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In Bahamas, Rescue Efforts Crippled in ‘Crisis of Epic Proportions’


Desperate residents stranded on rooftops amid swirling currents. Rescue efforts stalled by flooded vehicles and roads turned to rivers. Communications in ruins and basic infrastructure — including shelters, hospitals and public buildings — under water.

And all around, vicious winds and crashing waves brought on by Hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful storms recorded in the Atlantic, continued to whip the low-lying islands of the northwestern Bahamas for a second day.

“This was a crisis of epic proportions,” said Marvin Dames, the minister of national security of the Bahamas, to reporters.

Five people have died, but “unfortunately, we will see more deaths,” he said, adding that he expected children to be among them.

Hurricane Dorian first made landfall in the Bahamas as a category 5 storm on Sunday, but then it lingered, pummeling the low-lying Grand Bahama and Abacos Islands, blocking even a basic accounting of the number of victims and the destruction. The true extent of its toll is only beginning to emerge as the storm began to pull away.

Cindy Russell, a resident of Marsh Harbour whose home was destroyed, said she had no words to describe what Dorian left in its wake.

“It’s like we just need to be rescued and put on another island to start over again,” she said. “Complete devastation.”

Though the hurricane, now a category 2, was pushing its way toward Florida, it was not expected to clear the islands until close to midnight on Tuesday.

A video from a helicopter flyover showed entire neighborhoods reduced to unrecognizable fields of rubble, houses crushed into splinters and boats tossed into heaps like toys. About 60 percent of the land is under water, satellite company Iceye said Monday. That includes the airport. All around, massive waves curled toward the island, delivering new blows.

“Storm surge is the number one killer in a tropical storm,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, speaking of the rising of the sea that results from the wind and pressure changes brought on by a storm.

In Freeport, the largest city on Grand Bahama, Sarah Kirby watched helpless as a massive tidal flood poured in and inundated her house.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” she said. “I have never seen water come in like that. You don’t realize the power until you’re in it.”

Some local rescue efforts began on Tuesday, she said, as the water began to recede, with neighbors manning Jet Skis to rescue people trapped on their roofs — but it was unclear where they might go, since many shelters were also flooded or damaged by the storm.

Though the hurricane, now a category 2, began to slowly creep away from the Bahamas on Tuesday, it was not expected to clear the islands until close to midnight.

Aid agencies staged in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, grew frustrated through the day, waiting on standby to deliver desperately needed supplies. But only a few helicopters were able to take off for the hardest hit areas.

Responders were trying to take advantage of a window of opportunity after the eye passed over Grand Bahama to try to rescue people, but many police cruisers and other emergency vehicles were under water.

“Some of the bigger vehicles, dump trucks and fire engines, are trying to get through the water,” Kevin D. Harris, director general of the Bahamas Information Service, said. “Grand Bahama is flat, and you can imagine the devastation we are going to incur.”

There was so much water that government offices, including the government radio station, had to leave the lower floors.

The islands in the northwestern Bahamas that were hit the hardest — the Abacos Islands and Grand Bahama — are 30 feet at their highest point, and the storm surge reached up to 23 feet, not counting the waves, said Joel Cline, the Tropical Program Coordinator at NOAA.

Photographs from flights over the island show trees sheered of limbs and leaves and saltwater ponds covering swathes of land where homes once stood. Some houses had their roofs ripped clean off, while others were reduced to piles of debris mired in water. All around, a rough ocean lapped at the low-lying islands.

On Tuesday, people continued to seek shelter at the Grand Lucayan Resort and Casino on Grand Bahama, said Michael Scott, who is the chairman of the government-owned hotel.

“It’s a catastrophic and dystopian mess,” he said, estimating that more than 400 people were now being cared for at the hotel. “Other shelters which have been compromised are having their people decanted into our facility.”

To bring more people to safety, he said, “we’re going to have to use big trucks and big vehicles.”

Passenger cars and even emergency service vehicles had been trapped by the floods, according to photos and videos shared by text message from residents on the island.

On the Abaco Islands, east of Grand Bahama, officials believe whole towns have been wiped out. The area, whose population includes Haitian migrants living in shantytowns like the Mudd and Pigeon Peas, is especially vulnerable.

Caribbean disaster response managers say that they may not be able to get any firsthand information out of the islands until Wednesday.

The Bahamas are no stranger to hurricanes. But Dorian, with sustained wind speeds of 185 miles per hour, ranks as one of the strongest to ever make landfall, tied with the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

The powerful storm’s sluggish pace — it crawled over the island at about 1 mile per hour from Monday afternoon to Tuesday morning — ensured steady, brutal destruction, with harrowing images of residents among the ruins of their homes surfacing on social media.

More than 200 people have placed frantic rescue calls to emergency officials, including a government minister, who was also trapped with his family in his own attic.

It is not unheard-of for storms to stall. Hurricane Betsy stalled for a day and a half off the coast of Florida in 1965. More recently, Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998 and Hurricane Wilma lingered off the coast of Cancun in 2005, according to Mr. Feltgen, of the National Hurricane Center.

“Storms stall, they’re steered by the weather pattern that surrounds them, so if that weather pattern is in equilibrium, then the storm will stop,” he said. “It’s an atmospheric tug of war.”

A sense of unity bound those suffering under the weight of the hurricane. Some in the Bahamas who were less affected by the storm took to social media to amplify the calls for help.

Crystal A. deGregory, a historian in Nashville, Tenn., was visiting her family in Freeport when Hurricane Dorian made landfall. She spent all of Monday fielding frantic calls for rescue from her relatives.

Her sister, cornered by rising water, children in tow, cried for help on social media. Ms. deGregory began to post as well, offering addresses and details to rescuers on Twitter.

“I was terrified,” she said. “It was an indescribable feeling.”

On Tuesday, many residents faced the terrifying choice between staying in their rapidly-flooding homes or plunging into the volatile waters to seek shelter.

Tim Aylen, a Grand Bahama resident, waded through chest-deep storm surges with his wife and young son, spurred on by fear and horror. He barely had time to make the decision to flee.

“You open the door, and the water’s just pouring in,” he said. “You think, ‘No, that’s going to flood the house.’”

In that frantic moment, he made the call to leave the house, rather than flee to the attic. With their belongings in bags, his family and their three dogs forded the rushing water.

“We have experienced a lot of hurricanes in our time, but nothing like this,” he said.

Mr. Aylen said that once his family was secured in a nearby shelter, he went around for about two hours assisting with the search and rescue of people torn from their homes.

“This little girl, she just jumped into my arms and she was screaming,” he recalled.

Sam Teicher, an American who lives on the less hard-hit south side of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, came to the Bahamas 18 months ago to set up a coral farm.

His project, meant to restore dying reefs near the island, was destroyed by the storm.

Mr. Teicher went out Tuesday to deliver fuel to a search and rescue operation, and saw firsthand the wreckage left by Dorian: Downed trees, snapped power lines, choppy water where before there were houses.

“The water seemed to stretch for miles,” Mr. Teicher said. “It was kind of like looking at those scenes of bayous with the trees coming out of the swamp — except that’s where people live.”


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