FREEPORT, Bahamas: Bahamians rescued victims of Hurricane “Dorian” with jet skis and a bulldozer as the US Coast Guard, Britain’s Royal Navy and a handful of aid groups tried to get food and medicine to survivors and take the most desperate people to safety.
Airports were flooded and roads impassable after the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas in recorded history parked over Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, pounding them with winds up to 185 mph (295 kph) and torrential rain before finally moving into open waters Tuesday on a course toward Florida.
People on the US coast made final preparations for a storm with winds at a still-dangerous 110 mph (175 kph), making it a Category 2 storm.
At least seven deaths were reported in the Bahamas, with the full scope of the disaster still unknown.
The storm’s punishing winds and muddy brown floodwaters destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes, crippled hospitals and trapped people in attics.
“It’s total devastation. It’s decimated. Apocalyptic,” said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief group and flew over the Bahamas’ hard-hit Abaco Islands. “It’s not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again.”
She said her representative on Abaco told her there were “a lot more dead,” though she had no numbers as bodies being gathered.
The Bahamas’ prime minister also expected more deaths and predicted that rebuilding would require “a massive, coordinated effort.”
“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at a news conference. “No effort or resources will be held back.”
Five Coast Guard helicopters ran near-hourly flights to the stricken Abaco, flying more than 20 injured people to the capital’s main hospital. British sailors were also rushing in aid. A few private aid groups also tried to reach the battered islands in the northern Bahamas.
“We don’t want people thinking we’ve forgotten them. … We know what your conditions are,” Tammy Mitchell of the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency told ZNS Bahamas radio station.
With their heads bowed against heavy wind and rain, rescuers began evacuating people from the storm’s aftermath across Grand Bahama island late Tuesday, using jet skis, boats and even a huge bulldozer that cradled children and adults in its digger as it churned through deep waters and carried them to safety.
One rescuer gently scooped up an elderly man in his arms and walked toward a pickup truck waiting to evacuate him and others to higher ground.
Over 2 million people along the coast in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were warned to evacuate. While the threat of a direct hit on Florida had all but evaporated, Dorian was expected to pass dangerously close to Georgia and South Carolina — and perhaps strike North Carolina — on Thursday or Friday. The hurricane’s eye passed to the east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, early Wednesday.
Even if landfall does not occur, the system is likely to cause storm surge and severe flooding, the US National Hurricane Center said.
“Don’t tough it out. Get out,” said US Federal Emergency Management Agency official Carlos Castillo.
In the Bahamas, Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45 percent of the homes on Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to be severely damaged or destroyed. UN officials said more than 60,000 people on the hard-hit islands will need food, and the Red Cross said some 62,000 will need clean drinking water.
“What we are hearing lends credence to the fact that this has been a catastrophic storm and a catastrophic impact,” Cochrane said.
Lawson Bates, a staffer for Arkansas-based MedicCorps, flew over Abaco and said: “It looks completely flattened. There’s boats way inland that are flipped over. It’s total devastation.”
The Red Cross authorized $500,000 for the first wave of disaster relief, Cochrane said. UNhumanitarian teams stood ready to go into the stricken areas to help assess damage and the country’s needs, UN spokesman Stéphane 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 of Nassau and has over a quarter-million people, had little damage.
The US Coast Guard airlifted at least 21 people injured on Abaco. Choppy, coffee-colored floodwaters reached roofs and 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 Dorian rendered the main hospital on Grand Bahama unusable, while the hospital at Marsh Harbor on Abaco was in need of food, water, medicine and surgical supplies. He said crews were trying to fly out five to seven kidney failure patients from Abaco who had not received dialysis since Friday.
The Grand Bahama airport was under 6 feet of water.