Maps and photos of the Bahaman island of Abaco hang on the wall of Larry Russell’s office in Ozark.
The mission worker with Ozark-based Builders International keeps part of his heart in the Bahamas. A month after Hurricane Dorian ransacked his family’s home, Larry Russell hopes to lead an effort to help rebuild the island and bring hope to the people who live there.
“My family has been on that island for 350 years, since the days of the colonists. Where else would they go?” Russell said.
Russell emigrated to the United States about 40 years ago. He moved to Minnesota to go to college, having never visited anywhere north of Lakeland, Florida, in his life. Russell and his wife are the first persons in their respective families to leave the Bahamas.
Hurricane Dorian struck Abaco as a Category 5 hurricane Sept. 1. One day later, Dorian hit Grand Bahama, an island immediately west of Abaco and about 65 miles from Palm Beach, Florida.
Russell now works for Builders International, a construction ministry with its world headquarters in Ozark. The staff and the volunteers from Builders International use the construction of churches and schools to spread a message of faith.
The group consists of about 2,700 missionaries in 256 different countries.
Russell is the organization’s chief financial officer and development director, which means he is largely in charge of fundraising. However, he will take the lead on the Bahamas project due to his connections and relationships to the islands.
“It’s going to be an emotional journey. I have not physically seen the damage there yet, I have talked to many who have,” Russell said. “They just say, ‘Larry, what you see on television, even the flyovers—even the smell, there is even a smell that is different about the whole island. When you set foot on it, it will just change your life.’”
Russell was able to visit his sisters, their children and his stepmom on a September trip to Nassau, where his family from Abaco is now.
“I didn’t get to the island. It was impossible to get there at that point. The only airport on that island was flooded, the island took a 23-foot water surge,” Russell said. “I went to Nassau. That’s where the family had, by this time, been evacuated to.”
Russell did some work gathering information for Builders International, but much of his trip was also spent in personal time with his relatives.
“They literally left with nothing. This is a family of five—two teenagers, a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 5-month-old—they literally left that island with the clothing that they had on,” Russell said.
Abaco Island was the area of the Bahamas most impacted by Dorian, which caused at least 60 deaths and did $7 billion in damages. More than 400 people are still missing. More than 50 of the 60 deaths occurred on Abaco or on its surrounding cays.
“There are multiple tornados wrapped in a hurricane, and they say one of them was clocked at 230 mph,” Russell said.
Russell grew up on Abaco, which is east of Miami, Florida and north of the Bahamian capital of Nassau, which is on New Providence Island. Economically, Abaco relies on tourism and trade.
“That island produces nothing. They catch some fish and grow some vegetables, but everything they consume is brought in from somewhere else. All of the building material has to be brought in from either Nassau or Florida,” Russell said.
The building material will arrive on barges. Presently, there is no widespread power restoration on Abaco. Relief workers are allowed to fly in on helicopters or private planes, but are not permitted to stay the night on the island.
Grocery stores are destroyed or closed.
“Thankfully, relief is coming from all different parts of the world,” Russell said.
Some of that relief will come from Ozark, as Builders International decides on its coming course of action.
“We need to wait until people are safe and secure in some way, but then we want to start sending teams down there to start to rebuild these churches,” Russell said. “All of the schools on those islands were also destroyed. There is no infrastructure left.”
Builders International is part of the Assemblies of God World Missions.
“What we also want to do is assess what help we might provide helping to rebuild the churches there. There are five churches that are in our fellowship that were destroyed,” Russell said.
The rebuilding process will likely be a very slow one on Abaco, where key parts of infrastructure were completely wiped out by Dorian. It may be years before tourists return to the resorts, restarting the economy and the way of life for the residents.
“Because they produce nothing, if they have no tourists, they have nothing. They are entirely dependent upon tourism,” Russell said. “Of course, right now that’s not happening and probably will not happen for quite a long time.”
Russell said his relatives, like many natives of Abaco, plan to return and have no intent on leaving the island.
“Those people—that’s their life, that’s all they know,” Russell said.
On the Web
Builders International: https://buildersintl.org/