Editor’s Note: Hurricane Dorian spent several days wreaking havoc off the coast of Florida and on many islands. Among the islands damaged heavily was Abaco, Bahamas. One of the residents there, Mike Bonnell, grew up in the Heron Lake area. The son of Burt and Pat Bonnell, Mike has lived there for many years. He and his family survived the horrors of Hurricane Dorian, although their belongings did not. They share their story of the storm, and it’s impacts on the family. They are in the process of relocating for the time being. A Go Fund Me site has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/f/bonnell-and-stratton-dorian-relief-fund, or contact the Bonnells to aid the family.
Mike Bonnell probably never thought almost everything he learned in life would be called into play to save his family and help others but that’s exactly what happened when Hurricane Dorian came to Marsh Harbour, Abaco, Bahamas on September 1st, 2019.
Mike learned about mechanics first from his father and then a few courses while in high school, graduating from HLO in 1994, and more at Jackson VoTech. He went on to join the US Air Force becoming a crew chief on an A10 Warthog for 4 years. He married Mandi Stratton and after a few years in Tennessee and Minnesota, they decided to settle in her hometown of Marsh Harbour. They have two children, Olivia, now 14 and Jayce, 11.
Mike worked hard to start his own business fixing cars and trucks for people on the island and then he began fixing and selling generators and became well known there and on the other islands too. He owns his own business now on the island called Shade Tree Repair. A good mechanic is sometimes hard to find on the islands. Mike hired Carlos, a young Bahamian with a family to support. Mike took him under his wing to teach him everything he knew and he was eager because he needed to support many people in his family.
Mike had been through a category 3 hurricane and his in-laws a category 4 (Floyd) so when the water rose and the winds picked up; it all seemed like it was going normal as hurricanes go and even though they anticipated a little more water, wind and damage, not even the old timers of the island believed it would demolish almost every house or business or take it to the sea and kill thousands on the island. (2500 still missing). They would have left had they known.
When the water rose in their house through the front door, which is 4’ higher than ground level, they had to quickly accept the fact they were going to get water in the house. They lived across the road from the creek in the harbour.
Not long after water started creeping in, to their horror a 20’ wave came into the harbour and the water level rose so quickly – up to their chest – and everything in the house was floating. Water had spewed out of the electric outlets like a high speed faucet. Kids couldn’t touch the floor anymore. Mike had to try hard to keep his wits about him to get his family to safety; even though it was the worst fear and terror he’d ever experienced in his life.
Before the water had risen, the children had gone into their rooms and grabbed the pillow cases that their grandma Bonnell had made them and held them and prayed. Sewn in the seam of each pillowcase was a tiny pewter cross from a blessed rosary. She had told them that whenever they were sad, afraid or in trouble to hold the little cross and pray to Jesus to help them.
Mike had heard stories of people going into their attics to survive hurricanes but Mike being raised in the Midwest and his mother always making them head to the basement when tornadoes came; they didn’t feel that was an option. If all else failed however; they would have had to do it.
They headed for the bedroom with their two dogs. Boo Boo was a large dog and Jack was a puppy and the children’s favorite. Mike thought if he could get the shutter up that they could open a window a get to higher ground. Mandi tried first as she was closest, it didn’t work. The kids were crying and afraid. The shutters had a crank on the inside to roll them up or down but he was having a lot of trouble cranking it open. When Mike finally got the shutter up they were sickened by the sight of the water being higher than the water on the inside! He and his wife looked at each other thinking it could be the end. They knew they needed to get out and he found their safe they had kept their valuables in and threw it at the window. What happened next they weren’t expecting. The safe broke the window but the force of the water propelled them and the safe and slammed them hard against the far wall. They were stunned and shocked for a little while, shaking it off, Mike grabbed a pillow to protect them from the broken glass of the window. During all of this Jayce had to let go of his dog Jack. Mandi and Jayce swam out first and Mike and Olivia followed behind.
In the course of the tremendous power of the water rushing in, the larger dog Boo Boo was forced out of the room and the door slammed shut, they had to leave him. They weren’t sure what had happened to Jack.
Once outside, they were in water that was full of diesel fuel, sewage, and who knows what else. Jayce was upset about his puppy Jack and was pleading with Mike to go back inside and find him but they couldn’t do anything. Mandi and Jayce held on to the top of backyard fence post and Mike and Olivia held onto the eave of the roof as the water was that deep outside. They prayed and thanked God they were alive. Mike was trying to decide which way to go. The house across the street afforded a roof still intact and was a two-story so no fear of flooding but to get there they would have to cross what was a raging water on the street headed right back down to the harbour and out to sea. Mike decided they were not going to chance that. The winds would alternately blast them and then be calmer. They were there for a while. Mandi’s aunt and uncles’ grandson living in a cottage next to them swam out towards his grandparents house (right next door). They watched as he got their shutter off and broke their window and they all swam out and over to them. They then all swam for it, up the hill 2-3 blocks to higher ground to Mandi’s cousin newly built house. She hadn’t moved in yet so there was little food or water or a battery for the generator. Not long after getting there, the eye (of the hurricane) came and winds dropped. People in the neighborhood started coming out, crying, shouting names, roofs gone, homes under water. It was awful. The eye lasted about 30-40 minutes. Everyone tried during that time to find loved ones, and make calls on the VHF radio. Mandi got a call out via satellite phone during the eye.
Mike needed to get that generator operating before the eye passed over. So he went back down the hill to get a new battery he had at his house, if the salt water hadn’t gotten to it yet. While there, he went by the window they escaped out of and decided to maybe just shine his flashlight in the room to see if he could see Jack and confirm whether he made it or not and really thinking probably not and he didn’t see any life. He took one more pass with his light and thought he seen something move. He did! There was Jack laying with his ears back and in shock on top of their floating mattress. Jack wouldn’t move from his spot but Mike was finally able to grab him. Mandi met him coming up the hill with Jack. She had gone looking for Mike because by that time you could hear the wind coming again. The eye was almost past. Jayce had been blaming himself for losing Jack and when he saw his parents with Jack; he collapsed to the ground and cried. The computer panel board on generator had gotten wet and so the battery Mike found couldn’t start it. Mike knew from experience that if he hot-wired it, it would work and it did. The group was so thankful and then the storm started in again. There were 23 people and 2 dogs in Mandi’s cousins house during second half of storm.
Mandi and the kids took cover under a countertop for hours as kids were so scared. Everyone was. What water didn’t do in first half, wind did in the second half. They were so scared of the roof coming off. From a partly opened shutter in back of house they could see windows, boards, and shingles zooming by the window. Mike said big sheets of plywood were flying by like someone was throwing decks of cards past the window as fast as they could and one did end up busting a window. It was a horrifying 8-12 more hours.
The winds were clocked at 185 mph sustained and gusts up to 220. A cay called Man-of-War recorded a gust of 256. The sounds were like they had never heard in their life. They were like a lot of wounded gigantic monsters howling and wicked buzzing -like saws and sizzling sounds. No one had heard such horrible sounds. There were many, many tornadoes that went through the island. It lasted a total of 2 days and only moved 1 mph over the island. It seemed like it would never leave or ever end and even afterwards, there were still strong storms in the outer bands.
When it was over with, Mike and Mandi along with everyone else on the island went to check on all their other family and friends. Her parents and aunts and uncles all survived but there was a cousin who didn’t as their house and them were washed out to sea.
Mike’s two contractor friends were out after the storm and saw his house and wondered if they’d made it out alive. Everyone was searching for their loved ones. Mandi’s parents house had busted windows and roof was unstable so they’d moved to another house for second half of storm.
Mike didn’t rest at all after the storm. He immediately went to work in helping his father-in-law tear out wet carpet, broken windows and glass everywhere and secure his house so they all had a place to stay. Mike, Mandi and kids moved into Mandi’s parents house day after storm. They stayed there with Mandi’s parents, her bother, her aunt, and two cousins.
Mike went to work to help get his vehicle started and his generator going and everything was an emergency. He went to check his shop and was able to get a vehicle home. His shop was blown apart in the storm. Lost it all. First few days was all about securing a vehicle and getting family and friends safe. Mike was lucky enough to get Mandi and kids out on a flight that flew in supplies three days after storm. She flew out with two other wives and their kids. After that, he helped his in-laws secure their home and got people to stay in his house and help to clean it out. He knew he would be leaving but wanted someone in his house till whenever he makes it back again. The outside of his home looks completely normal except for 2×4 stuck in the roof. He has a solid concrete home with a Bermuda roof.
Everything on the inside is lost.
Mike helped to unload the supplies that were coming in and then deliver the water and supplies to the people all over the island, helping them everyday till the day he left. The people coming in with supplies were asking Mike for information on the island and people and the situation. They were basically running a humanitarian station out of a home in Pelican Shores. They all had their jobs to do to help the people each day. They would wake up, have a cup of coffee, walk outside and there would be someone asking for help with something and they were off and running. Mike laughed and said his hog hunting on the island with his buddies kept him in shape.
Mike’s brother, Justin, and Justin’s wife Bessy worked the phones and their contacts day after day for a week trying to get help to get them out of that place but the lack of good communication was hampering their efforts for a quick resolution. Finally Justin was able to make the connection with people he’d never met that were hired by our government to fly supplies over and was allowed to fly over with them and help Mike. The Navy and Marines flew in right behind Justin that day and they all laughed because it looked as if he had brought them. Our government took over the island with permission from the Bahamian government. Mike’s friends were impressed with the Coast Guard and how they were all so skilled at landings in such tight quarters and so quick and professional in the evacuation and relief efforts. So many that they knew have harrowing stories of their own and many people needed evacuation because of injuries.
They were all so grateful for the USA’s help and it made Mike proud to have served his country while Justin still is serving our country. The flight Justin flew in on was filled with body bags and cots but he was able after working the phones constantly to also secure a ride back for Mandi’s parents, brother, aunt and uncle. Upon arriving Justin and Mike loaded a large truck with water and made deliveries. The next day they needed to transfer water from a destroyed house across the street to the house they were staying in so they could bathe and cook.
Justin worked all day in relentless heat to cut a fallen tree that had fallen on Mike’s boat and then helped unload supplies and deliver water to the people with Mike. Mike needed his help badly and was proud to have him by his side. A group of people making and delivering meals to the people needed a vehicle and so Mike gave them his van. Justin said that it was really something to see the so very grateful faces of the people when Mike would come, they knew him and they were smiling and so thankful to him. It was hard the day Mike and Justin left. They knew some people were going to die there and they all still needed so much help and so few people to help. Mike felt like he had been in a war and left his buddies in time of their greatest needs, it was really hard to leave. But he needed to get to his family. Mike faced a lot of adversity as an outsider in starting a business on the island that few are successful at and his two contractor friends said they want him to come back when he can.
Mike was so busy helping others that he didn’t get some of his own stuff secured as there is a lot of looting going on.
Mike plans on going back to the island to retrieve and secure what he can of his own if it’s not gone and there may be work for him in the re-building of Marsh Harbour too.
Their home is ruined, their island destroyed to the point you can’t recognize it. They say it looks like a bomb exploded. Family and friends are gone….all of them not knowing when/if they can ever return. It will be hard for them all to start over, but with their faith and one day at a time and the generosity of so many people and so many they don’t even know; that they are so very grateful and thankful that it only inspires them to help others more.
They thank God, their angels and all the people who kept them in their prayers — A big Thank You to all!