FREEPORT, Grand Bahama — Since Hurricane Dorian laid waste to his home and island, Howard Armstrong has been on a grim quest: to find the body of his wife, Lynn.
Howard and Lynn were hunkered down in their one-story home in Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama when Dorian roared in as a Category 5 hurricane on September 1.
The storm sliced houses in two, hurled cars into the ocean and uprooted whole lives on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. With winds exceeding 200 mph and a storm surge of over 20 feet in places, Dorian was the most catastrophic storm to ever hit the Bahamas.
A month on from Dorian, dozens are known to have died and hundreds are still missing. The reality that some may never be found is setting in.
For 20 years Howard and Lynn lived a simple but ideal life, in a low-lying area on the outskirts of Freeport.
“It was our paradise,” Howard said.
They built their small house facing a canal where Howard, who’s lived in the Bahamas since he was 6, kept the trawler he used to fish for crabs.
Lynn collected shells and decorated the yard with them. Howard stored his fishing traps on their coconut trees. Their house had been damaged by other big storms but they had always been fine.
Their luck ran out with Dorian.
The storm surge from the hurricane filled their house with water up to the roof. Waves inside their home ripped off metal storm shutters and turned them into deadly shrapnel.
Appliances swirled around and smashed into the couple as they watched the water rise in their kitchen.
“The refrigerator was the heaviest, the most dangerous, you tried to avoid that one,” Howard remembered.
They struggled to keep their heads above the water. They tried to hang on to the ceiling fan and float on their couch cushions. Howard attempted to smash a hole in the roof but didn’t have any tools to cut through.
Finally, a full day after Dorian first began pummeling their island, Howard and Lynn climbed onto the last thing left above the ocean — the kitchen cabinets.
He pulled their two cats on the cabinets as well, Howard said. Their dog had already been swept away.
Lynn was spent.
“Her teeth were chattering from the cold, she was giving up. I told her to get on top and hold on top of the cabinet,” Howard said.
“She said ‘I think I’m going to die.’ And I told her, ‘No, you’re not.'”
Howard swam out of their home to look for help but found nothing and no one. Returning to Lynn, he saw the cabinets had disintegrated and Lynn was floating in the water. She was dead.
Again, Howard swam out and this time made it to a neighbor’s home. There was a body inside there too. He stayed until at last, he was rescued by a group of Bahamians who formed their own search squads and ventured into his flooded streets on jet skis.
The storm had hit on Sunday, moving at a glacial pace of one mile per hour. It was now Tuesday, and Dorian’s winds still lashed Grand Bahama.
We met Howard hours later after he was saved, standing on a partially submerged bridge that had become the staging point for the volunteer rescue crews. He was waiting there to see if his wife’s body would be recovered.
The interview we did with him on the bridge was seen around the world and generated an outpouring of sympathy for the 66-year-old fisherman who lost everything.
Colleagues, viewers and readers later wrote us wondering what had become of him. Lynn was a British citizen, originally from Halifax in northern England, and the UK Embassy in Washington emailed asking if we knew whether her body had been recovered and if they could help Howard.
But Howard had vanished. He had lost his cellphone in the storm and was homeless.
For days we heard reports that he was crashing on various friends’ couches or sleeping on his boat. He was searching for Lynn’s body, his friends told us, but believed she had been carried off as the waters receded.
Three weeks after first meeting Howard, we got in touch with his daughter Meghann Gaines via social media. She lives in Florida, and said the family was trying to get him to come stay with them in the US.
But he was still searching for Lynn’s remains. Frustrated by the lack of progress on Grand Bahama, he had made it to the capital Nassau, on another island, to see if anyone there could help.
As he had done in Grand Bahama, Howard gave police a description of his wife. She was wearing grey sweatpants, either a white or grey tank top and a gold wedding band.
But, Howard said, the police there replied they were only handling cases of missing people from Abaco island — not Grand Bahama.
According to the Bahamian government, the casualty count from Dorian stands at 56 dead and 600 people still missing. Bodies are being found on a regular basis, and the death toll inches up.
Under Bahamian law it takes at least seven years to declare a person dead if their body has not been recovered. Following Dorian, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told CNN that officials were working to expedite the process for people like Howard.
“We know that some of those missing will never be found. There will be no closure until a coroner signs off and we are working on that as quickly as possible,” Minnis he said in an interview.
“But that has to go through a legal process. I think we have done all we can in terms of saving lives and minimizing insults and injuries to individuals. We did not expect the storm to be as vicious as Dorian.”
While Bahamian officials say the two islands that were most impacted — Grand Bahama and Abaco — are “bouncing back,” conditions remain dire. There, people engage in a daily struggle to find gas, food, water and building supplies.
Many people in Freeport have electricity and brackish, salty water from their taps that they can bathe with, but officials warn against drinking it.
In Marsh Harbor and much of the rest of Abaco there is no power or water. Neighborhoods resemble ghost towns as thousands of people have fled the disaster areas for other islands in the Bahamas or the US.
For people who are missing family — like Howard Armstrong — there is the sense that time is running out for them recover their loves ones’ bodies.
We found Howard in Nassau and flew back with him to Grand Bahama Island to continue his search for Lynn.
When we landed, he received a text from a contact in the government saying more bodies had been recovered. He should go to the Central Police Station in Freeport immediately, the text said, to see if one of them could be Lynn.
Howard was both anxious and afraid. “What were we going to find after three weeks? What state would a corpse be in? Unrecognizable, right?” Howard asked. “Would you even be able to tell who they are? Is your hair still there?”
Howard went inside the police station and once again was asked to give a description of his wife. A police officer promised to get back to him.
While he waited, Howard took us back to the shell of his former home.
At the entrance to his community, police stood guard, one carrying an assault rifle to discourage looters.
Already, Howard said, looters had taken one of his boats which they tried to drag into the nearby woods, only to give up and leave the boat stranded.
In front of their torn apart home, the pieces of Howard and Lynn’s old life lay scattered.
Howard found Lynn’s glasses under a pile of rubble, one of her planners lay open near the dock — her meticulous notes sketched in small, precise handwriting. A rosary from her jewelry box hung from a nearby tree branch.
One month later he still did not know where his beloved’s body ended up.
“I feel guilty because I left her body and didn’t take it with me,” Howard said, even though he barely made it out alive himself. “I would have had her to bury.”
Howard is haunted by the things he could have done differently and the loss of everything he had.
“One night I was up and I couldn’t even turn the lights out or close my eyes,” he said. “I said why didn’t I just go with her? I wouldn’t have to deal with this or any other damn thing. For some reason the Lord spared me. I wonder about it all the time.”
Later that day Howard received a call from the police. They did not have Lynn’s body.