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2004-12-17 09:26:46

Grand Bahama Healing Quickly

There's now little evidence of the storm remaining in Lucaya, the bigger and more upscale of two main tourist districts and home to four major hotels.

The first thing you see after landing at the international airport is a field of rubble: It's all that remains of the domestic terminal. Then you notice the battered trees, some of them sheared clean in half. They're a stark reminder of the devastation that nature unleashed three months ago.

Still, for the trickle of tourists arriving on a recent Monday, it's little more than an eyesore. The newer, better-built international terminal proved stronger than its domestic counterpart in withstanding the back-to-back blows of Frances on Sept. 3 and Jeanne on Sept. 25. After repairs, it's operating efficiently and looks cheery and new.

Such are the contrasts on an island still recovering from the worst hurricanes anyone here can remember. A frantic clean-up already has erased the damage to the most critical pieces of the tourism infrastructure, including several of the most popular resorts, beaches and shopping areas. But the scars from the storms still are evident in many places, and the work continues.

"It'll be nice to get out of recovery mode and back into operational mode," says Amaury Piedra of the Westin at Our Lucaya, where more than 500 workers have been scrambling to repair water-damaged rooms and replant uprooted landscaping in time for the busy winter season.

Until recently, only about a third of the island's 3,400 hotel rooms were ready for visitors. But today's reopening of the 735-room Westin, followed by Saturday's return of the 276-room Wyndham, brings two-thirds of island lodging on line.

The Westin is the last piece of the sprawling Lucaya tourism district to reopen, and its return marks a post-hurricane milestone for Grand Bahama, which usually draws about 300,000 visitors a year and is the second-most-visited island in the Bahamas after New Providence, home to Nassau.

There's now little evidence of the storm remaining in Lucaya, the bigger and more upscale of two main tourist districts and home to four major hotels, two golf courses, a casino and the island's most popular shopping and dining complex.

The same can't be said for Grand Bahama's other main tourist district, Freeport. Its centerpiece, the 935-room Crowne Plaza Golf Resort & Casino, which harbors two of the island's top golf courses and several restaurants, won't reopen until April 1.

"The damage was really extensive for us," says spokesman Donald Glass, during a tour of the main lobby, where the ceiling crashed to the floor. The storms tore away large chunks of the building's roof and caused devastating water damage, mold and mildew.

The shutdown of the resort has taken away the market for the adjacent International Bazaar, the touristy shopping hub that was mostly open on a recent weekday but eerily empty.

It's not the only place that's unusually quiet. "It's like your own private island," says vacationer Joseph Chang, 49, of Rockville, Md., lounging on the soft white sand of Red Rock Beach, which he's sharing with fewer than a dozen people.

Still, Chang sees little reason to stay away. "The weather is great. The food is excellent. It's been very relaxing," he says.

Longtime resident Ben Rose, 63, says one big effect of the storm was on the coral reefs. Although "quite a bit of coral was damaged," he's not worried. Already, the churned-up water has cleared. And the coral, too, will heal.

"It's actually healthy for the reef," he says. "It clears out the algae and cleans it up."

From a nature standpoint, the island is well on the way to recovery, says Rose, who leads diving and kayaking expeditions and visits to caves. During a kayak trip down a mangrove-lined creek in Lucaya National Park, he notes the re-emerging greenery along the crystal-clear waterway.

"There used to be a lot more canopy over the top of us, a lot more leaves," he says. "But the vegetation is coming back quickly."

By Gene Sloan, USA Today

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