The death toll in the Bahamas rose to at least 20 on Wednesday as the catastrophic damage left behind by Hurricane Dorian came into sharper focus and the world mobilized to help the shattered islands.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis confirmed that the death toll had spiked as emergency workers continued to assess the damage of the Category 5 monster, but he warned that “we expect this number will increase.”
At the airport in Nassau, residents desperate to recover loved ones trapped on Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, search and rescue teams and aid groups organizing shipments of relief supplies to the devastated islands gathered to help the government of the Bahamas begin the long road to recovery.
Gary Smith, 69, was evacuated to Nassau from Marsh Harbour in Abaco on Wednesday. He and his wife were trapped in their home as Dorian roared overhead. When he finally emerged, the destruction was hard to comprehend.
“Every church on the strip — nine of them — were destroyed,” he said, adding that only two of the structures were even partially standing. “All the churches are gone.”
But he was one of the lucky ones. One of his neighbors died of a heart attack during the storm.
Smith said the power of the hurricane was impossible to describe. “No one on earth has seen anything like that,” he said.
Bahamas Health Minister Duane Sands initially said there were 17 deaths in Abaco and three in Grand Bahama, but Minnis said it was premature to provide an island-by-island breakdown.
Minnis also spent the day talking to foreign leaders, including President Donald Trump. He thanked Washington for helping with the recovery, including sending in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Donald Trump was delighted that the hurricane damage was confined to two islands as opposed to the entire Bahamas,” Minnis said. And he said it was important for the global community to know that much of the Bahamas is intact and functioning.
“One of the best ways people around the world can show their support and solidarity at this time is to visit our islands by flight or cruise ship,” he said. “The Bahamas is still open for business.”
Even so, he said Abaco and Grand Bahama had suffered “generational damage.”
In South Florida, individuals and charities launched collections of food, water and hygiene kits while others began to prepare for the long rebuilding effort ahead. And in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., elected officials from both major parties initiated calls for the Trump Administration to loosen immigration requirements for Bahamians fleeing the devastation to enter the United States more easily.
But as international governments and aid groups marshaled at the airport in Nassau, many in the Bahamas’ northwestern islands remained stranded and in need of food, water and shelter.
Sandra Cooke was in Nassau waiting for her sister-in-law to be medically evacuated from Marsh Harbour, the capital of Great Abaco, which took the brunt of Dorian’s destructive force.
“My brother’s roof collapsed on her and trapped her for 17 hours,” Cooke said of her sister-in-law. “He wrapped her in a shower curtain ... She can’t walk.”
Cooke said the family had hired a private helicopter service to evacuate her Thursday, and her sister-in-law was taken to the hospital with a broken hip.
Although all airports remain waterlogged and partially flooded in the northern part of Abaco Island, the first fixed-wing aircraft were starting to take aid workers and provisions to the area.
But many Bahamians trying to get home were barred from flying.
Lowree Tynes 36, and Daynan Tynes, 44, from the Abaco Islands, spent the day trying to catch a flight home to evacuate about 10 children trapped around Marsh Harbour. The kids belong to family and friends who weren’t able to get off the island before Dorian made landfall on Sunday with sustained winds of 185 mph and a storm surge two stories high, making it the most powerful hurricane on record ever to hit the island.
Communications are spotty, so the Tynes have only been receiving cryptic, bare bones text messages.
“House is gone.”
They have also received coordinates of where they hope to find the children. In some cases, those locations have changed five or six times — a sign, they fear, that people are fleeing from one precarious shelter to another.
The couple, who run a construction company and design studio in Marsh Harbour, have helped many of their clients over the years build hurricane-resistant homes. But Dorian was different.
“There was no way to prepare for this,” Lowree Tynes said.
Four days after the hurricane hit, the couple also fear their isolated family and friends are likely growing desperate.
“People stock up on food and water for two or three days,” Daynan Tynes said. “But there was no way they could have planned for this long.”
The Tynes family said they do not know the condition of their own home, cars and business on Abaco, but they are prepared for the worst.
“Our house is gone,” Daynan Tynes said. “At least that’s what we expect.”
(They would later discover during an overflight that their home seemed largely intact.)
Bahamian Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said rescuers are still in the initial stages of search, recovery and assessment on the Abaco Islands but that the death toll was likely to keep rising. “Given the magnitude, we expect there will be more.”
There are currently no reports of U.S. citizens among the dead.
“Thanks to our advisories, we believe that most U.S. citizens in the affected areas who wanted to flee were able to evacuate before the hurricane arrived,” said a U.S. State Department representative.
Survivors have been reported missing and others are stranded in flooded buildings as a result of Dorian, which decimated most of the homes in Marsh Harbour, wiped out a shantytown known as The Mudd.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a native Bahamian, told SiriusXM she was worried that the death toll might be much higher due to the destruction of The Mudd, home to many undocumented Haitians who resisted going to shelters.
“They didn’t want to go to any shelter because they fear deportation,” she said. “So, we’re afraid that they were all just washed out to sea.”
In a conference call with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Coast Guard, members of Congress from Miami pushed federal agencies for more clarity on the best ways to send aid to the Bahamas and questioned why USAID was sending two search and rescue teams from Los Angeles and Virginia instead of teams from Miami.
“Right now the capacity to receive flights to the Bahamas and move teams around is very limited,” a USAID official said. “We want to make sure that we are not wasting resources. If they need additional help we will activate other capabilities if required.”
USAID also said it is sending personnel to help the Bahamas’ emergency management agency coordinate a disaster response plan.
USAID said the search and rescue teams from Los Angeles and Virginia are already working in the Bahamas, and that teams from Miami could be used in the future if necessary.
“I ask that you caution your constituents in trying to directly deliver relief supplies in the next few days,” a Coast Guard official said in response to Rep. Donna Shalala, who asked about what to do with an influx of donations and people willing to ship the aid to the Bahamas. “We have to assess the ports, there’s a lot of debris in the water. It’s a safety issue for them to try to get boats there at this point.”
Aerial footage of Great Abaco in the northwestern Bahamas revealed the decimation Dorian left behind.
The storm’s high winds and muddy brown storm water took out hospitals and airports, deluged roadways and trapped people in their homes. A group of 30 people were rescued from floodwaters in the Abaco Islands on Tuesday, but many more needed help as search and rescue operations were underway.
About 400 people took shelter at the clinic in Marsh Harbour, the Pan American Health Organization reported. At least 20 critical patients were evacuated from Abaco to the Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau.
Extensive flooding in Abaco and Grand Bahama Island, where Dorian stalled for two days, damaged the Rand Memorial Hospital in Freeport, contributing to a public health challenge.
In anticipation of a mammoth international relief effort, government officials in the Bahamas said they will welcome any donations to help residents battered by Dorian. But international and local Bahamian charities seeking to help should contact the country’s National Emergency Management Agency or NEMA.
On Wednesday the Central Bank of the Bahamas loosened lending guidelines for residents and businesses needing hurricane relief. For those sending help from outside the islands, the ministry of finance and customs waived taxes and duties on hurricane relief supplies for individuals and organizations. Athena Marche, deputy financial secretary, said the customs process has been streamlined to ensure that items can get quickly to those who need them.
“The government has eliminated several layers of approval and multiple steps to improve the process and ensure a smooth clearance of vital hurricane relief supplies at the border,” Marche said.
Tax breaks under the order will only apply to supplies sent to the following islands: Abaco, the Abaco Cays, Grand Bahama Island, Sweetings Cay, Deep Water Cay and Water Cay, Marche said.
To help fund relief efforts, Bahamian officials accessed emergency funds, including a $200,000 grant from the Caribbean Development Bank and a $200,000 line of credit from the Inter-American Development Bank.
For the next 30 days, bottled water, clothing, food and personal hygiene supplies will be duty and tax free. For the next 90 days, medical supplies, building supplies, tents, cots, bedding materials, mosquito netting, electrical and plumbing fixtures, household furniture, appliances and electrical generators will also be exempt for individuals and businesses importing these items as donations to registered charities.
“A number of fees will be waived for three months for non-commercial flights bringing in relief goods in the affected islands including departure tax, customs processing fees and environmental levies,” Marche added.
Those seeking to import items not on the approved listing will need to apply to the ministry of finance for review.
Marche also noted that the country’s registrar general has a comprehensive list of charities that should be consulted. NEMA also has a list of charities that are engaged in disaster relief activities. Established charities not on the registered list should contact NEMA at 242-376-6362. The agency hosts a daily 4 p.m. meeting with non-governmental organizations.
“It’s important to let the international community know that all persons, private individuals, charities, organizations, will be allowed to come in and to bring items of relief,” said Marlon Johnson, acting financial secretary. “There is and there will be a process for persons who want to be NEMA-recognized.”
Johnson said the government doesn’t want to turn away individuals coming to help, but formal recognition of charities is important because it lets individuals know that the organizations are affiliated with the government.
Rosamon Gomez, president of the National Association of the Bahamas, a South Florida-based nonprofit, is working together with the Bahamas Consulate General to collect relief supplies to send to the islands.
“It’s just overwhelming right now,” Gomez said of the response.
NAB is sending supplies by ship and by air, though Gomez said that airports in the hardest hit islands are not open yet.
“All of the airports are either under water or filled with debris,” she said.
Later in the afternoon on Wednesday, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott co-signed a letter asking the Trump administration to help by relaxing immigration requirements for Bahamians. Rubio posted a copy of the letter on Twitter.
Speaking to media in Miami from a cavernous warehouse stocked with cots, food, medicine and other relief supplies, Scott raised the possibility of requesting Temporary Protected Status program, or TPS, for the Bahamas. It would give Bahamians the ability to live and work legally in the U.S.
In response to the crisis, Florida Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who has family in the Bahamas, called on the Trump administration and federal lawmakers to make it easier for Bahamians fleeing the storm’s aftermath to enter the United States.
“I urge the Trump Administration as well as Senators Rubio and Scott to waive U.S. visa requirements for Bahamians seeking refuge post-Dorian,” Jones said in a written statement. “It is inhumane to do nothing while thousands of our fellow human beings are left to languish without drinking water or shelter.
Bahamians, like citizens of the Turks and Caicos Islands, can travel to the U.S. without a visa by using their police record.
With many parts of the Bahamas unreachable by officials, many residents took it upon themselves to help their neighbors. Bahamians used Jet Skis and a bulldozer to rescue trapped residents as the Coast Guard, Britain’s Royal Navy and aid groups tried to get food and medicine to survivors.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Coast Guard officials reported that crews in the Bahamas had rescued 61 people and four pets since the storm began. Coast Guard crews are conducting air operations out of a base on Andros Island near Nassau.
The Coast Guard advised persons in need of help to call 919 in the Bahamas, or to call the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency at 242-325-9983 or the Bahamian Emergency Operations Center at 242-362-3895 or 242-362-3896.
With much of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama without power and cut off from communication, reports of looting and lawlessness surfaced on social media, where scores of people shared cellphone videos, pictures and other personal accounts of Dorian’s destruction.
Dames, the minister of national security, estimated that about 100 security forces were on the Abaco islands and 600-700 were patrolling on Grand Bahamas with more on the way.
His office has been receiving reports of looting, but said in many cases it was survivors scavenging for provisions.
“I wouldn’t consider that looting,” he said.
Speaking at the airport in Nassau, as he prepared for an overflight of the Abaco islands, he also said that police and military were being forced to check out fake tips coming in through social media, including reports of theft and stranded families.
“This is the era we are in — social media,” he said. “And there are people who see this as an opportunity to create mischief. And it’s putting a critical strain on our resources.”
As reports of the humanitarian crisis in the Bahamas circulated on newscasts, residents and aid groups in Miami organized collections of food, clothing, personal items and other relief supplies for the island.
From Pembroke Pines to Doral and Miami’s Coconut Grove, home to one of South Florida’s oldest Bahamian communities, South Florida geared up for a large-scale relief effort.
At a Wednesday press conference in Coconut Grove, Scott and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced that donations for Hurricane Dorian relief efforts would be taken to Nassau Thursday or Friday via Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Scott, who spent last weekend with the president at Camp David, said the Bahamas were a topic of discussion. “We were talking about what we’re going to do to try and be helpful,” he said.
Scott added that U.S. relief workers were coordinating with NEMA to ensure supplies get to those who need them, and to avoid the waste and mismanagement seen in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“The biggest problem in Puerto Rico was getting stuff out,” he said.
In addition to the Norwegian ship filled with supplies, the City of Miami is also sending a team of first responders to assess the injured and provide medical care.
Suarez said the group will be embedded with the Coast Guard, and that their travel will be paid for by the city while the Urban Search and Rescue Teams wait for Trump to sign off on their release.
“The storm has not cleared the United States yet,” Suarez pointed out, “So the USAR may have to be deployed to the Carolinas or elsewhere.”
Miami Herald staff writers Alex Daugherty, Douglas Hanks David Ovalle and Martin Vassolo contributed to this story.