By David Singh in Nassau and Freeport, Bahamas | Photography by Ridwan Adhami
By David Singh in Nassau and Freeport, Bahamas | Photography by Ridwan Adhami
On the ground with Andre Deveaux, the only Bahamian-born player in NHL history, as he helps his homeland recover from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian

Andre Deveaux was born at Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport, Grand Bahama, 35 years ago. He’s tied to this place, his roots are here, and that makes the devastation in front of him all the more unthinkable. It’s been about a week since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm ranking among the most powerful to ever hit the Caribbean, battered the island and Rand Memorial is still without running water or electricity. Doctors and staff are overworked and exhausted. The unlit corridors are filled with patients, and as Deveaux and his rapid response teammates move through the dark, it’s a challenge to not stumble over the ill and injured.

Deveaux, the only Bahamian-born player in NHL history, is here with GlobalMedic, a Toronto-based disaster relief agency, and the goal at this moment is to bring potable water back to the hospital. There’s been an urgency to everything he’s done these past few days, but the conditions at the hospital hammer home the scale of the suffering and stakes of the situation in a new way. With the power down and the morgue overwhelmed, staff have been forced to store dead bodies in a shipping container behind the building. As Deveaux and others survey the premises in the oppressive 30-plus degree heat, they come across the container. “I keep telling myself those people were probably already in [the morgue before the storm] — they died of natural causes,” Deveaux will say later. “That’s what I hope.”

Deveaux and the GlobalMedic team work all day, but their water purification unit isn’t compatible with the system the building has in place, and a solution can’t be engineered with the resources available. After taking in such a desperate scene, the volunteers have to find a way to accept that they can’t offer the help they’d hoped. “It’s really sad because you go, ‘This is the hospital. This is the place that’s supposed to be helping people,’” says Ridwan Adhami, a member of Penny Appeal USA, which has been working with the GlobalMedic team. “This is the place that people need the most.”

Dorian struck the Bahamas on Sept. 1, bringing sustained winds of 300 k.p.h. and causing severe flooding. The official death toll has reached 52, but that’s expected to grow — 1,300 people are still missing. Thousands have been evacuated and according to early reports, 70,000 people have been left homeless in a nation of 400,000. An early estimate of the property damage totalled $7 billion.

The need for aid was and is immense, but the desire to address that need wasn’t the only thing that motivated Deveaux to volunteer. The one-time enforcer has memories, family, passion and guilt binding him to his birth nation. And the pull of those factors was so intense it drew him away from his four-year-old son, Ace, and wife Anya, who was eight months pregnant when he left home in Canada.

For Deveaux, this island, too, is home. He had to come here. He had to help.

Deveaux distributes clean drinking water from a purification system — with the aid of a helper

Deveaux settles into his chair in the backyard of a house in Nassau and rests a Gatorade on the table. The palm trees behind him offer shade from the setting sun. There’s no escape from the humidity, but Deveaux is unbothered — he’s minutes removed from his first shower in four days.

He arrived in the nation’s capital earlier today after hitchhiking a 45-minute flight from Grand Bahama, which along with the Abaco Islands was the area of the Bahamas hardest hit by Dorian. There was no running water at his hotel in Freeport; a dip in the pool was the only way to rinse off sweat. His clothes were essentially stuck to his body last night, so he decided to sleep in them, knowing that he’d have to put on the same dirty outfit the next morning anyway. “I smiled to myself today when the toilet flushed,” he says.

He’s wearing shorts and a fresh, navy blue polo with the GlobalMedic logo emblazoned on the left side of his chest. The goal of the small NGO, which has worked on 214 missions across 72 countries since 1998, is to hit hard and fast by providing short-term relief in the immediate aftermath of major emergencies. The company’s work is like applying gauze to stop the bleeding, buying time before the doctor arrives. On this mission, around 30 GlobalMedic representatives will install four critical infrastructure tents and six purification units that can make freshwater potable. They will also distribute more than 4,700 family emergency kits (containing portable water purification units, hygiene items, solar lights and Pedialyte) and more than 3,500 emergency food packs.

“Just know that you can always come back to the Bahamas, because Bahamians take care of one another.”

Deveaux helped secure the use of this home, which will serve as GlobalMedic’s Nassau headquarters for the next month. His connections to the island are a crucial resource for the organization and they run deep. Deveaux was born in Freeport, the son of a Drexel Deveaux, a Bahamian, and Joanna King, a native of Corner Brook, Nfld. His parents met while his mother, a doctor, was doing her residency in Grand Bahama and once that was over, the family moved to Welland, Ont., when he was three. Though his parents split up not long after moving and Deveaux was raised in Canada with his younger brother, Matthew, he continued to make annual trips back to the Bahamas to visit his father, grandfather, half-siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.

His childhood memories of this place are countless — swimming in the ocean, riding around in the back of his grandfather’s truck or spending hours trying to catch geckos. This is even where he realized Santa Claus didn’t exist. One year, Joanna took her sons to meet Father Christmas at a mall in St. Catherines, Ont., before they boarded a flight to Nassau. Upon arrival, Deveaux’s grandfather, Prince, wanted the boys to meet the local St. Nick. “I look at Santa here and he’s a black dude,” recalls Deveaux with a smile. “‘Mom, I don’t think that’s the same guy.’”

The Caribbean trips grew less frequent as Deveaux’s hockey career blossomed. He was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the sixth round of the 2002 draft and finally reached the NHL during the 2008–09 season, when he played 21 games for the Maple Leafs. He also suited up for the New York Rangers and several AHL clubs over the course of his 13 years as a pro, and spent the last seasons of his career bouncing around Europe — a time marred by a violent incident in which he slashed a rival team’s captain while playing in Sweden.

Deveaux and Anya married at a resort in the Bahamian district of Exuma in 2015, and he decided to hang up his sweater following the 2017–18 campaign. Seeking a more stable life for his family, he became a firefighter this past April with the fire and emergency services team at Toronto Pearson International Airport. He is also a Sportsnet 590 The FAN NHL Insider.

Deveaux wasn’t paying close attention as news of the impending hurricane began to trickle out in late August. Severe storm systems are a fact of life in parts of the West Indies and Deveaux didn’t think this one would be anything too out of the ordinary. Still, Anya urged him to call his father to check in. When Deveaux reached out to Drexel, who’s in his 70s and still uses a flip phone, he heard everything was fine in Freeport and Drexel didn’t think the hurricane would be a big deal, either. One hour later, Drexel sent an email to say winds were violent and the city had shut off the water. After that, Deveaux lost contact with his father.

Understandably concerned, Deveaux called his deputy fire chief, David Hollett, the next day. Deveaux was still on probation in his new role and told Hollett what he was thinking. “I said, ‘I’m debating coming down [to the Bahamas],’” recalls Deveaux. “‘Is this something you would be okay with? I feel like I have to. I can’t get a hold of my father. I have a lot of family there.’” He was given approved leave, according to Hollett, who adds that the entire fire service was supportive of Deveaux’s choice.

Deveaux reached out to GlobalMedic founder Rahul Singh and said he wanted to volunteer on the ground in the Bahamas. Within a few days, he was here. “My grandpa told me, ‘It’s great what you have going on for you in Canada. I hope that never stops. But you just know that you can always come back to the Bahamas, because Bahamians take care of one another,’” Deveaux says. “That always stuck with me.

“This is where I’m from,” he continues. “As much as I’m Canadian — and I’m so proud to be Canadian — I’m just as much Bahamian. It’s a very big part of who I am and my ancestry … When you talk to people about the devastation this hurricane caused, everybody says the same thing: They’ve never seen anything like it in their lifetime. Just knowing that, I have a duty to come back and help.”

An early estimate of the property damage inflicted by Dorian totalled $7 billion

More than a dozen small aircraft are lined up in rows on the tarmac in an area of Grand Bahama International Airport usually reserved for private flights, with a few passenger planes and military helicopters sprinkled in. The main terminals of the airport are damaged, so this strip of land is the point of convergence for all air transit to and from the island, including privately owned planes arriving from Nassau, Miami or Fort Lauderdale with aid.

Stepping off the plane, the devastation is immediately visible. The first landmark to greet you is an aircraft on the side of the road that’s been torn into several pieces by the winds and 12 feet of water that engulfed this area. The wreckage foreshadows the scene waiting in Freeport.

Coconut trees slant at a 45-degree angle, while others have been ripped out of the ground. The grass, normally lush and green, has been scorched the colour of hay by salt water. Some houses have been completely flattened, the only thing that remains of others is a single wall. Lashay Cartwright’s home is intact, making her one of the lucky ones, but her experience during the storm was nonetheless harrowing. “It was like hell came,” she says.

“It was like hell came.”

The 46-year-old rode out the wind and water with her three children — aged 8, 10 and 20 — her mother and her brother, who is paralyzed, in their house near Casuarina Bridge. Flood waters surrounded them. At one point, she noticed the houses behind hers had completely washed away. Cartwright contemplated packing her family into their car and leaving, but soon realized that wasn’t an option. Instead, as water breached her home, they moved to the second floor and hoped for the best. “I just started praying,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh God, have mercy on me. Help me, help me, God. Please don’t let the roof come off.’” Nobody in her family can swim. With the conditions outside, though, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if they could.

“I thought about my two daughters,” says Cartwright, her voice wavering. “And I’m like, ‘Would I be selfish to take them out first? Should I get my mother? Leave my brother? How can I deal with my brother in a wheelchair?

“That was my reality.”

The water in the house had reached as high as the front doorknob when the storm finally calmed. Her family was safe and the house is livable, but Cartwright has been spraying much of it with bleach in hopes of killing any mould. She will need to replace her walls in the days ahead, a process that has already begun for some residents in Freeport. Large piles comprised of everything families have discarded due to flood damage or fear of mould sit in front of many houses — dry wall, couches, mattresses, cabinets and stoves, as well as carpet, tiles, clothing and tires.

Calvin Williams, left, and Marty Bromley dig into an old well at Church of God of Prophecy in Freeport

Some banks are allowing customers to withdraw only $150 per day, creating an obvious issue for residents trying to purchase supplies to repair the damage. Gas stations are open, and it’s common to see cars bumper-to-bumper for nearly a kilometre waiting to fill up. Some fast-food restaurants have resumed operation, with lines requiring close to an hour’s wait. Cartwright is hesitant to spend on takeout and wants to hold on to the little cash she has, so her family’s meals largely consist of small portions of tuna salad on crackers. She doesn’t have electricity or running water and rolls up her sleeves to reveal tan lines from waiting outside for drinking water. “It’s crazy — extra-long lines for water or if they are giving out anything,” she says. “We in Freeport have never been here before. The Bahamas has never been here before.”

Brian Finley, a 41-year-old taxi driver and disc jockey, says he won’t stay in Freeport for another Category 4 or 5 hurricane. He’s staying put for now, but is wrestling with the decision to send his two youngest daughters abroad, perhaps to their uncle in Chicago. Some schools in Freeport sustained severe damage and remained closed in the days following the hurricane, leaving parents like Finley to worry about the interruption to their children’s education on top of everything else.

Finley is confident that Freeport will rebound — it always has after hurricanes, he says — but right now people are still coming to grips with what happened. His 73-year-old mother lost most of her possessions and is having a hard time coping. “She worked hard, put her kids through school and gave them a home, and came back to it and it’s all flooded with water. Everything she worked hard for had to be thrown away,” Finley says. “You have to keep talking to her, telling her, ‘You’re going to get it back. It’s only material things. It’s going to take us a short time.’

“People have emotions,” he adds. “You’re going to need [counsellors] to come in here and talk to people. You’re going to need a lot of psychologists to come in and try to calm people’s nerves. Some people are still going through the process. It’s traumatizing.”

Brian Finley is confident his country will rebound, but doesn't plan to stay in Freeport through another Category 4 or 5 storm

Churches are a common sight in Freeport. Residents estimate there are close to 400 on Grand Bahama, serving a population of approximately 51,000. That yields a rough average of 127 people per sanctuary. However, as Dorian passed over the island, the Community at Heart Tabernacle, Church of God of Prophecy provided shelter to roughly 3,000.

Calvin Williams, 56, is an important volunteer at the parish who operates as sort of a Swiss Army knife, handling everything from cooking breakfast to teaching Sunday school to audio-visual duties. Whenever there’s a hurricane, Williams waits it out inside the 37-year-old church, on standby in case the windows or roof require attention.

On Sunday, Sept. 1, Williams and his wife stayed in the church with a few others, including the pastor and his family. He had just finished installing fibreglass windows in the large, white building, so it was as safe a haven as one could find — situated on hill and relatively protected from flooding.

On Monday night, as the weather grew fiercer and water rose in nearby areas, there was banging on the front door. It was a group of neighbours seeking refuge. Soon people began arriving in droves. Some came barefoot and in their underwear, having left their homes and all their belongings behind. By the middle of the night, people were huddled in the crowded pews, on the balcony and in chairs at the altar — pregnant women, children, people with physical disabilities and psychological issues, and even criminals with parole bracelets on their ankles. “We found there was one reserve police man [in the church],” Williams recalls. “That was the only security we had.”

Fearing potential altercations or issues, Williams texted someone he knew on the police force:

“We need police at Coral Road.”

They responded with:

“Police can’t move we are stuck in the station.”

Luckily there were no incidents inside the church. “People were too afraid to do anything,” says Williams. “The wind never died down. You could hear the noise.”

Bromley and Deveaux at work on a water purification system in Freeport

The city cut off running water, so Williams collected rainwater and used that to flush toilets. He emptied the pantries and was able to cook small portions of food for everybody. He’d also brought his home generator, and hooked it up in the switch room so the church could stay lit. “That amount of people and no light would be chaos,” he says. By Wednesday morning, most of those who’d gathered in the building had left after receiving the all-clear to venture outside.

A few days later, Deveaux and the GlobalMedic team arrived at the church with a water purification unit. They drew water, using a solar-powered pump belonging to a local, from a well on the property that had been used before the congregation switched to city water and purified it in large quantities. That night, people from the surrounding area began showing up to receive drinking water. They brought anything that could hold liquid — bottles, storage containers, even empty Clorox jugs.

Deveaux remembers meeting a tall man that night who looked around his age and was the father of two children. “God bless you,” the man said. “I didn’t know where I was going to get these two little guys a drink.”

The encounter hit Deveaux, who’s expecting his second son in early October, in the chest. “I know it’s going to happen for me,” says Deveaux. “I’m going to be at home and my son’s gonna say, ‘Hey dad, I want some water,’ and I’ll watch him in front of the TV drink his drink and I’m going to think, what if I had to tell him no? What if I had to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any right now.’ Because that’s what’s happening. That’s what happened for days out there.”

“Police can’t move we are stuck in the station.”

Deveaux also helped distribute GlobalMedic’s family emergency kits and food packs. As he handed them out, people often asked for doubles, mentioning that their mother or father wasn’t healthy enough to come pick one up themselves. You’re left stuck in that situation, he admits, because you’re supposed to give out only one per person, yet end up relenting because, well, how can you say no?

Also, there was the miserable situation that arose when food packs ran out. “There were just too many people,” says Deveaux. “You can help 100 people and then the 101st comes and you don’t have any more for them and you feel like crap. It’s tough to see people suffering. But there’s nothing you can do. That’s what I’ve learned on this. You somehow gotta be okay with that. You can only do as much as you can do. And you have to make peace with it.”

Aid kits distributed by GlobalMedic and Penny Appeal USA attract a lineup of people in Freeport

With the rest of his GlobalMedic team, Deveaux effortlessly switches from small talk about the Leafs’ Stanley Cup chances or his time as an NHL player to discussions about the power of the Freeport Port Authority and the best way to bring aid through Bahamian customs. His phone is always nearby and he constantly sends updates to Anya, the GlobalMedic team and his connections on the island, including his cousin, Sean, an integral figure in the operation.

Deveaux relays GlobalMedic’s needs to Sean, who lives in the capital and owns a robust rolodex. When the organization has an aid shipment on a Nassau-bound flight from Toronto, for example, Deveaux will consult with Sean to find storage space for the supplies, as well as a method to transport them to impacted areas. “He was the facilitator,” says Sean, who runs an online gaming company. “He was the glue that kept it together.”

Adds Don Jorgensen, team lead during the first days of GlobalMedic’s deployment in the Bahamas: “He knows the nuances of the community. He was able to calm everything down. He’s able to speak with the Bahamians as a Bahamian and speak to the Canadian team as a Canadian. Although we all speak English, we all have different nuances.”

Jorgensen, who’s been with GlobalMedic for the past eight years and has deployed to Bosnia, Ukraine, Haiti and Dominica, says he’s been impressed with Deveaux’s team-first nature, which he suspects comes from a life spent in hockey. Marty Bromley, another GlobalMedic teammate, agrees. “You see him in the hockey world and you know he was a tough guy and a fighter,” Bromley says of the six-foot-four, sturdily built Deveaux. “But, man, to me he’s just got a big heart. A big heart for the Bahamian people and his heritage.”

Bromley is a retired platoon chief who spent 36 years as a firefighter in Vaughan, Ont. He knows the attributes of a good first responder and says that even though Deveaux is a rookie in the field, he’ll ascend far. “I can tell just the way he acts: He’s very humble, he’s very modest and he listens,” says Bromley. “When you put all those things together, he’s going to make a great firefighter. He’s not one of those yappy guys who knows everything. He’s a man of good character.”

With winds reaching 300 k.p.h., it's no surprise Drexel Deveaux worried the roof would tear off his home. It held, though, and he made it through the storm relatively unscathed.

It’s Deveaux’s 10th day in the Bahamas and the night before he boards a flight back to Toronto. He’s got one last person to see before he heads home. He hops in a cab that takes him to a rougher part of Nassau. It stops on the corner of Taylor Street at a little pink house that has the name “Deveaux” in big lettering on the front wall. The porch out front is the same one Deveaux remembers from his youth — his grandfather used to sit there for hours, greeting everybody who passed. As Deveaux exits the vehicle, his Aunt Liz, who lives here now, offers a greeting of her own.

She is a short, bespectacled woman, feisty and tough — a seeming requirement for every West Indian aunty. After chastising Deveaux for not keeping in touch — he hasn’t visited her in three or four years — she shifts the conversation to his family. He shows her recent pictures of Ace and Anya, miming a third-trimester belly with his hands. “She’s as big as a house,” Deveaux says. He then shows her pictures of Drexel in Freeport taken earlier this week, and recounts his father’s story of the storm.

After Drexel sent that email to Deveaux, he hunkered down in at his house in the suburb of Lucaya. One of the storm shutters on his window was ripped open by the wind, which was so strong that it drove the rain sideways, like liquid bullets fired at the side of his home. Part of the roof was damaged at one point, causing Drexel to worry that it would tear off and leave him exposed to the elements. He grabbed his passport and some money, put them in a bag and clutched it to his chest.

“He wanted to come down and touch the ground and actually touch people and try to help people himself.”

“He was lucky,” Deveaux says. The storm subsided and the roof stayed intact. Drexel, who generally keeps to himself and prefers his own company, went to a neighbour’s house a few days later to charge his phone and then sent a message to Anya, letting her know he was safe. She forwarded that to Deveaux, who was already in Nassau, and in a matter of days, the father and son were reunited for the first time in two years. “I was worried for a long time, because I have his old cell number,” Liz says of Drexel. “I couldn’t reach him. I was hearing about all these dead bodies. I said, ‘Lord, I hope he’s okay.’ My mind was on him so strong.”

The conversation between Liz and Deveaux moves to reminiscing about his grandfather. Prince’s importance in Deveaux’s life can’t be overstated. The family patriarch was a constant, loving presence, and is intrinsically linked with Deveaux’s memories of his youth. But his memory is also a source of regret. Prince passed away on Nov. 13, 2007. Five months later, Deveaux’s uncle was murdered in his home. Deveaux, who was playing on the third line for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves at the time, missed both funerals. “If I left, I would have lost my spot, 100 per cent,” says Deveaux. “I was fine with it at the time. It’s like anything, you think that’s going to be your life forever. I was a lot younger. I was just focused on making the NHL, focused on being successful. My team’s in the Calder Cup playoffs and I’m thinking I just need a little bit more time — we win and I go can go pay my respects.

“But it didn’t really work that way,” he continues. “I still feel guilty about it, but what do you do? You make choices and you try not to look back.”

The Wolves ended up capturing the Calder Cup with a six-game victory over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. They had defeated the Toronto Marlies in the Western Conference Final and, in Deveaux’s eyes, that series helped expose him to Toronto’s brass and eventually paved the way for him to sign with the Maple Leafs the next season.

But the fact the choice may have played a key role in the fulfilment of his dream doesn’t ease the regret. And being back in the Bahamas and seeing what he saw here has further complicated his feelings, adding something like survivor’s guilt. “I’ve done pretty well,” says Deveaux. “I got off the island just because my mom was Canadian. Which is a dream for a lot of people here.”

The streetlights have come on in front of Aunt Liz’s place and it’s time for Deveaux to leave. He is scooped by his cousin Sean and during the ride, the two talk about their relief work. This is the last time they will see one another for a while — Deveaux is set to resume his shifts at the airport in Toronto next week, while Sean is hoping to travel to Freeport and speak to the deputy prime minister and a senator about GlobalMedic’s efforts to get more support into Grand Bahama.

Later, after Deveaux has left, Sean mentions how proud he is of his cousin. “Physically and mentally and emotionally, this entire experience took a toll on him,” he says. “He wanted to come down and touch the ground and actually touch people and try to help people himself. It says a lot about his character.

“He came down himself because he wanted to do the job and task himself.”

More information about GlobalMedic’s work in the Bahamas and around the world can be found at www.globalmedic.ca. Donations to GlobalMedic can be made here.

To find out more about Penny Appeal USA’s response to Hurricane Dorian and to donate to those efforts, visit www.pennyappealusa.org/programs/dorian.

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Ridwan Adhami for Penny Appeal USA