DUNCAN TOWN, RAGGED ISLAND – Residents of Ragged Island are calling on the government to remove the “uninhabitable” status from the island, two years after Hurricane Irma wiped out public infrastructure.
“It is habitable,” proclaimed 70-year-old Granville Hepburn.
“I’m asking the government to change it to make it habitable. Say that and let the people know about Ragged Island.”
Hepburn, a lifelong resident of island said he lived through the wrath of Hurricane Donna, Kate and Irma.
“Hurricane Donna blew in in 1960, and that was a devastating hurricane,” he said.
“It destroyed all the government buildings and the government worked with haste to get those buildings restored. The island was never declared uninhabitable, never, as far as I know.”
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma barreled into the island, packing winds up to 185 mph. The Category 5 storm blew off roofs, toppled lampoles and flattened homes and key infrastructure.
Following the storm, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) deemed the island “uninhabitable”, but the government pledged that it would turn it into a green city.
Today, not much has changed since the storm hit. The island still has no public school, police station, clinic or administrator’s office
A single three-step wooden staircase and a few broken seats littered along the airstrip is all that remain of the Ragged Island Airport.
Though only a wooden terminal sat in its place before the storm, the first sight of the island’s life seems desolate.
Many of the homes look abandoned. Those that are being occupied by the 60 plus people living on the island are patched with wood and tarp.
But residents say they are surviving – all but for one thing.
“Would they ever change the status of the island before they commence anything,” asked one resident during a town hall meeting on Monday.
“Is that what stopped international assistance to the island?”
Exumas & Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper, who hosted the meeting, could not provide residents with an answer.
“I do not comprehend why there hasn’t been more progress in Ragged Island,” Cooper told the room of just over 20 people.
“…Quite frankly, I don’t think that status means anything.
“I think the prime minister was overwhelmed that day. He was a new prime minister. He was completely overwhelmed and he said some things. He was speaking off the cuff of his head, and the term uninhabitable didn’t have any specific meaning to it, as we are two years into it now.”
NEMA Director Captain Stephen Russell has said they cannot remove the status unless basic infrastructures are in place.
“In terms of a nurse and a doctor, your police, social services, school for the kids who are there, unless those basic institutions or structures are in place it’s hard for the government to sanction the place livable,” Russell said, during a press conference last year.
The government has allocated $12 million to the reconstruction of government facilities on Ragged Island. The rebuild is expected to occur “over a number of years”.
As for the “green island” promise, the government has yet to indicate how or when this will be facilitated.
During the town hall meeting on Monday, the Salvation Army announced that it will be building a community center that could serve as a temporary school, temporary clinic and hurricane shelter that could withstand winds up to 200 mph.
Cooper also pledged that his company, BAF Financial, will donate $20,000 to the project.
The government announced a similar plan in June, pledging that it will spend $4 million to construct a new school in Ragged Island that will double as a shelter.
Life as usual
Despite significant challenges with the island’s infrastructure, there remains a robust fishing industry that many of the island’s residents utilize as their main source of income.
“Since after this storm, this how I was making it right here,” said Glenn Munroe, as he cleaned and prepped several freshly caught crawfish.
He noted that he sends his catch to Nassau to be sold and is able to make a living this way
Munroe said however, that that is not enough for a sustainable living on the island.
“The only thing we waiting on now is if they could fix our schools for the children to come back,” he said.
“…Two years now we don’t have no clinic, no police, nothing; so it’s a little hard on the island. If you get cut or something going on the boat now, you can’t even call an emergency flight because you need either a nurse or a doctor to [notify] the plane to come.”
Munroe added that his wife and two-year old son recently move back to Ragged Island, noting “it too hard in Nassau. Ain’t everybody could make it in that rough city”
Just a few doors down from the Munroe family is Erica Wallace and her family of five.
Wallace, a mother of three, said she left Ragged Island prior to the storm while she was pregnant with her third daughter.
She told Eyewitness News Online that she was traveling back and forth to Exuma, where her children were staying with her mother, but it all just became too much.
She said despite the lack of a school on the island, she decided to move back home in September, because that is where her children feel comfortable.
“This is what we call home, so we had to come back,” Wallace said.
“…This is where they grow up and this is where they know home.
They were actually in Exuma to school but they got tired of that so they wanted to be home with the family, both parents actually.”
She however admitted that the circumstances on the island are not ideal.
“It’s really hard,” Wallace continued.
“The kids are doing school online for now but we are still hoping to get a school asap.”
The stay-at-home mother insisted that it’s been too longer for the island to still be in the same state it was in following the storm.
“It’s been too long for such a small community like Ragged Island,” she said.
“It’s only one settlement so I don’t see why they shouldn’t have fixed it already or deemed it habitable by now.”
Reflecting on the recent Category 5 storm to barrel its way through Grand Bahama and Abaco, Wallace said she hopes those storm victims don’t have to wait as long as Ragged Islanders have been waiting.
“We’re praying and hoping they still would come,” Wallace added.
“…We need a school. They need to come and help us please.”
While Wallace continues to hold out hope that the government will fulfill its promises, Wesley Maycock, lifelong resident of the island, believes otherwise.
“My thoughts about it is, the government don’t care about us, said the 41-year-old fisherman.
“The government ain’t checking for us. The government neglect us. It’s just like we don’t exist to them.”
Maycock, a father of one, said he had to send his family away to live simply because there was no life for them in Ragged Island.
“They can’t be here because ain’t no school, ain’t no nurse, ain’t nothing as you can see,” he said.
“We just living in poverty.”
He added, “I can’t do nothing if the government ain’t do nothing. I’m trying to rebuild my home but other than that, that’s all I could do.”