When Southeastern closed as Hurricane Dorian approached, one student went home to the Bahamas. She survived Hurricane Dorian but now worries about the fates of fellow Bahamians.
LAKELAND — As Jody Whymns sat Thursday inside Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau, Bahamas, awaiting a flight back to Florida, she watched a steady flow of helicopters and ambulances sweep past. Each glimpse of a chopper supplied by the U.S. Coast Guard or the British Navy reminded her of the devastation her native country had endured in recent days.
Whymns, a graduate student at Southeastern University, joined other students returning for the resumption of classes Friday following a weeklong break prompted by Hurricane Dorian. But her thoughts remained centered on the Bahamas, where she survived the hurricane’s passage unhurt but many were not so fortunate.
Whymns, 23, flew to her family home in Nassau on Aug. 30, a day after Southeastern’s administration announced classes would be suspended as Hurricane Dorian churned westward through the Atlantic Ocean. At that point, Central Florida seemed more likely than the Bahamas to absorb the hurricane’s wrath.
A shift in direction then drove Dorian across the Bahamas. Nassau, the capital city, and the island of New Providence were spared the brunt of the hurricane’s 185-mph wind gusts, but the storm pummeled the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama to the north.
As of Friday afternoon, the official death toll in the Bahamas was 30 and expected to rise substantially.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Whymns said Friday. “Even though I was not there physically, I was definitely there emotionally and mentally. To this day, there are people I know who are missing their parents or their cousins. It’s definitely hard to be here while I know my country is suffering and dealing with something so heartbreaking.”
Whymns has attended Southeastern since 2014, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology before pursuing a master’s in professional counseling. She also works as a graduate assistant for the school’s Institutional Review Board.
Having spent her childhood in Nassau, Whymns is accustomed to weather disturbances. She recalls routinely missing the first week of school as a child because of disruptions caused by hurricanes or tropical storms.
Hurricane Dorian, the second-most powerful storm measured in the Atlantic, struck the Bahamas on the afternoon of Sept. 1 and stalled for nearly two days before eventually lumbering to the northwest. Whymns said her family endured heavy rains, gusty winds and the loss of power and phone service.
Elsewhere in Nassau, her elderly grandmother shared a house with Whymns’ aunt and cousin and their five children. Water intruded into every room in the house, forcing Whymns' grandmother to take refuge with another relative.
Whymns had one uncle living on the Abaco Islands and another on Grand Bahama. It soon became obvious those islands would face greater destruction than New Providence.
“We were listening to radio stations, and that’s when we began to realize, ‘Oh, my word, this is something that we were never expecting,' ” she said. “In Nassau, we got a little rain, but we had no idea the impact that Abaco and Grand Bahama would experience at all.”
With phone service knocked out, Whymns and her parents had no way to reach her uncles. For two days, she didn’t know if her uncle Gregory on Grand Bahama was even alive.
When power and internet service were available, Bahamas residents posted information about missing relatives online and shared it with TV and radio stations. Whymns said an aunt asked a TV station to include uncle Gregory in a list of missing persons, hoping to learn what had happened to him.
The family decided not to tell Whymns’ 95-year-old grandmother that her son was missing.
“My grandma, to this day, she has no idea he was missing because they didn’t want to tell her because she’s old,” Whymns said. “My dad had to call my aunt, who my grandma was staying with, and told her to turn the channel because we don’t want her to see his picture on the screen.”
Whymns said her uncle finally got in touch, using a borrowed phone, after service was restored. She said both uncles were unhurt, though their homes were destroyed.
Whymns said she also has cousins who live on Abaco. The hurricane wrecked one cousin’s home, and her family moved into a hair salon she owns, which survived the storm.
As phone service returned, Nassau residents began hearing from relatives trapped in flooded attics or otherwise imperiled by the hurricane’s effects.
“Those who were able to get in contact with their families, those in Abaco in particular, would call their family members in Nassau and ask the family members to call a rescue team because a lot of people were stuck in their attics,” she said. “So as we were listening to the radio, there was call after call after call begging for people to rescue their family. Needless to say, it was very traumatic.”
Whymns later talked to a close friend who lives on Abaco.
“They lost everything,” Whymns said. “She said she had to swim through the bush (to escape), and as she swam through the bush all she saw was bodies. So definitely the (death) count will increase dramatically.”
As relief efforts began, Whymns said she and her mother collected and donated clothes to the Red Cross. Whymns ordered a batch of shirts and gave them to fellow Bahamians who had lost their possessions.
“I can’t expect other people to help my country if I myself don’t help,” she said.
Now that she’s back at Southeastern, Whymns is helping to coordinate the school’s relief campaign. Southeastern will collect donations of such items as clothing, tents, blankets and diapers at chapel services held Monday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Whymns also got in touch with Southeastern professor Robert Houlihan, who serves as chairman of Crossroads Alliance, a nonprofit ministry dedicated to disaster relief. She asked how she could help gathering donations that the organization will deliver to the Bahamas.
Jim Anderson, dean of the college of education at Southeastern, knows Whymns from his involvement with the Institutional Review Board and from having taught her as an undergraduate. He said her zeal in seeking to help her fellow Bahamians is sincere.
“That’s Jody,” Anderson said. “It is not a surprise that that would be her first instinct. It’s very much in line with her character. Jody is definitely a compassionate individual who is involved and wants to reach out and help students, help others.”
Whymns said she appreciates the international response to the Bahamas’ plight, as evidenced by those helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard and British Navy she saw before leaving home.
“Absolutely amazing,” she said of the response. “We’re very, very grateful for the help of the United States and the help from the British. This is remarkable. We’re so grateful for the help we’re receiving because we could not do it alone."
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.