Calm after the storm
Sisters seeking refuge in Hurricane Dorian’s wake find home in Dunmore.
DUNMORE — Kristina Thomas was between organic chemistry and physics classes when Jill Thomas called.
Kristina Thomas, a University of Scranton student and coach at United Sports Academy, was leading the Dunmore gymnastics school’s relief efforts for families in the Bahamas affected by Hurricane Dorian. She had been taking calls all day from families who wanted to donate.
But Jill Thomas, who is not related to Kristina, called about something different. Kristina Thomas’ jaw dropped when she heard.
Kristina Thomas had been looking for a temporary home for two young sisters from Freeport, Grand Bahama, whose family lost their home and all their belongings. Jill Thomas, whose daughter Camryn, 13, trains at United Sports Academy, offered their own home.
The girls, Janiyah Rolle, 13, and Aaliyah Evans, 12, arrived Thursday with their mother, Jennibie Rolle, a schoolteacher who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her girls in the U.S. while she rebuilds her life in Freeport.
‘Nobody to help them’
Dorian smashed into Grand Bahama island Sept. 1. The National Weather Service called it the strongest tropical system on record to hit the Bahamas. After making landfall, it stalled for a day just north of the island. It reduced entire neighborhoods, including the Rolles’, to matchsticks.
In its wake, an international network of gymnasts is helping families of the Grand Bahama Gymnastics Academy, where Aaliyah trained, to get back on their feet. United and its affiliated nonprofit Athletes Caring Together joined the effort; they continue to collect goods and money for families there.
“The gymnastics community, we’ve been sending clothes, donations, even things you wouldn’t think about, like feminine products,” said United’s operations director, Emilia Raynova.
She and Kristina Thomas facilitated the girls’ arrival and will support Jill Thomas’ family while the girls are here.
On Sunday, Jennibie Rolle spent the last few hours with her daughters before flying back to Grand Bahama the next day.
The girls were getting comfortable in their new digs, their own room in the finished basement at the Thomas family’s Dunmore home.
The Thomases just moved, and Jill Thomas laughed that she and her husband, John, are sleeping on the couch until they can unpack their own bedroom.
The girls’ bedroom, however, was finished and tidy, the walls decorated with the initials “A” and “J” over their beds.
“When the hurricane happened, there was tons of help . ... Now that time’s passing, they’re leaving. Nobody’s helping any more and that’s the sad part,” Jill Thomas said. “I’m a mom. I can’t think that there’s two children who have nobody to help them.”
How long they’ll stay is open-ended now. The Thomases say the girls are welcome for as long as they need.
‘Trying to get back to normal’
At the Thomases’ dining room table, Jennibie Rolle remembered the night Dorian hit.
As Janiyah studied her smartphone with earbuds in her ears and Aaliyah wandered in and out of the room, Jennibie Rolle carefully unpacked those 32 hours that her family spent fighting for their lives.
The night before, they moved their car to high ground and stacked sandbags around the house. Her husband agreed to stay up and keep watch amid heavy wind and rain. He dozed off about 4 a.m. Monday morning, Sept. 2.
When they woke an hour later, water was filling their home.
It covered their neighbor’s pickup, nixing their first escape plan, and poured in through the wall sockets.
Their neighbor had a Mako motorboat tied up nearby. They climbed out an upper window of their home into the storm.
“Mommy, I don’t want to die,” Jennibie Rolle remembered Aaliyah saying as they put her in the boat.
The rain blew sideways against them. She used ropes to tie the girls to her. Her husband, a fisherman, and their neighbor tied ropes to each other.
They had hardly left home when the boat motor struck a wall and died.
They were stranded near a canal, not far from the beach. If they drifted out to sea, they would not survive.
They managed to tie themselves to a tree. When the storm weakened, they reached another home and found a can of corned beef, a can of tuna and some bottled water.
“It was like steak and lobster,” she said.
They shot flares into the air and eventually someone with a large front end loader came to rescue them Tuesday afternoon.
‘Some type of normalcy’
Three months later, they’ve found a new place to live, but they’re far from stability.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get back to normal,” she said, explaining apartments are in high demand and rents shot through the roof.
Teachers in the school where Jennibie works use cardboard for blackboards and a tarp covers the hole in her classroom ceiling.
Building materials are slow in coming.
In Pennsylvania, the girls will go to school. Aaliyah can continue gymnastics training at United and Janiyah, who runs track and field, can join the team at school. And they’ll keep in touch daily with their mom using the messaging app Whatsapp with text messages and video chat.
Other gym families are sending their kids to the U.S. so they can keep training and go to school, Kristina Thomas said.
Friends and family criticized Jennibie Rolle for sending her girls away, but life in the Bahamas was too distracting for them. Going to school every day was a constant reminder of the storm, she said.
“I just wanted them to have some type of normalcy from the tragedy,” she said.