United Nations and Red Cross relief officials rushed to deal with an unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian on Tuesday after the most powerful storm ever to hit the islands devastated homes, crippled hospitals and left thousands in need of food and water.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at least seven people had been killed, with the full scope of the disaster on the tourism-dependent islands still unknown.
“We can expect more deaths to be recorded,” Minnis told a news conference. This is just preliminary information.
Emergency assistance including a Royal Navy ship carrying food supplies was already being deployed, he added.
Rescuers were focussing on the battered Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.
“It’s total devastation. It’s decimated. Apocalyptic,” said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief organisation and flew over the Abaco Islands.
“It’s not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again.”
Head-Rigby said her representative on Abaco told her that there were “a lot more dead” and that the bodies were being gathered.
Looming over the Bahamas for a day and a half, Dorian pounded the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama with winds up to 185 mph (295km/h) and torrential rain before finally moving into open waters on a course for Florida. Its winds slowed to a still-dangerous 110 mph (175km/h).
More than two million people along the coast in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were warned to leave. While the threat of a direct hit on Florida has largely evaporated, Dorian was expected to pass dangerously close to Georgia and South Carolina – and perhaps strike North Carolina – on Thursday or Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, on the coast at Titusville ïn Florida, said officials were warning residents not to get complacent.
“Most people have heeded the warnings,” he said. “They have made preparations. They cannot yet breathe a sigh of relief until this days-long event is over and with the storm moving so slowly it could take some time.
Homes, drinking water destroyed
In the Bahamas, Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45 percent of the homes in Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to have been severely damaged or destroyed.
UN officials said more than 60,000 people on the hard-hit islands needed food, and the Red Cross said some 62,000 needed clean drinking water.
“What we are hearing lends credence to the fact that this has been a catastrophic storm and a catastrophic impact,” he said.
Theo Neilly, the Bahamian Consul General in Washington, DC, said authorities “have not been able to assess the damages on Grand Bahama Island just yet. We expect it to be very devastating and the damage to be extreme.”
The Red Cross authorised $500,000 for the first wave of disaster relief, Cochrane said. And UN humanitarian teams stood ready to go into the stricken areas to help assess the damage and the country’s needs, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. The US government also sent a disaster response team.
Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, with a combined population of about 70,000, are known for their marinas, golf courses and all-inclusive resorts. To the south, the Bahamas’ most populous island, New Providence, which includes the capital city, Nassau, and has more than a quarter of a million people, suffered little damage.
Bahamian officials received a “tremendous” number of calls from people in flooded homes, and desperate callers trying to find loved ones left messages with local radio stations.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Freeport in Grand Bahama, local resident Sarah Kirby said that she and her family had had 15 minutes to evacuate their home as the storm triggered a tidal surge along the island’s northern coast.
“It was terrifying,” Kirby said, adding that she’d been forced to leave the family’s cats behind. “We’ve got our lives, but we can’t get to our house right now.”
The US Coast Guard airlifted to safety at least 21 people who had been injured on Abaco. Rescuers also used jet skis to reach some people as choppy, coffee-coloured floodwaters reached to the tops of palm trees.
“We will confirm what the real situation is on the ground,” Health Minister Duane Sands said. “We are hoping and praying that the loss of life is limited.”
Sands said that Dorian left the main hospital on Grand Bahama unusable, while the hospital in Marsh Harbor in the Abaco islands was in need of food, water, medicine and surgical supplies. He said crews were trying to airlift five to seven kidney-failure patients from Abaco who had not received dialysis since Friday.
The Grand Bahama airport was under six feet (two metres) of water.
As of 8pm (24:00 GMT) Dorian was centred about 110 miles (180 km) east of Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was moving northwest at six mph (7km/h). Hurricane-force winds extended up to 60 miles (95km) from its centre.
US mainland next
The coastline from north of West Palm Beach, Florida, through Georgia was expected to get between three and six inches (25-150mm) of rain, with nine inches (about 23cm) in places, while the Carolinas could get between five and 10 inches (about 130-255mm) in spots, the National Hurricane Center said.
NASA satellite imagery through Monday night showed some spots in the Bahamas had got as much as 35 inches (890mm) of rain, according to private meteorologist Ryan Maue.
Parliament member Iram Lewis said he feared waters would keep rising and stranded people would lose contact with officials as their mobile phone batteries died.
Dorian also left one person dead in Puerto Rico before it lashed the Bahamas on Sunday, when it tied the record for the strongest Atlantic storm ever to hit land. It matched the Labor Day hurricane that struck Florida Gulf Coast in 1935, before storms were given names.
Scientists say that climate change generally has been fuelling more powerful and wetter storms but that linking any specific hurricane to global warming would require more detailed study.
Across the southeast of the country, meanwhile, interstate highways leading away from the beach in South Carolina and Georgia were turned into one-way evacuation routes. Several large airports announced they would close, and hundreds of flights were cancelled.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, and SeaWorld also shut down.
Police in coastal Savannah, Georgia, announced an overnight curfew while North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered a mandatory evacuation of dangerously exposed barrier islands along the state’s entire coast.
In Folly Beach, South Carolina, many restaurants and shops wasted no time boarding up, but some hurricane-hardened residents had yet to decide whether to heed the evacuation order.
“If it comes, it comes. You know, God always provides, ya’ll,” Sammye Wooded said.
Dorian was tied with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane for the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, based on maximum sustained winds. Allen in 1980 was the most powerful, with 190-mile (306 km/h) winds, the NHC said.