Five years ago this month Hurricane Joaquin hit the southern Bahamas like a battering ram. The category 4 storm was slow moving, and terrorised the inhabitants of Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Island and San Salvador. It was the worst storm in Bahamians’ living memory, but since then we’ve dealt with an even bigger hurricane, and now a global pandemic. Life keeps coming, no matter how much you might want to hold back the next inevitable surprise event. So I’m curious, how are you processing the big moments? With all the news reports, opinion articles and other media coverage it’s easy to feel like people are documenting what’s happening. They are, in an archival sense, but there’s some false security there. The way to make sure your story is told – especially if you’re from a small nation or minority group – is to tell it yourself.
Memorialising Hurricane Joaquin
In the days after Hurricane Joaquin Bahamians and residents came together to clean up and care for one another. It was similar to the aftermath of any aggressive hurricane, but on a much larger, more urgent scale.
I was living in New York at the time, and felt frustrated because I had to watch what was going on from afar. I wanted to be on the ground packing donations into supply boxes, creating inventories and listening to people who needed to talk. But I did what I could from a distance, and decided that the next issue of Gumelemi, the digital magazine I produced at the time, would be dedicated to the stories of Joaquin.
Everyone I knew was invited to contribute, and to connect me with people who might want to share. When I got home months later I interviewed survivors, learning their nightmarish tales of being trapped in their roofs, sweeping and then baling water out of their bedrooms, and losing every material connection to their past – all evidence of family, love and accomplishment. Their words were printed in the Joaquin issue, along with interviews with relief organisers and volunteers, pictures of the aftermath, and art work created by students that lived through the storm.
Convinced of the value of documenting the hurricane in this way, I stayed motivated until the issue was finished. When it was out in the world, I was thankful. People felt seen; the magazine had created a piece of evidence they could point to, and share. And then, life moved on. In the five years since, the gut punch of Joaquin has turned into the barest memory, at least for those of us who don’t live with daily reminders of what it took from us.
Last year Hurricane Dorian wiped the memory of Joaquin clean out of the minds of Bahamians. We thought Joaquin was bad. Dorian brought the whole nation to its knees. Tied with the Labour Day hurricane of 1935, Dorian is the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the Atlantic Ocean. It turned Grand Bahama and Abaco, the two most developed and populated islands outside of New Providence, into whispers of their former selves.
This time, I was living at home, and it seemed everyone either personally had someone missing, or was friends with someone who had someone missing. There’s no six degrees of separation in a country of 400,000 people.
This time, I could see many more Bahamians documenting what they experienced. We have reports, paintings, documentaries, poetry and exhibits all dedicated to grieving and processing what happened, together.
Memory makes mistakes
Now of course we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, in the grip of a disease that, whatever your stance on its virulence, has completely disrupted our lives. We are focused on surviving this new challenge, and, not long after we can lift our heads, another one is coming. No matter how much you think you’ll remember how it feels to be alive now, memory is a fallible, disappointing thing.
I started keeping a diary, I call it Covid Chronicles, about staying at home. It’s currently on week 30 – week 30!! – and here’s what I wrote at the beginning of week 4:
There seems to be a point in each day now where I feel like I want to yell, or like I’m going to explode. Like – I can’t do this inside thing any longer!!!
Did you ever feel that way? How are you feeling now? Because of my diary I know it was week 7 before I stopped feeling claustrophobic, when I’d made peace with being stuck on my couch.
Tell your story for yourself and your community
It’s important to tell your story, not just for yourself, but for your community, your government and all the humans who aren’t yet born. How much do you value your own perspective, or hold yourself responsible to document your own experience?
Anne Franke’s diary is perhaps the most famous example of how a personal set of reflections can contribute to both documenting history and interpreting it after the fact. Another example is Martha Ballard, a midwife in 18th and 19th century Maine. Her diary is the only way we know about the intimate lives of women at the time. Men certainly weren’t writing about it. Over a century later, a historian studied Ballard’s diary and wrote a Pulitzer-prize winning account of life at the time.*
Looking back at the Joaquin issue of Gumelemi, I don’t know if we would have had such an emotive picture of the storm if the magazine didn’t exist. Would we be able to point and say absolutely, Bahamians experienced some of this Dorian-trauma before Dorian? I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but show how a project that seemed important to me then has come to be even more valuable to me, and my community, now.
From the perspective of human history, some incidents will ‘count’ more than others – this pandemic for sure. But for all the other smaller incidents, which Joaquin might now seem to some, they still leave marks on people, changing lives and trajectories forever, and need to be recollected.
We won’t always know what’s a big deal, what’s a turning point in our lives or in the lives of our communities. So when things matter to you, I want to encourage you to document them. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can open up a notebook or create a new page on your computer, start with the date, and write.
* I know about this thanks to a friend of mine who’s a historian. He told me the value of even small things like diaries for studying history!
** If you’d like to contribute to Hurricane Dorian relief efforts, Little House by the Ferry (a site about life in Abaco written by a Bahamian) has a great list of organisations providing aid.