NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Hundreds of people fled the Bahamas island of Great Abaco by boat and plane on Friday and thousands more lined up to get on a cruise ship leaving neighboring Grand Bahama to escape the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
The most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Bahamas swept through the islands earlier this week, leveling some neighborhoods, swallowing others with storm surge, and causing what one official described as a “staggering” number of deaths.
Hundreds, if not thousands, are still missing in the country of about 400,000 people, but the official death toll stands at only 43, according to news media reports late on Friday, including the Washington Post and NBC.
Eight people were confirmed dead from the storm in Grand Bahama and 35 people in the Abocos Islands, the Post reported, citing officials in the Bahamas.
That toll is likely to soar as more bodies are discovered in the ruins and floodwaters left behind by the storm.
In Freeport, witnesses said thousands crowded the port to try to get on a Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ship offering free passage to Florida to those with necessary U.S. immigration documentation.
Dazed evacuees, some with nothing but the clothes on their backs and plastic shopping bags, sat in the Kendal G. L. Isaacs National Gymnasium in Nassau which has been turned into a shelter.
“Nobody can help anybody in Abaco, there’s no place safe, everything is destroyed,” said Firstina Swain, 75, who said she lost her home. “The people of Abaco need to get out, there are too many dead bodies, and I don’t think they finished finding them.”
A boat with 250 evacuees left battered Abaco and arrived in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, which is located on New Providence island to the west and was less affected. Another boat with hundreds aboard was on its way, National Voice of the Bahamas radio reported.
Approximately 200 people were also evacuated from Abaco Friday on Bahamasair flights, according to a NEMA spokesperson who declined to be named.
“Free air evacuations on Bahamasair from Abaco started (Thursday) and will continue until all Grand Bahama and Abaco residents who want to leave are off the islands,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said in a tweet.
Four survivors told Reuters on Thursday they had been charged $75 for a seat on a Bahamasair flight from Abaco to Nassau. “I thought a relief flight would be free,” said Anthony Thompson, 27, who said he paid the fare for himself, his wife and his sister. “I thought wrong.”
A Bahamasair official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters the airline was collecting its customers whose flights had been canceled during the hurricane. To the extent extra seats were available, it was offering to ferry others off Abaco “at cost,” the official said.
‘STAGGERING’ DEATH TOLL
Bahamas Health Minister Duane Sands said there had been “a tremendous loss of life” in Abaco’s main city of Marsh Harbor.
The medical chief of staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau said two refrigerated, 40-foot trucks would be needed to hold the “staggering” number of bodies that were expected to be found. “We’ve ordered lots of body bags,” said Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway.
Those injured by the storm, which at one point was a Category 5 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, were treated for fractures, head injuries, lacerations, skin rashes and dehydration.
Near an area called The Mudd in Marsh Harbour, the commercial hub, a Reuters witness described a devastating scene, with most houses leveled, a man lying dead near a main street and dead dogs in water. Some residents were leaving the area with meager possessions, while others were determined to remain.
The U.S. Coast Guard, working with NEMA, has rescued 295 people since Dorian began, the U.S. embassy in Nassau tweeted.
Relief groups are focusing on getting doctors, nurses and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas and helping survivors get food and safe drinking water.
The relief effort faces formidable logistical challenges because of the widespread destruction caused by Dorian, which hovered over the Bahamas for nearly two days with torrential rains and fierce winds that whipped up 12- to 18-foot (3.7- to 5.5-meter) storm surges.
The risk of outbreaks of diarrhea and waterborne diseases is high because drinking water may be contaminated with sewage, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which described the situation for some people on Abaco as “desperate.”
The United Nations estimated 70,000 people were in “immediate need of life-saving assistance” such as food, water and shelter. The U.N. World Food Programme is airlifting storage units, generators, prefab offices, and satellite equipment as well as 8 metric tonnes of ready-to-eat meals.
A Reuters witness saw widespread looting on Abaco, with people breaking into supermarkets and liquor stores.
Wendy Hawkes, whose home on Abaco was largely destroyed, described seeing neighbors standing outside their front doors with shotguns to ward off looters.
Claudin Loriston, 39, said he and his three young children were among the “lucky ones” to get on a plane out of Abaco. He said he had no documents with him, but he would try to get a job to support his family.
“There are too many dead bodies there,” said the Haitian carpenter. “The government needs to remove everyone from the island, the smell is everywhere, it’s in the water.”
Reporting by Nick Brown in Sandy Point, Bahamas, additional reporting by Dante Carrer and Marco Bello in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, Zachary Fagenson in Nassau, Bahamas, Peter Szekely, Michelle Nichols, Maria Caspani and Matthew Lavietes in New York, Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bill Tarrant and Rosalba O’Brien