Bahamas suffers heavy damage
Crews begin storm cleanup
BY NICOLE WHITE
NASSAU -- Bahamian tourism, which already took bad publicity hits from shark attacks, plane crashes and the loss of the world-famous Straw Market here, confronted another challenge this week: cleanup from Hurricane Michelle.
The storm, with wind gusts as high as 103 mph, left mounds of destruction Monday across a chain of islands heavily dependent on tourism. About four million visitors flock here annually, and more than 70 percent of the Bahamian economy depends on tourism, officials say.
As Michelle continued churning northeast before finally dissipating a few hundred miles short of Bermuda Tuesday, residents and cleanup crews in the Bahamas sifted through flooded homes and streets littered with tree branches. Some locals marveled that they had managed to survive one of the most intense storms to whip the Bahamas in years.
``I've laid down, closed my eyes and prayed that this hurricane was all a bad dream,'' said Jacqueline Hutchinson, who watched flood waters seep into every room of her newly renovated home.
``I had sheets and towels swimming around this house. I have never seen anything like this in my life time.''
Public schools, colleges, banks and government offices will remain closed today.
But Nassau and Freeport international airports reopened on Tuesday, and power was slowly being restored.
Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham assured residents that the government would not ignore their pleas for disaster relief.
``The government is likely to be as compassionate and understanding of our people as we have been after every disaster,'' he said.
The tourism ministry, on the other hand, moved swiftly to assure current guests and would-be tourists that the islands were minimally affected by the hurricane.
``The Bahamas is still here. We haven't been washed away and we'll continue to offer our visitors the excellent service the Bahamas is known for,'' said Adrian Archer, spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism. ``Most our damage was cosmetic.''
Tourism Minister Tommy Turnquest pointed out that a day after Michelle struck, 95 percent of hotel rooms in the Bahamas were operational.
Still, several hotels and resorts were affected by the storm.
Most lost significant patches of landscape.
Chunks of roads were missing from Nassau's Cable Beach, home to the super-club Breezes, the Radisson and the Marriott Resort and Crystal Palace Casino.
The Sheraton Grand on Paradise Island will be closed for 30 days after Michelle damaged its lobby, waterfront restaurant and air-conditioning system.
Paradise Island's Ocean Club will also be closed for seven days for repairs.
Many of yachting docks on the Exuma Cays, in the central Bahamas, suffered heavy damage.
When the storm approached, many hotels offered deep-discount rates
for visitors and residents alike. For example, the British Colonial Hilton
in downtown Nassau
slashed rates from $230 a day to $99 during the storm.
Basil Smith, vice president of the Bahamas Hotel Association,
said cutting rates was not unusual during such a crisis. He said hotels
would soon return to their regular
``We consider ourselves well worth it,'' Smith said. ``We've worked very hard to make our region the best tourism destination in the world.''
Although he said hotel reservations have slipped 15 percent since
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, he said that is not
as bad as other major tourist
destinations that have experienced tremendous losses.
``People appreciate the distinctiveness of what they get when they come to the Bahamas,'' Smith said.
The Bahamas has also had to deal with some bad publicity in the last three months. There were two shark attacks and a plane crash that killed singer Aaliyah in August, and an arson fire that burned Nassau's Straw Market, a popular tourist stop, in September.
Tourism officials say they can overcome all that, as well as Michelle's strike.
``We've worked very hard to develop customer loyalty,'' Smith said, ``and we're hopeful that this rough course is behind us.''