The walls were closing in on Ron Saunders, and he wasn’t sure that he’d live to see the next day.
Still, there was no place the Boone Grove softball coach would’ve rather been when Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas on Sept. 1.
Saunders had gone down to Green Turtle Cay, an island 119 miles north of Nassau, two days earlier to help his father, James, prepare for the incoming hurricane. Originally scheduled as a vacation, Saunders didn’t alter his plans as the storm gathered power. When Dorian finally hit Green Turtle on Sunday afternoon, Saunders was ready.
“The winds and rain were pretty strong, but we were able to stay in the central part of the house we were in,” Saunders said via Facebook Messenger on Tuesday evening, more than three weeks after the storm hit. “As the storm continued to get closer, it got to the point that I wouldn’t even look outside. We could actually see the bathroom walls moving in and out and yes, there was a point that I said if it’s my time, I’m ready.”
As Saunders helped his parents take cover in the bathroom, using only a mattress as protection, his family back in Indiana started to worry. Saunders’ daughter, Olivia Laviolette, was nervous about the gathering storm, even if her father had survived a handful of hurricanes in the past. They last spoke earlier in the day on Sept. 1 and Laviolette had some choice words for her father.
“I was yelling at him,” Laviolette said. “I told him that I couldn’t believe he went down there. I was so worried, but he told me that everything would be fine.”
The storm hit, wiping out homes all across the island as well as electricity and any chance to get word back to the states. Satellite phones were inoperable because of the weather conditions and relying on Garmin devices to send out messages was hit or miss. As Saunders rode out the storm, Laviolette clung to any kind of hope that she could find. She used WhatsApp, a social media messaging site to see pictures and videos from the destruction, but there was no word from Saunders.
“The devastation we were seeing, my entire family was a wreck,” Laviolette said. “We didn’t know anything. Green Turtle is very remote. The storm stopped right over the island and we started hearing that people were trapped in rubble and people couldn’t get out.”
Laviolette estimates that nearly 500 people live on Green Turtle, including her grandfather. James, 90, was born and raised on the island before moving to the area where he started the River Oaks Wholesale Roofing and Siding Company in Calumet City. James would often travel back and forth to the island, taking both Saunders and Laviolette with him. In 2014, he moved back to the island for good.
“My grandpa is stubborn,” Laviolette said. “He always said that if he was going to die, he was going to die on the island. It was going to take duct tape and a chair to get him away from that place.”
That was part of the reason Saunders kept his scheduled vacation when word of the storm came down. The longtime Boone Grove softball coach jokingly posted a photograph of his empty airplane on Facebook on his way down to Green Turtle with the caption “I was the one person on the plane … not sure why?”
Saunders helped prepare his family for the storm, but even he wasn’t ready for the Category 5 destruction that Dorian left in its path.
“I started seeing the walls and the ceiling start to move like they were breathing,” Saunders said. “One of the windows blew in and the whole front porch blew off. I found one of the exterior walls was moving back and forth about a foot. I will say, by the grace of God, nobody (in Green Turtle) lost their lives. After seeing the house next to ours was totally demolished, I believe we witnessed a miracle.”
Word quickly spread back to Laviolette that her father and grandfather were alive. As she waited to hear directly from Saunders, she began critiquing aerial photographs, looking for any sign of life. A message came across a group chat that said everyone was accounted for, but it wasn’t until four days later that the two finally spoke.
“For the past four days, I haven’t been able to sleep,” Laviolette said the day before she spoke with Saunders. “Just hearing that someone saw my dad, my whole body was convulsing. I’ve never felt the way I’ve felt for that week.”
Laviolette has helped setup PayPal donations for the residents of Green Turtle Cay, many of which she calls her family. As for Saunders, his work is far from done. He went down to the Bahamas to prepare his father for the storm and now he’s staying to help with the recovery effort.
“The cleanup and rebuilding will take months, if not a couple of years,” Saunders said. “They are telling us we have electricity in six months. Building materials have finally arrived and I’m trying to get as many roofs water tight as I can. Gas and fuel is scarce and a hot shower is a dream right now.”
Saunders doesn’t have a timetable as to when he will return to Indiana. James was flown to Florida shortly after the storm ended with a severe ear infection and trouble breathing. Saunders made a promise to his father that he wouldn’t leave the Bahamas until James had a comfortable place to come back to. It’s a philosophy that has long been prevalent on the island as well as in the Saunders family.
“It’s always been such a family atmosphere on the island,” Laviolette said. “Whether you’re related or not, everyone is treated equally. They’d never let one person suffer. They need help right now. This is the strongest storm they’ve ever seen.”