Extensive damage from Hurricane Dorian is seen in this aerial photo taken Wednesday over the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Dorian, a Category 5 storm when it hit, has caused widespread destruction. Andrew West/The News-Press via Associated Press

Leslie Ballantyne scans aerial photos of Elbow Cay, looking for something familiar on the sliver of land among the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas that were recently ravaged by Hurricane Dorian.

For the last three years, Ballantyne and her husband, Grant, newlyweds who live in South Portland, have spent the holidays on Elbow Cay with several families from Maine and New Hampshire who have vacationed there for decades. An avid runner, Ballantyne has coursed across much of the 8-mile-long island and come to know it intimately, if only for a week at a time. Her voice flutters with emotion.

Leslie and Grant Ballantyne of South Portland had lunch last Christmas in the lodge at the Abaco Inn on Elbow Cay, one of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas that was hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian on Sunday. Aerial photos indicate the hurricane flattened the lodge and heavily damaged other parts of the inn. Photo courtesy of Leslie Ballantyne

“It’s such a small, seemingly fragile bit of land to take the first hit of the hurricane,” said Ballantyne, 35. “I have this sense of the land as I’ve run it or boated around it and it’s been hard to orient myself seeing the devastation in photos. It’s almost unrecognizable. Some of the places we’ve gotten to enjoy are just flattened.”

The lodge at The Abaco Inn in Hope Town, where the families have gathered for Christmas lunch for several years, collapsed in the Category 5 hurricane that made its initial landfall at Elbow Cay on Sunday. The storm continued to pummel the Bahamas through Monday with 185 mph winds that sometimes gusted to 225 mph.

By Thursday, the death toll had climbed to 30 in the Bahamas, but was expected to grow.

Through the long Labor Day weekend, the Ballantynes watched TV news and scrolled through social media, looking for information about people and places in Elbow Cay that they’ve come to love. Last year, when they rented a house on the island’s North End, the couple who own the property stayed on their boat docked in the harbor.


Ballantyne, a marketing specialist, was heartbroken to see the couple’s son, who lives in Australia, seeking information about his parents’ whereabouts on a community Facebook page.

“To not know if somebody is OK and see that hurt play out on Facebook, it definitely struck me,” Ballantyne said.

Ballantyne later learned that the couple chose to ride out the storm in their house and survived. The house appears to be still standing in aerial photos, but its condition is unknown, she said.

Royce and Terry Randlett of Bath are among the other families who spend the holidays with the Ballantynes. They bring their two grown children and a niece.

Royce Randlett, 72, is a retired marine business owner who started vacationing in the Abaco Islands with his parents and siblings in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s. When his mother, Ann, died more than a decade ago, the family spread her ashes there.

“It’s where she wanted to be,” Randlett said.


The house on Elbow Cay that the Randletts have rented for several years appears to be still standing, he said, but its condition is likewise unknown. Homes, businesses, utilities and public infrastructure across the island have been destroyed or seriously damaged.

Ashley Randlett and Elliott Pitts of South Portland and Terry Randlett of Bath celebrate Christmas morning 2016 at a rented house on Elbow Cay, one of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. The house in the photo appears to be still standing in aerial photos taken after Hurricane Dorian, but its condition is unknown. Photo courtesy Royce Randlett

“We’re dealing with a weird mix of emotions,” Randlett said. “We’re worried about the people there. You get to know them over time. We’ve seen houses we’ve rented – or remnants of houses – and we wonder about the people we met when we stayed there. The marina we use was destroyed.”

Randlett and Ballantyne said they’re concerned that many people who lived, worked and operated businesses on the island can’t afford the lost income and massive cleanup costs that lie ahead.

“Some may pack up and try to start over somewhere else,” Randlett said.

Like many who have seen the hurricane’s wreckage, Randlett and Ballantyne said they feel compelled to travel to Elbow Cay and assist with the cleanup, but they realize their involvement in the early stages would be more disruptive than helpful.

For now, they’ll be sending money to reputable organizations to support island residents who decide to stick it out and rebuild, and they hope others will do the same. Ballantyne said she will continue to monitor the situation closely and do what she can to address the island’s immediate and long-term needs.

“That often gets lost when it’s no longer in the news,” she said.

As for the coming holiday season, the group from Maine and New Hampshire had made reservations for December but they are well aware that accommodations may no longer be available. If they still have a place to stay, Ballantyne, Randlett and the rest of the Christmas crew could have a very different mission this year.

“It would be wonderful if they were ready for us in December,” Randlett said. “We’d all go down and work the whole damn time.”

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