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Should Ragged Island be abandoned or rebuilt?
  • Elliott Lockhart.

  • Debris from battered homes blocks a road in Duncan Town, Ragged Island. The settlement was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma. TORRELL GLINTON

Managing Editor

Published: Sep 13, 2017

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Today, the government intends to evacuate the handful of Ragged Island residents who remained after others were flown out as Hurricane Irma barrelled toward The Bahamas last week. Those who know and love Ragged Island say they will not allow the island to be permanently depopulated, despite the utter devastation wrought by the powerful storm.

With the island smashed by the Category 5 hurricane, it is no place for human existence.

Chester Cooper, who represents Ragged Island in the House of Assembly, said in a Facebook post: “Porches that I sat on. The motel where I stayed. The restaurant where I ate. All gone! The stench of rotting carcasses of dead fish and goats.

“Ninety-five percent of all the power lines are down. The clinic, the schools, administration buildings — all gone. The Anglican Church — a hurricane shelter — stands strong, almost unscathed. This gives some hope that with God's help and a lot of hard work, we will rebuild, stronger than ever.”

But the devastation on Ragged Island has renewed a familiar debate raised previously when islands in the southeastern Bahamas were devastated by other hurricanes.

Should resources be pumped into rebuilding?

Ragged Island, with its rich history, has a population of fewer than 70 people.

That is not a lot.

But many more Ragged Islanders — many of whom live on New Providence but still call Ragged Island home — have a deep connection to the island and the ‘specialness’ only they know and understand completely.

These days, Ragged Islanders who still live there mainly earn their income from the fishing industry.

The island used to have a booming salt industry.

The late Duncan Taylor opened Ragged Island’s salt ponds in the late 19th century. The only settlement on the island — Duncan Town — is named after him.

Many residents left the island in 1950 after Hurricane Donna hit, resulting in widespread devastation.

Elliott Lockhart, QC, who was born on Ragged Island in 1955, said yesterday there is no chance that Ragged Island will be permanently abandoned.

“The future is certain,” Lockhart told National Review.

“We are going to rebuild Ragged Island. We are never, ever going to consider abandoning Ragged Island. And we shall find whatever resources necessary to make it bigger and better. We are a resilient people.”

He said Ragged Islanders are accustomed to hard times.

“I was born there. I stayed there for my formative school years up to age 12, 13. I do not ever know Ragged Island to have running water, telephone, electricity and the modern conveniences,” he said.

“The saddest day of my life was when I left Ragged Island and had to come to New Providence to further my education. I deliberately failed the common entrance exam to avoid coming to Nassau. I preferred to be on Ragged Island with my grandparents.”

Hurricane Irma damaged or destroyed just about every building on the tiny island in the southeast Bahamas.

After images of the storm-torn island emerged and were widely circulated on social media, some suggested that it makes no sense to spend money rebuilding the island which is so susceptible to hurricanes.

Lockhart said such a suggestion is “garbage”.

“That is the stupidest thing I ever heard,” he said.

“You don’t come to a people who have been displaced that way. Firstly, you come and you see what the situation is, and say ‘What can I do to help you?’ Not remove you from your situation’.

“You put the persons under further stress by moving them. What’s going to happen to their life and vision? Those persons in Ragged Island who decide to stay there, each one of them, if they want to be in New Providence or someplace else, can be someplace else. It is by choice, careful choice, that they remain there.”

Businessman Edgar Curling is also incensed by the idea that Ragged Island should not be rebuilt.

Like his cousin, Elliott, he said there is absolutely no way the island will be abandoned permanently.

Curling was also born on Ragged Island.

He said his mother, Louise, who is 92, is the oldest resident there.

She was evacuated on a government flight last week.

“Every second of the day, she is crying to go home, and I can assure you that it will only be a month before I get her back in Ragged Island,” he said, adding that if his mother were ever told she could not go back, “she would go into cardiac arrest; she would die instantly”.

Curling said his mother took the news of Ragged Island’s destruction really hard.

“Even though she experienced Hurricane Donna, and did not experience this hurricane, when I gave her the news as kindly as I thought I could have, she still went into shock,” he said.

“She spent her entire life in Ragged Island, and her plan was not to come out of Ragged Island. The last good talking I had with her, she said, ‘When I’m dead, you can come for my bones’.”

He said it is unfortunate that she had to leave because Irma had Ragged Island in its sight.

“I am pressing forward to get her there before she has to go home to meet her God,” Curling told us.

“The noise in the market is that [Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis] wants to take everybody off Ragged Island permanently.

“That is so far from the truth. That is very, very far from the truth, and I don’t think [any] one person should be vicious enough to even imagine something like that could take place.”

Ellery Lockhart, a civil engineer born on Ragged Island, was on the ground on Monday, assessing the situation there.

He observed “a lot of devastation”.

His family’s homestead has been reduced to rubble by Irma.

Seven generations of his family have lived on the island.

“There is absolutely no question about cleaning up and rebuilding, identifying those homes that will need minimal repairs, that can house people in order for the rebuilding to take place,” Ellery Lockhart said.

“Presently, we don’t have adequate living space to house anybody wishing to go back to make the repairs to accommodate people wanting to go there. But we don’t see that as a [major] problem. We see that just as a challenge to overcome.

“With or without the government’s assistance, Ragged Islanders are going to rebuild. I am not going to abandon the home of my [family].”

Wayne Munroe, QC, who was also born on Ragged Island and left when he was four, met on Monday night with Ragged Islanders in New Providence to discuss the way forward for their home island.

“The question is, if Ragged Island should not be rebuilt, then why should anyone be permitted to staying in any part of the southern Bahamas, or for that matter, Marshall Road area, that we know was devastated by [Hurricane] Matthew, or Yamacraw Hill Estates and that area in the east that we are told would be severely affected by storm surges.

“If you’re going to pick on us because you think we are small, you clearly don’t know how many people are from Ragged Island.”

The island’s population has dwindled substantially over the decades.

Again, fewer than 70 Ragged Islanders were still living on the island before Irma.

Elliott Lockhart said while the hurricane was a terrible event for the island, it now presents a golden opportunity.

“Ragged Island has been a dying community in the context of The Bahamas for more than 40 years,” he said.

“It is because there has been no vision to bring to Ragged Island economic activity, and so the Ragged Islanders left for New Providence and other places in the world seeking a better way.

“There was a time when Ragged Island had a brisk trade with Cuba and Haiti, and it put more money in the government’s coffers than any other island in The Bahamas.

“We used to have a resident commissioner; we used to have a functioning jail; we had a functioning local administration of the first order. So Ragged Island has been going down, in my view, and in my experience, for more than 40 years. It’s now time for her to go back up where she belongs.

“This is a golden opportunity to make it bigger and better. I see myself in the sunset being a resident of Ragged Island again.”

Munroe said rebuilding Ragged Island should be a joint effort between the government and private sector.

“The government will have to determine the position on government structures,” he said.

“What I will say is this: I know that Ragged Island has put a lot of taxes into the public treasury. The taxes on the seafood that is harvested down there; sold to the fish houses; the export duties, even before you come to talk about the VAT on that product. And Ragged Island has demanded very little for the taxes that we have put into the public treasury.

“There is supposed to be a strategic defense force base at Gunpoint, Ragged Island, for national security issues and patrolling the southern fishing grounds. And so the government will have to decide whether, strategically, having spent millions and millions of dollars in Ragged Island to upgrade the island to [put in place a] defense force base, whether it turns and walks away from that investment, basically throwing that investment away.”

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