ABSECON — After watching the coverage of such destructive hurricanes as Maria and Harvey in 2017 and Michael last year, Paul Dempsey decided he needed to help after Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas in September.
From Nov. 3 to 16, Dempsey worked putting a school back together with the volunteer-powered disaster relief organization known as All Hands and Hearts, based in Massachusetts.
Dempsey did everything from picking up debris, chopping up potatoes and onions, building shelves and dealing with sheet rock and insulation.
“I just felt like giving back,” said Dempsey, who added Hurricane Dorian happened when he was thinking about this. “It just seemed to be a coincidence, me wanting to give back, and this happening at that time. I said, ‘I can do this. I can definitely do this.’”
After doing research, Dempsey discovered the All Hands and Hearts organization online. A month passed between Dempsey coming up with the idea and being in Marsh Harbour, a town in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.
“The idea was that I could make a contribution not just by cleaning up debris and doing that kind of stuff, but also my photography would inspire people to do similar things and do something for other people” said Dempsey, who said Abaco Island residents told him most people don’t realize how bad the hurricane was.
Dempsey used to teach in the Galloway Township school district, so the idea of fixing up a school appealed to him.
“That made sense to me. You have all these people. They don’t have anything to do. They can’t even fix up their houses,” Dempsey said. “Send the kids to school. ... It becomes a community center. It becomes a central place to hand out aid to people. That whole concept appealed to me.”
On Marsh Harbour, Dempsey was with a group of 45 people ranging in age from age 18 to 72, including blacks, whites, Asians, straight, gay, people from Ireland, England, Germany, France, Australian, Canada and all over America.
“Everybody was there to help,” said Dempsey, who added people were told to sit down if they started to wear out. “No one was asked to do a job beyond their physical capabilities.”
No one in Dempsey’s group complained. Everybody knew they would be a little uncomfortable because 45 people were sleeping in one room.
The Catholic School that Dempsey worked on had a big field alongside of it that was full of debris, so a person could always pick up debris.
As a comparison, Hurricane Sandy had 90 mph winds, 14-foot storm surge, and it lasted for a day in one spot, Dempsey said. Hurricane Dorian had 220 mph winds, a 23-foot storm surge and parked itself over the island for three days, he said
“You could go around and see buildings where the waterline was on the second floor. It really devastated this island,” Dempsey said. “There was not an area where you wouldn’t find houses that were seriously damaged.”
Dempsey was off on Sundays, so he hired a woman to drive him around so he could shoot pictures. In one place, where there was once a two-story restaurant, there was not even debris, just a concrete slab.
“That kind of devastation there, it’s hard to wrap your head around. I thought it would be really bad, but when I got there, I said, ‘I can’t believe this,’” Dempsey said. He added that even if someone’s house survived, their job was gone. “There were no banks, no ATMs. There was one store open and one bar open.”
None of the cars would have passed inspection with busted-out windows and missing doors. One night, he saw a car with a flashlight taped to it for lights.
“You go down there because you want to help somebody, but it helped me,” said Dempsey, who said residents randomly thanked him. “It makes you feel good to know that you are helping people. ... There is something special about anonymous giving. People who will benefit from what I did and what the group did, we are not going to meet them, but that’s OK.”