Social media posts lamenting catastrophic devastation at the remote settlement of Hope Town on Elbow Cay in the Bahamas used the same words to describe the place, and "magical" surely made the top three.

The heart-clenching descriptions began as photographs and videos slowly made their way out of the Abacos, a group of islands nearly sunk by that bully Hurricane Dorian sitting atop them punching with 220 mph wind gusts.

But some expressed their sorrow more practically as this fellow did: "I want to pack my chainsaw, machete and a bundle of MREs and head down there ... I wish I could be there to help."

That's what Hope Town does. It grabs you, and it doesn't let go until you fall in love.

Oh, Hope Town has all the picturesque charm of a postcard: A red and white candy-striped lighthouse built in 1864 shines on the narrow mouth of Hope Town Harbour, narrow streets accommodate only walkers and golfs carts, and the colors of houses match the world around - the cherry pinks and hibiscus yellows of sunsets, the turquoise of the sea, the billowy white of the clouds.

The real reason people come here is to drink in the beauty (and other tropical pineapple-topped delights) and heal themselves from the bruises of civilization.

Elbow Cay is an 8-mile-long hunk of coral, part of 500 miles of islands making up the Bahamas, starting off the eastern coast of South Florida.

The archipelago is a near neighbor geographically but a planet away in other aspects, unless you go to a swanky resort in Nassau or Freeport to gamble away your time and watch other perfectly tanned tourists admire themselves and one another in the flawlessly clear waters of a chlorinated pool.

The real Bahamas is found on the other 698 islands, where only six settlements have populations exceeding 1,000 each. Hope Town is not one. Fewer than 500 people live there.

Little is made or grown in places like Hope Town. Nearly everything is shipped in - less than 1% of the land is arable - so if it's a heavy item, it costs big bucks. A box of Cheerios, for example, is nearly the same price as it is here, but the price of a liter of milk - that's about a quarter of gallon - is $4.

The best-ever Bahamian retail outlet was the lime-green "pharmacy" in Hope Town in the late 1990s where a couple of shelves tacked to the walls of a 6-by-6-foot wooden shack was secured by a padlock at night. Hours of operation were variable. Well, actually, optional. Is it still there?

Water is at a premium. Most Hope Town folks have elaborate systems for collecting rain from metal roofs and storing it in cisterns. It's entertaining to watch the faces of those learning the source of water they've been drinking and putting it together with the toileting habits of doves that roost on the roofs at night.

Material things are still few in the Out Islands where tourism and fishing make up most of the economy. But any visitor will be struck by what Bahamians possess that Americans lack.

We may have six types of fabric-softener dryer sheets at Publix, but they have home-baked bread daily in Hope Town. They have a commitment to education amid the relative economic poverty. The per-capita income in the Bahamas is $29,790 compared to $60,200 in the U.S. Yet, each little settlement has a school, and the literacy rate is 96%. Here? 86%.

And the Bahamas is rich with intangibles impossible to count. Once, while visiting the island of Eleuthra - Dorian gave it a swift kick, too, as he blew by - during the 30th anniversary of the nation's independence from Great Britain, we stood at the back of a crowd watching dignitaries seated on metal folding chairs, waiting to speak.

One of four preachers on the program was winding down a long prayer, and a half-dozen kids were milling around behind us. They weren't rude or loud or disturbing anyone. They just weren't participating. A reserve police officer strolled over.

"Where are your parents? You should be sitting with your parents. Go on down there and sit by them, " he said, pointing to the spectator seats.

They yes-sirred him and did what they were told.

In Hope Town, everyone recognizes that they have a stake in the community. Violence is rare. So is locking a house. There's no jail. Hope Town has a clinic. Sometimes the nurse is in. Nobody has their pediatrician on speed-dial.

Today, Hope Town Volunteer Fire & Rescue - it's a miniature engine that easily navigates the 8-foot-wide streets - is managing cleanup and relief efforts. And in case you're wondering, the Hope Town lighthouse built while America was fooling with the Civil War still stands and operates, giving Dorian a proper nose-thumbing.

Americans talk about simplifying their lives. Is it even possible where every supermarket offers dozens of choices of laundry detergent, for example? Powder or liquid? With bleach or without? Fragrance-free or scented? Biodegradable? Brand name? Generic? Dozens of decisions await in every aisle.

In Hope Town, there is no choice. The largest of its three groceries, run by a dude named Vernon, is slightly smaller than a bedroom. If he has detergent today, you're a lucky shopper. Shut up and buy it. Or, take family-owned Albury's Ferry Service for $30 round trip to Marsh Harbour for better selection.

Oh, wait. Hope Town's "Bulletin" page on Facebook reports that the ferries sank in the storm, and photos by news organizations show nearly all of Marsh Harbor was destroyed. The airport remains under water.

Maybe it's not the people who make Hope Town so entrancing. Maybe the remoteness of the tiny paradise does it, the lack of reliable communication, the sense of self-reliance. Maybe those folks would be material, mean and rootless if they lived in Florida.

Or not.

Hope Town was last hit badly by a hurricane when Floyd visited 20 years ago, in September 1999. It was nothing like this 10th circle of Hell created by Dorian.

The anguish on Facebook from Americans is a collective wail of fear that bewitching Hope Town will lose its unique allure, that Dorian will end a way of life our culture always has glorified but no longer can have.

We can only envy it - and help them rebuild.

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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