Thousands still without power as the Bahamas hunker down
BY MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
FREEPORT, Bahamas - Hammer in one hand and nails in the other, Sybilene Beckles wiped perspiration from her brow as she took a break from pinning plywood over the windows of her two-bedroom oceanfront house.
Three weeks ago, the tiny bungalow took a 12-hour battering from Hurricane Frances, which reduced homes and businesses here to rubble, spawned destructive tornadoes and pushed walls of seawater five feet high through homes in low coastal areas.
Grand Bahama, the fourth largest island in the Bahamas chain, took a direct hit from Frances and is still struggling to recover. Thousands of residents remain without electricity and downed trees, powerlines and buildings are everywhere.
And now Hurricane Jeanne is taking a direct aim at the island and residents are again on a mad dash to secure life and property.
''Any storm you have to be concerned about,'' said Beckles. ``We had storm surges with Frances. You can't take chances. Frances was bad.''
Compared to her neighbor's home, which sustained extensive roof and structural damage, Beckles' house -- with front-seat views of fishing boats and cruise ships -- emerged largely unscathed.
''You have to give God thanks in any which way,'' said the 47-year-old casino cashier. ``But I've never experienced nothing like this.''
On Friday, residents all over the island were boarding up their homes and businesses with plywood and flocking to shelters.
The government sent buses to help evacuate residents in areas prone to flooding and storm surges, said Diana Swann, deputy general manager of the government-run television and radio station.
''People are taking the storm much more serious than Frances,'' Swann said. ``I think it's because of the devastation from Frances.''
In the Bahamas, Frances killed at least two people and caused more than $200 million in damage. Prime Minister Perry Christie declared the country a disaster area after the storm hit.
Jeanne, a Category 2 hurricane, was expected to intensify as it made landfall here. The eye of the storm is projected to strike Freeport -- again.
Dozens of hotels will be closed for months because of damage from Frances. Some that are open don't have working telephones or television service. Frances is already costing the Bahamas millions of dollars in potential tourism dollars and Jeanne may be the final blow to the upcoming tourist season, observers say.
''We'll get back,'' said an optimistic Beckles, whose livelihood depends on visitors. ``We're going to bounce back.''
With few tourists on the island, and the seemingly endless wave of hurricanes, Beckles and others shake their heads when asked about the number of storms that have clobbered Grand Bahama.
''It's beginning to get to me now,'' Beckles said.
While many residents said they plan to evacuate, others said they would ride it out at home.
Arnett Johnson, a 43-year-old homemaker whose house is on the beach and could be overwhelmed by floods and heavy winds, said she evacuated during Frances, but this time will stay home with her family.
''I'm going to fight it out right here,'' she said as she sat on the front porch, watching the Discovery Sun passenger ferry from Fort Lauderdale in the distance, as it made its way into port.
``I didn't stay here for the first one and I know there's another one coming, but I feel the surge won't be as high as with Frances.''
Johnson removed the plywood from her windows soon after Frances had passed and put it back up three days ago. She's lived in the three-bedroom house for six years, she said, and prays that it will withstand Jeanne's fury.
''I put my trust in God,'' she said. ``If I see it getting a little out of hand then I'll get out.''