Last week, Thompson Rivers University student Kandis Wilkinson, 22, returned to Kamloops after two weeks visiting her home in the Bahamas.
Her parents sent her back early as a storm was brewing. At the time, they didn’t know the most powerful hurricane in the country’s history would hit days later, devastating the Caribbean nation.
“They weren’t thinking it was going to be anything huge,” Wilkinson told Kamloops This Week.
“They just wanted me to get back in time to start school. They thought it would just be like a minor inconvenience where we’d have to close the airports and stuff. So they’re like, just go back a couple days early, we’ll see you at Christmas.
“So, I left and I came back and, around Friday, my mom called me and she said, ‘It’s bad. It upgraded to a Category 5. Everything’s shut down. We are going to seek shelter because we are expecting to get a lot of flood waters.’”
As the arts student — among two-dozen students from the Bahamas studying at TRU — prepared for her second year of university some 5,000 kilometres from home, disaster struck.
Hurricane Dorian settled over the country for two days, pounding it relentlessly and destroying two northern islands: Grand Bahama and Abaco.
As of Thursday, 20 people were reported dead, but that number continues to rise with rescue efforts underway. Deemed the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the country, Dorian brought winds of up to 300 kilometre per hour.
Wilkinson feels guilty for leaving.
“If I had known that it was going to be such a catastrophe, I would have stayed,” she said.
“Because the whole time it was hitting the Bahamas, I just kept thinking about my family and how I wanted to be with them.
“I felt guilty for being here, safe and dry, having some place to sleep and not knowing what’s going on with them, what kind of conditions they’re going through, the trauma that they’re going through — and I’m not there to be with them or comfort them. That was pretty hard. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I was just glued to my phone and my computer, trying to get help.”
Most of TRU’s Bahamian students’ immediate families, including Wilkinson’s parents, live in Nassau, the country’s capital of about 260,000 people. It experienced flooding and power outages, but was largely spared the hurricane’s destructive path.
Upon realizing the storm’s intensity, Wilkinson’s mom and sister sought shelter in a church, her father weathering the storm and sandbagging his door to keep water at bay. Both family homes flooded.
Meanwhile, family and friends of students are scattered throughout the chain of islands, including Grand Bahama and Abaco. Three of Wilkinson’s relatives were stuck in an attic on Grand Bahama for 18 hours as the water rose.
They were unreachable throughout the storm and were only rescued at 4 a.m. this past Wednesday. Wilkinson still doesn’t know where they are, with shelters moving constantly when compromised by flood waters.
Her aunt on Abaco Island also sought shelter, having lost her home.
“The conditions there are really, really bad,” Wilkinson said. “They’re up to their necks in water. No roads, no streets, no anything. The land looks like the sea now.”
Bahamian students have been glued to their phones this week in the hallways at TRU, receiving updates and sharing social media posts from those searching for missing loved ones.
Tabatta Butler, who is studying social work at TRU, sighed a breath of relief on Thursday, having finally heard through the grapevine that her brother is alive.
She couldn’t focus through orientation this week, with her brother on Abaco not having been heard from since the morning the storm hit, on Sept. 1.
“I had posted his information on Facebook, asking if anyone had seen him,” Butler told KTW. “I got a message last night to say that he was spotted. … He is OK, so that was good news.”
Twenty-one-year-old Trevez Pratt said he also experienced anxiety — but for different reasons. He wishes he could be back in the Bahamas to help.
“My dad’s helping right now,” Pratt said. “He’s currently going to travel to the islands and I know, if I was there, I would be working with him. I wish I was there, just to help, just to do something.”
Thompson Rivers University has offered support to students. Butler said a professor and dean reached out to her, in addition to a letter that was sent out to international students indicating available counselling and advising.
The TRU Caribbean Student Club is organizing relief efforts and will set up a kiosk at the annual Back to School barbecue on Friday to collect money and essential items — non-perishables, sanitary items and baby clothes — for Bahamians in need. Money will be used to ship the items to the country’s consulate in Ottawa.
Pratt said one positive spinoff from the storm has been those who have banded together to help in the time of need.
“I think this was a wakeup call for us who still live in the Bahamas,” Pratt said. “I think a lot of us just shared in pain that we haven’t done in a long time. This is a sense of unity I’ve never seen, 21 years of being a Bahamian.”
— with a file from Canadian Press
Jessica Wallace, Kamloops This Week