With deep roots in the Bahamas, this Lake Mary couple is on a mission to help the hurricane-ravaged nation rebuild
Lake Mary’s Dusty and Corrine Cooper have seen their share of catastrophe. They were part of the relief response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed at least 100,000 people.
But nothing would prepare them for the devastation Hurricane Dorian wrought on the Bahamas in September. This time, it was personal.
Dusty is the son of a pioneer missionary in the Caribbean, and he lived in Nassau in the 1960s.
Nassau itself was largely spared by the category 5 hurricane, but Dusty and Corrine have made countless connections over the decades with the people of the Abaco Islands, where the monster storm parked for more than 24 hours.
Despite all their experience in relief work – most of it through IsleGO Missions, founded by the couple in 1992 – Corrine and Dusty felt helpless in the immediate aftermath of Dorian.
“For a week, we didn’t know anything,” Corrine says. “We didn’t know if our friends were alive or dead.”
Since then, Dusty and Corrine have seen – and helped create – some progress as the relief effort in the island nation moves from rescue to rebuilding.
Yet Dusty finds it difficult to talk about his first return to the Bahamas after the storm. Corrine stayed behind as Dusty and a pilot friend flew over Marsh Harbour, a town in the Abaco Islands that was ground zero for Hurricane Dorian’s assault.
Marsh Harbour was off-limits to visitors. But even in the plane, Dusty says, “you could smell death.” The flyover also revealed the unfathomable extent of the destruction.
Asked his reaction to the scene, Dusty chokes up and is momentarily speechless.
Composing himself, he says, “My first reaction was, how could anyone survive this?”
The official death toll after the storm was 65, but many agencies consider that figure ludicrously low.
The 20-foot storm surge bulldozed a mountain of houses, trucks, boats, and other debris across Abaco. In the immediate aftermath, there was no electricity or police presence, Dusty says.
As of the end of 2019, according to the United Nations, tens of thousands of Bahamians remained homeless or jobless or both. Many left their doomed homes with all their belongings in a plastic shopping bag, Dusty says.
“They’re traumatized,” he says. “Some of them will never be the same.”
Dusty and Corrine have since returned to the island twice to gauge and coordinate relief efforts.
Slowly, glimmers of normalcy return.
Blue tarps have appeared as residents return to badly damaged homes that were spared total ruin. A grocery store or day care has reopened here and there. In the absence of electricity, generators stay busy powering fans.
Some Abaco Islands residents seem to act as if little has changed, sometimes in absurd ways. Dusty recalls a Bahamian customs officer whose office building was leveled, but he dutifully continued to check the papers of visitors as he stood by a tree.
The initial outpouring of donated money and goods was extremely generous, Dusty says. In Lake Mary, it was common to see local bars and restaurants hold events to benefit the people of the Bahamas. But in the ever-revolving news cycle, even an event of this magnitude begins to fade from the public’s mind after a few weeks.
That is why relief organizations have saved much of the money raised for the slow and arduous rebuilding process, which will take place outside a heavy media spotlight.
Dusty and Corrine lived in Brazil from 1974 to 1981. They then moved to Florida where Dusty became a youth minister, first in Clearwater, then in Longwood.
Dusty was taking up to 15 groups on overseas mission trips and realized he could not keep his church job. So the couple filed for 501(c)(3) status as a charity and formed IsleGO, which maintains a heavy presence in the Caribbean and South America.
Dusty and the Bradenton-raised Corrine met on a missionary flight from Florida to the Bahamas, where she was to perform as a singer with her sister, Linda. They have been married for 50 years.
The couple have attempted to limit the number of times they visit the recovering Bahamas... for a very practical reason.
“If I go, that’s 175 pounds of food and water that can’t go,” Dusty says.
So plane after plane lands in the Bahamas full of supplies and returns full of refugees.
In the meantime, it’s futile to nail down a timeline for when Dusty and Corrine can turn their attention to other missions, he says.
“We’ll keep doing this,” Dusty explains, “until everyone says, ‘Were good.’“
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