half refuge was reduced to rubble.

At home in Collingwood Hepburn’s parents, Brent and Layna Cartwright, watched coverage of the hurricane in horror, knowing their family was under the buzzsaw shaped storm wreaking havoc unparalleled in decades. Through family and a satellite phone, Layna heard only that her daughter and grandson were safe. It wasn’t until Wednesday, Sept. 4 she heard from Hepburn.

“When I talk about it, I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience,” said Layna. “I think I died five times from Sunday to Wednesday.”

By Thursday, Sept. 5, Hepburn, Gunner, and Frankie were able to leave Marsh Harbour and head for Sandy Point, the southern tip of Abaco that had remained intact after the hurricane. They flew to Florida Friday and arrived in Collingwood on Tuesday, Sept. 17. They left with Gunner’s diaper bag and the clothes they were wearing.

They were building a house, which has been set back not only because of damage to the building but because the community was wiped out. Their rental home was all but levelled. The storm ripped off the covered porch and carport, their jeep was thrown over the top of their house from its place under the carport.

Hepburn worked at her grandparent’s gas station, but that doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve lost their business and livelihood since the community was wiped out.

In the aftermath, Hepburn learned Dorian slowed to a stop over Abaco. In the warm Bahamian waters, it grew - technically it achieved the highest grade of a category five hurricane, but it’s also being called a “nuclear hurricane.”

It is unprecedented for the locals of Marsh Harbour. And that’s saying a lot for a town that had to deal with a shark in its grocery story after Hurricane Floyd (1999).

It is the strongest hurricane on record to hit the Bahamas.

The Washington Post has this aerial video of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in Abaco. It shows massive swaths of rubble where hundreds of homes and buildings once stood, almost as if a bomb fell on the community and shattered the concrete used for the walls and foundation of the homes.

Hepburn still considers herself blessed. She and Frankie lost their possessions and their jobs, but they have family that has taken them in, and they survived with their baby when others did not.

The official death toll for Abaco is about 50 people, but Hepburn said she and other locals know it’s more like 1,000 to 1,500.

Abaco is home to many people with dual citizenships as Bahamians and American or Canadians. But it’s also a place where Haitians seek refuge as undocumented immigrants. Many Haitians arrived at Abaco following the catastrophic 2010 earthquakes in Haiti. Others go to escape extreme poverty and starvation.

Their numbers haven’t been added to the death toll said Hepburn and her Collingwood family.

Hepburn said aid is being distributed arbitrarily and not always to those who need it most.

That’s part of the reason she said her husband Frankie is going back as soon as he can.

“He’s not just going to rebuild our house, but it’s him helping others too,” she said.

In the next room, Frankie spent an hour on the phone and computer coordinating a plan for when he returned and organizing the supplies he would need to help clean and rebuild.

“The first step is getting there,” he said.

Here in Collingwood Hepburn said she’s still having trouble letting go of Gunner, having held him as tightly as his tiny body would allow for hours while Dorian destroyed things considered indestructible.

“I feel like I can now tell my story without choking up,” she said, adding it doesn’t always feel real. “Honestly, it feels like it’s a nightmare.”

There is currently a campaign to raise money for Hepburn and her family to help them rebuild in Abaco. You can donate online through Go Fund Me here.

“I’m eternally grateful,” said Hepburn of the local campaign to raise money for her family. “The support and generosity of Collingwood is just amazing, because you just don’t know what your next step is.”

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor.
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