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‘Total Devastation’: Humanitarian Crisis in the Wake of Hurricane Dorian

For a day and a half, Hurricane Dorian pounded away at the islands in a catastrophic onslaught. The devastation is unprecedented and extensive. Relentless winds and rain battered homes and businesses on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. / Reporting RAMON ESPINOSA

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When Dorian made landfall Sunday as a Category 5 it was one of the strongest hurricanes in modern records to hit the archipelago. It hit the Abaco Islands with wind gusts of up to 220 miles per hour.

Practically parking itself over the Bahamas for a day and a half, Hurricane Dorian pounded away at the islands in a catastrophic onslaught that sent floodwaters up to the second floors of buildings, trapped people in attics and chased others from one shelter to another. At least five deaths were reported.

Hubert Minnis, the Bahamas Prime Minister, announced Monday evening that at least five people died in the storm. Some fear the death toll could rise.

“We are in the midst of a historic tragedy,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The devastation is unprecedented and extensive.” Darren Henfield, the Bahamas Minister of Foreign Affairs told reporters Monday conditions on the islands remain treacherous.

The Bahamas Press, an online publication posted video of and stories about Abaco Marsh Harbour being “completely destroyed” by Dorian. In a separate post, Bahamas Press showed images from Abaco that it says are of people who were killed by the storm being loaded on a truck.

The publication also says it believes the death count is higher than the one officials are currently giving.

“PM Hubert Minnis claims the RBPF (Royal Bahamas Police Force) has confirmed five deaths, however, sources on the ground tell us bodies are being collected all across Abaco this afternoon,” the publication writes.

According to a Monday advisory by the International Red Cross, Dorian caused “extensive damage” across both Abaco and Grand Bahama. Early estimates by the humanitarian aid organization say as many as “13,000 houses may have been severely damaged or destroyed.”

The storm’s relentless winds and rain battered homes and businesses on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, which have a combined population of about 70,000 and are no more than 40 feet (12 meters) above sea level at their highest points. The Grand Bahama airport was under 6 feet (2 meters) of water.

Desperate callers trying to find loved ones left messages with local radio stations as the country’s health minister said medical teams would be sent to the Abaco islands by the afternoon.

The U.S. Coast Guard airlifted at least 21 people injured on Abaco Island.

‘Total devastation’

Relief officials reported scenes of utter ruin in parts of the Bahamas and rushed to deal with an unfolding humanitarian crisis in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful storm on record ever to hit the islands.

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. It looks like a bomb went off,” said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief organization and flew over the Bahamas’ hard-hit Abaco Island. “It’s not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again.”

She said her representative on Abaco told her that “there’s a lot more dead” and that the bodies were being gathered up.

Emergency authorities, meanwhile, struggled to reach victims amid conditions too dangerous even for rescue workers, and urged people to hang on.

In the Bahamas, Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes in Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to have been severely damaged or destroyed. U.N. 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,” he 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 a half-million dollars for the first wave of disaster relief, Cochrane said. And U.N. humanitarian teams stood ready to go into the stricken areas to help assess the damage and the country’s needs, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said. The U.S. 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 over a quarter-million people, suffered little damage.

Hurricane Dorian Devastation in the Bahamas

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