TREASURE CAY, Bahamas — Throughout the Abacos islands, Bahamians spoke of “Erick the barber,” the man whose outstretched left arm was sliced off by plywood while he clung to his elderly mother in Hurricane Dorian’s surging waters, sending his limb and his mom out to sea.
The painter from Blackwood, the driver from Murphy Town, the construction worker from Coopers Town — settlements that dot the 100-mile island chain — all asked: “Have you heard about Erick the barber?”
On an island with no cell phone reception, ravaged by the most powerful cyclone in the nation’s recorded history, word of Erick the barber and his mangled arm and his dead mom spread like folklore, with each man telling a different version.
In the end, the story of Erick the barber, Erick Auguste, is the story of tragedy and resiliency, a storm’s savagery and how family and strangers came together to save one man’s life.
It was a tale told in snippets.
His brother, Johnson Auguste, told it to a visiting reporter at the Treasure Cay Airport, where he helped unload recovery supplies from cargo planes that landed in his crippled hometown.
His sister, Yorline Auguste, told it from the van out of which she and six family members lived after the storm destroyed her home and maimed her brother.
And it’s a story Erick the barber, a father of two, told Wednesday from a bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
Erick was airlifted to Florida on Tuesday night from Nassau, the nation’s capital where government officials have offloaded Abacoan refugees who lost everything but their lives in Hurricane Dorian.
But the 34-year-old’s story doesn’t start in Nassau.
It starts in a castle in a coastal town that juts into the Sea of Abaco — its streets lined with now-wrecked resorts, mansions and modest homes — called Treasure Cay.
Neighbors called it “the castle house” because its many-angled rooftop resembled that of a medieval fortress.
“People loved our castle house,” Auguste said from his hospital bed while using his right hand to draw a picture of the home on a yellow notepad.
Auguste, a lifelong Bahamian born to a Haitian mother and Bahamian father, built the one-story house, beige with peach trim, in a way that he thought would protect it from hurricanes.
Wind was supposed to break apart when it hit the roof’s irregular ridges. Concrete buttresses were supposed to reinforce the walls.
But they didn’t.
On Sunday night, Sept. 1, Auguste, his sister, Yorline, his wife, Elsie, his mother, Matinise Elysee, his son, Erin, and his daughter, Chloe, waited in the TV room on the east side of the house on Hummingbird Way, no more than 800 feet from the raging sea.
The children slept and his mother, a Seventh-day Adventist, prayed in every corner of the room.
“We call her our prayer warrior,” he said. “She gets up at 4 a.m., prays. All day, prays. Kisses me goodnight, prays.”
Auguste realized the storm would be a worthy adversary when an early gust blew off the plywood he had nailed outside a sliding glass door.
The door flew open and his wife turned to him and said, “Baby, we have to leave,” he recalled.
It was too late to flee. The storm was raging.
It wasn’t long — 30 minutes, Auguste supposes — before the roof shingles peeled off and waters surged into his fortress from the ceiling, the doors, the windows.
Auguste grabbed his 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, and pressed her body against his chest as waves reached his neck. His sister, Yorline, held onto 8-year-old Erin. The family clutched one another, forming a chain that worked its way outside.
They sought refuge but there were no standing homes in sight. Only water that crept higher and higher.
Auguste is 5-feet, 11-inches tall, but his wife, mother and sister all are 5-foot-3. If the waves reached his neck, he thought, his family behind him must be under water.
He turned around to check and saw his mother struggling as swells washed over her.
He held Chloe in his right arm and extended his left to his mother, a woman in her 70s.
Matinise Elysee was visiting from Haiti when the storm hit. In that moment, Auguste said, he thought about how he had begged his mother to return to Haiti before the storm.
“She told me, ‘If you fight, I fight with you guys,’ ” Auguste said.
Auguste had just clasped Elysee’s hand when the plywood flew past. It hacked his arm off just above the elbow so quickly that he didn’t immediately feel pain, he said.
He watched helplessly as the ocean took his mother and his severed arm.
He swears he saw his mother smiling as she was swept away.
Her body has not been recovered.
Yorline Auguste, a 20-year-old college student, saw it all. With her right arm wrapped around a tree — a Caribbean pine or maybe a Coconut palm, she thought — her left hand gripped her nephew’s upper arm.
As the ocean water slammed her, she faced what she calls the hardest decision of her life: Let go of her nephew, who would surely be swept to sea, or help her brother, who no longer could hold back the waves with just one arm.
“I thought we were all going to die anyway,” she said.
She held onto Erin.
Her brother floated away.
Auguste wrapped a loose palm frond around his right index finger hoping to latch onto anything. It didn’t hold up against the storm surge, but did nudge him into downed pines that formed a sort of dam and held him in place near a stop sign on Hummingbird Way, just yards from his home.
He guesses he sat there for an hour before the water started to recede. The wind was still whipping and the rain was still pouring.
He heard his wife scream his name. He called out, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m near Uncle Lou’s house.”
Uncle Lou — that’s what he called his neighbor two houses down.
An ex-policeman named Steven and another neighbor — who the family doesn’t know, even now — swam out to help survivors.
The two men found Auguste and carried him to his van where his wife, children and sister hid.
Knowing Auguste needed immediate medical attention — better help than the wet T-shirt they’d pressed against his stub — they decided to drive to the Treasure Cay Fire Station a mile away.
But the wind lashed the van so hard that it only moved what felt like inch-by-inch, the family said.
A trip that once took a minute, took 30.
They made it to the fire station — or what was left of it. The tropical cyclone had skinned the roof off and sliced a fire truck in half.
There was an intact ambulance. The paramedic inside, though, insisted he couldn’t get the family to a shelter because he had to check on his own children.
The ex-policeman, Steven, offered to drive the ambulance.
“He was a stranger, who out of the kindness of his heart left his wife behind to help us,” Yorline Auguste said. “A hero.”
Things seemed promising. They had found harbor in a sturdy emergency vehicle and the storm appeared to be slowing down.
They didn’t know in that moment that they were entering the eye of the Category 5 hurricane, the calm center hemmed in by the hurricane’s most powerful winds.
They had weathered the gale’s western wall, but its eastern wall was coming for them.
The doors of the ambulance had swung open during the storm and the emergency supplies inside were swept to sea.
Still, Auguste’s wife, children, sister and the hero ex-policeman piled into the ambulance and inched toward the government complex in Marsh Harbor, a town about 15 miles away.
By then, the slumbering storm’s eye had shifted, offering relief to the towns on the island’s northern end, and the eastern wall began to pummel Treasure Cay.
The ambulance lost traction and slipped into the waters.
They had to park on a low-lying street, where waters still surged, but winds were less likely to topple the vehicle.
That’s how long the six Bahamians waited inside a bruised ambulance for the slow-moving cyclone to creep, at 1 mph, past their tropical paradise. They had a half-full gallon jug of water and nothing else.
“I don’t know how, but by the grace of God, I watched that gallon of water empty and refill,” Auguste said from his Miami hospital bed. “God literally filled my cup.”
In reality, as Auguste drifted in and out of consciousness, Yorline Auguste periodically stepped outside the ambulance and filled the jug with rainwater, she said Tuesday in Treasure Cay.
Baby Chloe at one point begged her mother for water, Yorline recalled. “No, it’s for daddy,” Elsie Auguste said to the toddler. Chloe didn’t ask twice.
“We dehydrated in that ambulance,” Yorline Auguste said. “But Erick needed as much water as he lost blood.”
Elsie and Erin, the 8-year-old, took turns holding Erick Auguste’s remaining hand until the storm dwindled and drifted away.
With the help of countless Abacoans who used chainsaws and axes to hack at the pines that blocked the road, the ambulance made its way to the government center on Monday, more than 30 hours after the storm first struck.
A Coast Guard chopper airlifted Auguste to Nassau, where doctors decided he needed special attention and surgery he could get only in Miami.
He, his wife and kids left behind Erick’s siblings and a pile of debris that was once their castle and made their first-ever trip to America.
In Treasure Cay, a couple of locals, Yorline Auguste said, found Erick the barber’s arm under a pickup truck near his house while searching for their passports in the rubble.
They call him Erick the barber because he gave the best haircuts from his Treasure Cay home, said Patrick Reckley, the 43-year-old painter from Blackwood.
Cutting hair is Auguste’s side gig. He’s a full-time electrician at Baker’s Bay, the wealthy coastal community on Great Guana’s Cay, a tiny island off the coast of Treasure Cay and a 30-minute ferry ride away.
Today, Treasure Cay is a wasteland where indistinguishable heaps of debris sit in place of most homes and resorts.
On the main road that weaves through the coastal town, the second-floor of a cerulean home was ripped from the first and flipped upside down.
The still-standing concrete skeletons of some houses are coated with bits of dried seaweed, a reminder of how high storm waters climbed.
Reckley spotted Auguste’s 25-year-old brother, Johnson, at Treasure Cay Airport Tuesday.
“Remember Erick the barber, the one I told you about? That’s his brother,” Reckley told a reporter, thrusting his index finger in the direction of Johnson Auguste.
Johnson didn’t know where his brother was Tuesday. A message from Elsie, that managed to ping in the few spots with cell service on the island, said Erick was headed to a hospital in Florida.
“She told me he’s staying strong,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard not knowing if he’s even alive right now.”
Machines near Erick Auguste’s hospital bed hummed and beeped Wednesday morning, as he prepared for surgery on his left arm.
Aloud, he thanked God to be alive — then thanked him again for making him right-handed.
Auguste asked a reporter to send a message to his brother saying he was alive and well, and to his sister, telling her not to feel guilty about saving his 8-year-old son but abandoning him.
“Tell her she did the right thing,” he said.
Auguste cried only once when he relayed his saga. It was when he spoke about the Abacoans who cleared the two-lane highway, the only road from Treasure Cay to Marsh Harbor, to get him out.
“Everybody in Abaco is my hero,” he said.
He looked at the ceiling and raised his right arm.
“God, I may not be able to lift my left hand to raise you up,” he cried. “But I give my word, I’ll raise my right.”