Lateishea Cooper says face painting is helping her cope with the trauma of Hurricane Dorian. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

A routine trip back home to Bahamas quickly turned into a nightmare for 29‑year-old Cayman Islands resident Lateishea Cooper as she and her family faced the passage of Hurricane Dorian.

Cooper was in the Abaco Islands earlier this month when the devastating storm hit the Bahamas at 185 miles an hour.

“When we realised it was a Category 5, we knew we just had to buckle and ride that one out and just hope for the best, because we have never seen a Category 5. … I could never have dreamt what we were about to get into,” Cooper said.

The hurricane pummelled islands along the Bahamas chain for three days. The official death toll stands at more than 50, but at least 1,300 people were still unaccounted for this week.

Cooper, who provides entertainment at children’s parties in Cayman, went back home to renew her passport. She was spending time with her family when they received news of the growing storm.

“The storm [was] still a Category 2 storm. It wasn’t even a 3 at the time. So, our initial preparation for the storm wasn’t even that big. It was more so a couple of canned supplies and things we would need right away and during the storm, hoping that the storm itself wouldn’t be too long. But as the time went on, we found out that this is not a Category 2, this is not a 3, this is not a 4 … it is a 5,” she said.

Riding out the storm

Her voice broke slightly as she recounted watching the storm rage outside the home she and her family were holidaying at in Abaco.

“The door was a hurricane-proof door so we could see everything and that did not help,” she recalled. “It made it even more terrifying. First, you see the gusts, then you see the wind and then you see water and then everything was almost like whiteout. Everything just constantly beating down.”

After weathering the storm, she and her family, with the help of a neighbour, drove to the airport in Abaco. Most of the roads, she said, were littered with debris and covered in water. She said they had to clear paths to get through.

“We had to do a lot of things to get to the city and by the time we got to the downtown area, we were met with scores of looters. They were just getting things out of the stores. Everything from food to toiletries to guns. They were just walking through the water with everything,” she said.

When they managed to get to the airport, where there were free flights to Nassau, Cooper said she had to leave her brother behind because only women, children and the elderly were being airlifted at the time.

“I am going on the plane and I am leaving Abaco and I know how bad it was. Everybody was in the survival mode. People were doing anything and everything. It was really a lawless place, so I felt really bad to leave my brother behind and everyone who was with us,” she said.

She was eventually reunited with her brother.

It would take Cooper roughly two weeks to get back to Cayman. She has been living here since 2017. She said she fell in love with Cayman at the age of 17 when she first came here on a cruise ship.

She returned to Cayman a few days ago and since then, she said, she has been struggling with the trauma of the storm and leaving her family behind.

“That’s the most heart-breaking part,” she said. “Our house was destroyed by water. I left them taking out the furniture out of the house. I could not even go through my own stuff and keep anything.”

Rescue workers search for victims in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas. – Photo: AP

She said she has been slowly working her way through her depression and frustration.

Coping through art

Cooper explained that she began coping emotionally with the disaster through her art.

She has been painting colourful art on her face and going out and about.

“First of all, I am just happy to be alive. I think my whole outfit just showed, ‘Hey I’m alive, I’m here and I am taking every moment.’ There is a reason I am here. I do not know what that reason is yet. I will find out, but I am here,” she said.

For her interview with the Cayman Compass Cooper painted a Bat Girl mask onto her face.

“I am channelling my inner superhero,” she joked.

While Cooper said she is not sure what is next for her, she is grateful to the Cayman community for rallying behind the Bahamas and providing much-needed support.

“The fact that we sheltered in a home that was built by someone from the Cayman Islands who was an established builder, it just made me feel like we are all united, like one big body, brothers and sisters, and we should continue to help each other out,” she said.

She said, right now, she may be down, but she is not out.

“The fact that I am alive means that there’s still hope,” she said.

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