Abaco locals assist at Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at Baha Mar
Proceeds raised for Hurricane Dorian relief, survivors share hurricane stories
January 22, 2020
By Preston Smith, PGATOUR.COM
- January 22, 2020
- Seven members of The Abaco Club maintenance crew joined Superintendent Matt DiMase this week at Royal Blue GC. (Contributed Photo)
On the morning of Sunday, September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the island of Great Abaco in the northern Bahamas with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour. The Category 5 hurricane remained over the island for approximately 24 hours. The effects of the storm and flooding were devastating as many Bahamians lost their lives, thousands were displaced and the town of Marsh Harbour was leveled.
The devastation hit especially close to home on the Korn Ferry Tour, as the island has served as the backdrop to The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at The Abaco Club since 2017. Over the years, players, caddies and staffers have met many Abaco natives and grown to love the annual stop. Marsh Harbour is the closest town to The Abaco Club at Winding Bay and traditionally hosted many of those involved with the tournament.
Four and a half months later, the fourth edition of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic is underway, this week at Baha Mar Resort in Nassau. During the week of the hurricane, with the people of Abaco in jeopardy, Baha Mar opened up approximately 70 rooms to evacuees. Baha Mar also agreed to host the 2020 Bahamas Great Abaco Classic as the infrastructure in Great Abaco begins to rebuild. This week, all proceeds from the tournament will go towards hurricane relief.
Staff members and volunteers that would normally work The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at The Abaco Club have traveled to Baha Mar to assist with the 2020 tournament. Matt DiMase and Elie Petitphait, employees at The Abaco Club, are two of those staff members on-site in Nassau. Both have told stories of their experiences before, during and after the storm.Contributed Photo
“It was Thursday afternoon; we saw a couple of the local fishermen who told us that the fish weren’t biting and the water was really warm, like 91 or 92 degrees,” said DiMase, superintendent at The Abaco Club at Winding Bay. “We had some conversations then and started to think this could become a Category 4 or 5. It was just bar talk at the time and no one really thought much of it. But then on Friday and Saturday the storm just continued to strengthen and stall. It was worst-case scenario for us.”
DiMase, who was supposed to fly to Florida a couple of days before the storm for his daughter’s birthday, rode out the storm in a concrete house at The Abaco Club.
“The winds were howling; it started out like a freight train and it ended up sounding like a jetliner right outside your window,” said DiMase. “It was so loud. Walls were shaking, a couple of the walls cracked. We had no idea what was happening outside … We couldn’t know the extent of the damage even at our own club, much less in town.
“Our fear was the people,” continued DiMase. “Our staff, the island, how we could get to them, who was safe and who was in trouble. That was our biggest fear. It wasn’t our safety as much as the safety of our people.”
Elie Petitphait, the Beach Supervisor at The Abaco Club at Winding Bay, was one of the people DiMase was referring to. Petitphait bunkered down in a friend’s house near Marsh Harbour to ride out the storm. His shelter didn’t last long.
“Water just took over the house; it submerged everything and it happened very quickly,” said Petitphait. “We weren’t expecting that. We all had to split up and it was every man for himself. We were trying to get to the highest ground possible.”
After getting out of the house, Petitphait tried to swim to safety in the flood in water he described as 18-to-20 feet high, covering the peaks of houses on the island. After swimming proved futile in the strong currents, he grabbed onto a piece of debris and held on for dear life.
“If I could describe it, it was like the water was a whirlpool, just spinning,” said Petitphait. “So I stopped swimming and just hung on to the debris. I thought I was going to die. I actually did see my life flash before my eyes … A piece of loose debris crushed my arm while I was trying to swim and that’s when it broke. I had to hold on to a piece of floating debris for close to an hour and a half until the eye of the storm came.”
Conditions became eerily calm during the eye of the storm, allowing Petitphait to swim to higher ground and take shelter with a friend whose house had survived. He described going in and out of consciousness waiting for the storm to subside. Following the hurricane, he was able to make it to a local clinic where he was treated until the U.S. Coast Guard arrived to airlift those with injuries to other islands.
“I’ll never forget the pilot’s name on that helicopter – Dicky,” said Petitphait, who was later diagnosed with a shattered humerus. “I was thanking him for saving my arm. I was so very thankful to the U.S. Coast Guard because at that time, they were the only help available to help the people with broken bones (like myself) or other serious injuries.”Contributed Photo
In the aftermath of the hurricane, DiMase set out towards Marsh Harbour to assist with the relief efforts.
“We took cars as far as we could get and then tried to reach them from there,” said DiMase. “Some of them took boats; we had staff that swam through the water and waded through the water … It was heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. There were some local spots that me and my staff would go and get burgers and beers at all of the time. Those are gone and there is no evidence that they ever existed. Absolutely no trace.”
“At the same time, after the hurricane when I was meeting up with guys, it was the greatest feeling in the world,” continued DiMase. “It was like a weight was lifted off of our shoulders; there were literal tears of joy. Just a lot of man-hugs. First to know that they were okay and then that their family was okay and their kids were okay. It was an emotion that I can’t describe. Seeing the town in devastation was awful, but then each time we would see a member of our staff one-by-one, it was two exact opposite emotions.”
In the days and weeks after the hurricane, the world began to send support to the affected islands. The driving range at The Abaco Club became a helipad. Relief groups began to send in supplies, medication, food and cases of water. Members of The Abaco Club brought in their private boats with generators and supplies. Drop-off locations in the United States popped up to support the islands. The Abaco Club brought in trailers for their staff to live in.
From afar, an outpouring of support from groups like BD Global, the management group of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic, helped to spur the recovery and rebuild process. Through a “Bluegrass for the Bahamas” campaign, BD Global filled two 53-foot semitrucks with donated household goods, 15,000 pieces of apparel and building supplies. Many tournaments across the PGA TOUR’s network of tournaments donated apparel and spread the word, while BD Global’s connections in the NCAA basketball arena drew in additional apparel donations. BD Global raised an additional $30,000 at a fundraiser in Lexington in October, bringing the total value of their donations to more than $250,000.
In addition to BD Global’s efforts, many other parties have gotten involved. A GoFundMe page started by The Abaco Club to provide relief has topped $3.1 million. Other players and celebrities have made pledges and publicly spread the #AbacoStrong message, including Tiger Woods, Justin Timberlake, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Darren Clarke, Thomas Aiken and Rafael Campos (last year’s champion). Spearheaded by TOUR players Brad Faxon, Justin Leonard and PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, The Bahamas Strong Pro-Am in Palm Beach Gardens raised an additional $1.4 million in October. When Cutter & Buck heard of the clothing need, the company donated more than 4,500 articles of clothing. “Truck Charities,” a charitable arm of the Korn Ferry Tour’s operations truck, raised an additional $5,000, which was matched by the PGA TOUR and presented to representatives of The Abaco Club on Saturday.
“As far as the #AbacoStrong movement is concerned, I think that the native people of Abaco are the most resilient people I’ve ever met,” said an emotional DiMase. “To see them go through what they’ve gone through and come back to work … and then now, to be here to represent a number of people, it means the world. I’m glad to be a part of it and I can’t thank Baha Mar, BD Global and the Korn Ferry Tour enough.”
Contributions to the fund can be made at GoFundMe.com.