Calm after the storm

Sis­ters seek­ing refuge in Hur­ri­cane Do­rian’s wake find home in Dun­more.

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY JON O’CON­NELL STAFF WRITER

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.

CHRISTO­PHER DOLAN / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

CHRISTO­PHER DOLAN / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

TOP: Sis­ters Aaliyah Evans, 12, left, and Janiyah Rolle, 13, in their bed­room Sun­day at the Dun­more home of Jill Thomas. The Freeport, Grand Ba­hama, na­tives are liv­ing in Dun­more tem­po­rar­ily after Hur­ri­cane Do­rian de­stroyed their home in Septem­ber. ABOVE: Aaliyah and Janiyah, cen­ter, with their mother, Jen­ni­bie Rolle, left, and Kristina Thomas, coach at United Sports Academy who led the Dun­more gym­nas­tics school’s re­lief ef­forts for fam­i­lies in the Ba­hamas af­fected by the hur­ri­cane.

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