Woman, 85, bobbed for days as sea filled house during hurricane Dorian

While 85-year-old Virginia Mosvold bobbed at the surface of rising sea water in her Bahamas home for days during a deadly hurricane, her family said their goodbyes.

At times, only her face was above water.

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“It was the worst nightmare you can imagine,” said Mosvold’s daughter, Sissel Johnson. “I just kept saying: ‘Lord, please don’t let her drown in this water.’ ”

Mosvold survived the Category 5 hurricane last September, thanks to quick thinking by her daughter’s husband, George Johnson. All three are now recovering in Victoria, where Mosvold and her daughter, who was born in the Bahamas, had lived for many years.

George crafted a makeshift harness out of television cables as the ocean filled the house, and tied his mother-in-law to the rafters. Watching furniture drift out of their home, George knew he had to keep Mosvold close.

“I know if I didn’t do it, she would be out in the ocean and get drifted away and never seen again,” he said.

Born and raised in the Bahamas, George had experienced hurricanes before, but he had never heard wind like the kind that shook his front door on Sept. 1, 2019.

“I actually saw the water coming from a distance, and it wasn’t coming like a slow approach. It was coming like a tsunami wave,” he said. “Every second, it was getting closer and closer. And by the time I screamed for my wife to come out of the bedroom, it was already at the door.”

Hurricane Dorian, which killed dozens in the Bahamas, hit the family’s duplex on a Sunday evening and filled it with nearly three metres of water.

The couple weathered the hurricane from the attic, keeping an eye on Mosvold from above. George had punched a hole in the drywall so he and his wife could climb to higher ground.

He tried to pull Mosvold into the attic to join them, but it became too painful when the cables dug into her skin.

As the water level rose inside the house, George tightened the cables to keep Mosvold at the surface.

They had a scary moment the next morning, when George peered through the hole in the drywall and saw an empty harness.

“I thought right then that she was gone,” he said. “Then I heard her call my name.”

Mosvold had taken the harness off and was clinging to a floating refrigerator. She spent nearly two days in the water, before the ocean began to recede from their home.

The couple stayed in the attic, surviving off food George was able to reach in the refrigerator below. He grabbed a loaf of frozen bread, some frozen crab meat, honey and several litres of water. They rationed what they had, because they didn’t know how long they would need it to last.

“We’d take a pinch for breakfast, a pinch for lunch and a pinch for dinner,” he said.

In the attic, they listened to the sound of the hurricane straps that held the roof onto the house stretching in the strong winds.

When the water had mostly drained from the house late on the second day of their ordeal, George came down from the attic and formed the word ‘help’ outside using cement siding he stripped from the house.

It was dark and he could hear helicopters and rescue vehicles rushing to more populated areas near the family’s 18-hectare farm property in Freeport, Grand Bahama, but he couldn’t see them. It sounded like a war zone to him.

Three days after the storm hit, a vehicle finally made its way to the property.

“They said: ‘We came to rescue you guys,’ and that’s when I basically just fell to the ground,” George said. He had wondered if they would ever be rescued.

So many hours in saltwater left Mosvold with a severe infection in her leg that extended from her toes to her knee. At one point, doctors thought they might have to amputate the leg.

Days after their rescue, Mosvold and her daughter were airlifted to a hospital in Florida for treatment, and when Mosvold was strong enough to fly, they travelled to Victoria, which had been home to Mosvold before moving to the Bahamas 11 years earlier.

Kenel Joseph, an employee who was more like family, drowned in the storm, Sissel said. He was found in his apartment on the property by rescuers.

The family’s agri-tourism farm was destroyed, and they lost almost of all of their animals — horses, donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, dogs and cats.

Two Jack Russell terriers survived with the couple in the attic, and another three dogs and a cat swam frantically around the house before finding refuge on a floating mattress in a guest bedroom.

Having lost their livelihood, the family is relying on generosity from friends and strangers. A fundraising page has collected more than $23,500 since September.

Mosvold has mostly recovered from her injuries and is living in a care home in Victoria. Her daughter and son-in-law are staying with a friend nearby.

Their Bahamian community has pitched in to help remove debris from the farm. George said they’re encouraging the couple to return to the island, but, for now, it’s too painful to think about rebuilding their life.

“I think we need some time to heal,” George said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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