Hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, left at least five people dead in the Bahamas after lashing the islands with sustained winds of up to 185 m.p.h., blinding rain and rising waters, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said on Monday afternoon.
Power failures, floods and communications breakdowns made it impossible to search for victims and assess the damage on Monday afternoon. But emergency responders said many thousands of homes in the Abaco Islands, in the northern Bahamas, were damaged or destroyed. Videos showed floodwaters just below battered rooftops, submerged cars and floating debris.
The storm, moving as slowly as one mile per hour, reached the island of Grand Bahama early on Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was downgraded from a Category 5 to an “extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” and is expected to hover in the region until late on Monday, inflicting more damage before moving close to the Florida coast, the center said.
Even for a region used to weathering powerful storms, Dorian’s size, strength and stamina posed an extraordinary threat.
“This is perhaps the worst hurricane to have ever struck the Bahamas,” said Michael Scott, the chairman of the government-owned Grand Lucayan Resort and Casino on Grand Bahama Island, which was operating as a shelter because many designated shelters were damaged.
There were already 200 people in the hotel’s ballrooms, convention center and a few hotel rooms, but rescue teams continued to bring in families.
“You’re never prepared for a disaster like this,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
On the Abaco Islands, which endured more than a day of the hurricane’s wrath over the weekend, officials said it was too dangerous to reach many of the smaller offshore islands.
But the U.S. Coast Guard said that it had landed in Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island and was rescuing people.
Geoffrey Greene, the chief meteorological officer at the Bahamas Department of Meteorology, said on Monday afternoon, “We are afraid to even think of what those people on those islands went through with the storm slowing down, almost stopping for that amount of time, and being such a strong storm.”
“We did evacuate most of the keys around Abaco and Grand Bahama, but there are a few people who refused to leave so we’ll have to look and make sure everybody is secure,” he said.
Getting to the islands by plane after the storm passes may be difficult because torrential rain and the storm surge could have left runways under water, he said.
One resident on the Great Abaco island posted a harrowing video on Monday showing water gushing through a roadway and extensive damage inside apartments. She said the roof came off her building.
“Please pray for us. We’re stuck right here. My baby’s only four months old,” the woman said.
[Follow live updates on Hurricane Dorian here.]
Foreign Minister Darren Henfield, speaking from the main government building in Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s largest city, told the ZNS Network that from all accounts, the damage was “catastrophic.”
“We have reports of casualties, we have reports of bodies being seen,” he said. “We cannot confirm those reports until we go out and have a look for ourselves.”
Mr. Henfield said that the main government building in Marsh Harbour had become a makeshift shelter because many of the churches and schools that had been assigned to provide safety during the storm had been damaged. People were also taking refuge in the public clinic of Marsh Harbour “which is packed to capacity, as I understand it.”
The International Red Cross said Monday that as many as 13,000 houses may have been severely damaged or destroyed and that flooding on the Abaco Islands is believed to have contaminated wells with saltwater.
Although it was still early to have a complete picture of the destruction, “it is clear that Hurricane Dorian has had a catastrophic impact,” said Sune Bulow, Head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) Emergency Operation Centre in Geneva. “We anticipate extensive shelter needs, alongside the need for short-term economic support, as well as for clean water and health assistance.”
Residents of the Abaco Islands anxiously scoured social media and the news, trying to sift through rumors for solid information on the condition of their communities and the status of their neighbors, friends and relatives.
But with phone, internet and power lines down in many places, communication was severely limited.
“Checking on Capt. Plug and Debbie and family? Any news?” wrote Sean Fletcher to the Facebook page of a volunteer fire and rescue unit in Hope Town, a settlement on Elbow Cay, an eight-mile islet in the Abaco Islands.
“I’m trying to reach my brother, Pherrol Duncombe, the chef at the Harbour Lodge,” wrote Ohemaa Tamara. “If you have any information please let me know.”
But there were also flashes of good news amid the fear and worry.
“PRAISE GOD!” exclaimed Karen Huff-Lowe in a post to the Facebook page of Hope Town Bulletin Group. “I just got confirmation my family, Robert, Mercedes, Bessie and Maity are all ok. They think everyone else on the island is too but communication limited. No other news to report at this time.”
Late Monday morning, Hope Town Volunteer Fire and Rescue reported on its Facebook page that there were plans for a rescue flotilla of boats carrying basic supplies to leave Nassau bound for Hope Town “as soon as the weather permits.”
José Andrés, the celebrity chef who launched an enormous operation to feed people in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico two years ago, said he was in Nassau, working out of hotels and getting ready to do the same in the Bahamas.
“We are making 10,000 sandwiches as we speak,” Mr. Andrés said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Andrés, who runs World Central Kitchen, said airports are now under water, but they are hoping to be on some of the first flights to Abaco island on Tuesday.
“The situation is as bad as you can imagine,” he said.