MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) - Before I flew into Marsh Harbour to take pictures of Hurricane Dorian for Reuters I spoke to my cousin, a fire and rescue worker in the Bahamas, who gave me a mystifying piece of advice just before he hung up: Make sure you take some rope.
In the end, that piece of rope may have saved my life.
I’m a native of Nassau, Bahamas and a freelance photographer who has been shooting pictures for Reuters for around three years, mostly hurricanes.
Previously, the worst I’d seen was 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which killed 500 people in Haiti. I was without power for three weeks and some areas south of Nassau were devastated where the eye of the storm just clipped New Providence Island.
But Dorian was an order of magnitude worse.
I flew into Marsh Harbour airport on Great Abaco Island late on Aug. 30 on a small twin prop plane. That town has long been popular with tourists, a good place for the well-heeled to have second homes and a marina that is a huge draw for those who want to go fishing.
When Dorian hit on Sunday, it was unlike anything I’d ever imagined.
The storm made landfall on Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands as a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph) and gusts of more than 220 mph (354 kph). It ranks as one of the strongest Caribbean hurricanes in history.
The death toll in the Bahamas hit 30 on Thursday with thousands still missing.
I was alone in my hotel room on the second floor when I heard the sound of the wind change and my ears started to pop from the low air pressure.
Water from the driving rain began pouring in around the door frame and through the slats in the bathroom window. I hid in a corner, so that if the door was blown off its hinges it would not hit me.
My television shorted out due to the rain and caught fire - I had to douse the flames with a water bottle. Then we lost power.
I was able to leave my room to take photos during the eye of the storm, which lasted an unusually long time because of Dorian’s sheer size.
All the palm trees were gone and the sea had gone from being 100 feet (30 m) away from the hotel to 15 feet (4.6 m) away. You couldn’t even see the marina because it was under water.
Then the wind picked up again and I ran for my life.
In the lobby of my hotel, I bumped into my friend Michelle, a fitness and dance instructor who lived nearby. She had swum to the hotel to seek shelter with her small rescue dog Coco, a poodle terrier mix who seemed unperturbed by the hurricane.
Fearing a storm surge, we headed upstairs to my room. On the way we encountered three members of the local media who sought shelter with us.
The storm was relentless and we lost all communication with the outside world. It lasted about 36 hours, an unusually long time for a storm of that size to remain in essentially one place. You could smell the salt in the air and the wind was a constant drone.
On the side of my room facing the sea was a balcony protected by an incredibly strong, hurricane-proof material, but it started to come loose.
I secured it with the length of rope my cousin had told me to bring.
There were rocks and debris flying around and without that material to protect us, we could very easily have been killed.
After the storm, I walked out into an unrecognizable landscape. Almost every single plank on the docks near Front Road had been ripped off. Solid steel and cement homes and buildings just knocked over as if they were made of Lego.
A well-known old two-story building made of Abaco pine - a material the people on the islands love for its resilience - had been pushed off its foundations and across the road.
An area nearby called “The Mudd,” ramshackle, clapboard homes had been completely flattened. The smell of death hung in the air.
In the aftermath of the storm, people were left with absolutely nothing. They were relieved to be alive, but with limited supplies that relief soon turned to desperation and widespread looting.
I have never seen anything like it. And I wonder how I will feel about covering the next hurricane.
But I know that when it comes, I have learned some very important survival skills and a few basic things to add to my list of emergency supplies.
They include completely watertight bags because you can never underestimate the importance of dry underwear.
And a length of rope.
Writing by Nick Carey; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell