Five dead in the Bahamas from Dorian, as powerful storm stalls over the island chain

Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas, has left at least five people dead, Bahamian Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said Monday as the storm continued to wreak havoc in the usually sun-splashed archipelago near Florida.

Minnis said the deaths were recorded by the Royal Bahamas Police Force in the Abacos, where Dorian left a trail of devastation Sunday as it pounded the island as a Category 5 storm, packing 165 mph winds and storm surges as high as 23 feet.

“We are in the midst of a historic tragedy in parts of our northern Bahamas. Our mission is focused on search, rescue and recovery,” Minnis said. “The damages and videos we are seeing are heartbreaking. Businesses and other buildings have been completely destroyed.”

Those images, shared on social media and on the government’s ZNS news network, showed submerged vehicles and homes under water as roads became impassable thanks to Dorian’s life-threatening wind and rain. Flooding was so severe in Grand Bahama, home to Freeport, that distressed residents in the low-lying island spent most of the day calling for help.

When help didn’t arrive, some formed human chains to get to higher ground, while others cut holes through their roofs and hid among the beams.

“Things are not good in Grand Bahama right now,” Kwasi Thompson, the minister of state responsible for Grand Bahama, said before the worst came. “Conditions are catastrophic. We have parts of the island that are completely under water, where the water has already risen waist-high.”

Thompson, who hunkered down in the emergency management center in the main part of Freeport, said some areas reported 6-foot-high flooding, with the island’s eastern region bearing the brunt. By Monday afternoon, emergency teams had to move from the first floor to the second floor after the building began taking on water.

“We’re taking a severe beating,” he said.

After announcing at 9 a.m. that all rescue efforts had been put on hold, the National Emergency Management Agency and members of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force resumed rescues after noon in Grand Bahama. ZNS, the government-owned news station, fielded calls from stranded Bahamians in need of rescue, providing GPS coordinates to rescue teams. But by 2:23 p.m. the station’s Freeport office had to go off air due to the rising water.

Bahamas meteorologist Basil Dean warned that since Dorian had stalled over Grand Bahama, “outdoors is going to be a very rough, rough environment.” In addition to the rain and wind, Grand Bahama could experience storm surges as high as 23 feet.

“Storm surge is definitely going to be a major factor. Rainfall is going to be a major factor. These two elements of nature spell bad news for us,” Dean said.

“A very dangerous and uncomfortable situation developing there for Grand Bahama,” said Dean, adding that the island, which has experienced multiple hurricanes in the past, does not always fare well. “Grand Bahama, Freeport in particular, sits right in the middle of this whole thing.”

A slow-moving Dorian arrived on Grand Bahama Island early Monday after the storm spent much of Sunday pounding the Abacos as a Category 5 storm. The five people who died, and 21 people who were injured, were in the Abacos.

“The United States Coast Guard is already on the ground in Abaco, where there are a number of injured individuals. Critically injured individuals are being taken to the Princess Margaret Hospital,” Minnis, the prime minister, said at a 5 p.m. press conference Monday in Nassau.

Minnis said he had heard reports of residents on Grand Bahama Island being trapped and strongly urged them to remain indoors and as safe as possible until the all clear is given.

Meteorologist Trevor Basden warned, however, that with Dorian, now downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds but stalled over the island of Grand Bahama, residents should not expect the “All Clear” to be given until late Tuesday.

“We still have a ways to go before what they call the ‘All Clear,’ ” he said. The storm, which arrived in Grand Bahama with 165 mph winds as Category 5, “was steadily decreasing in strength. However, it’s still considered a strong Category 4,” Basden said.

Indeed with winds swirling between 145 and 165 mph throughout much of Monday, Dorian wreaked havoc on Grand Bahama as it moved at just 1 mile per hour for much of the day. Floodwaters that earlier in the day were only on the eastern end of the island soon traveled westward, flooding downtown Freeport, the hospital, government headquarters and even the emergency operations center.

Hotels, homes, cars and Freeport International Airport quickly became submerged under water.

While Grand Bahama residents bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath, Bahamians on the island of New Providence were not spared. Many parts of the island where the capital of Nassau is located were flooded, and residents spent most of the morning battling floodwaters amid an island-wide power blackout.

Minnis said his own home had been compromised and he and house guests were forced to grab mops.

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The slow-moving storm’s span was so wide that residents in Eleuthera, Cat Island, the Berry Islands and Andros were feeling its catastrophic effects. While residents in New Providence had been spared Dorian’s winds, several neighborhoods in the capital and on Paradise Island were flooded, ZNS reported.

“At this moment, it feels as if the hurricane is here in north Eleuthera, lots of rain, wind and no power from Saturday and no water from this afternoon,” Carolyn Neilly wrote on Facebook at 11 p.m. Sunday.

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Minnis said government officials were planning to fly over the Abacos on Tuesday morning to assess the extent of the damages. Other assessments will be forthcoming, weather permitting.

He asked Bahamians to open their homes. “This is the time for us as Bahamians to show our love, to show our caring and our compassion,” he said.

In a video message, Foreign Minister Darren Henfield said, “We have reports of casualties, we have reports of bodies being seen. We cannot confirm those reports until we go and look for ourselves.”

Henfield, who represents north Abaco in Parliament, said a number of buildings have been severely damaged, or destroyed.

“We received catastrophic damage here in Abaco ... the kind of which we have never seen before,” he said. “We are holding strong.”

Asking for prayers, Henfield said about 1,000 people were being sheltered in the government complex and the community was in “search and recovery” mode, trying to negotiate its way around the island. There was still no word, he said, from the nearby cays where some individuals had refused to evacuate.

In Marsh Harbour, close to the spot where Dorian made its second landfall, one Abaco resident reported whole buildings gone, metal roofs that had vanished and terrible destruction.

“Just total devastation in Marsh Harbour,” said Laine Snow, whose home in Little Harbour, about 20 miles to the south, was spared the worst of the winds.

“It is devastating and extremely emotional. There’s no businesses left. There’s just absolutely nothing,” she said.

Snow and her husband rode out the storm in a friend’s house and emerged Monday to see what had become of the island. She said restaurants near the water in Marsh Harbour were destroyed, all the boats in the harbor were damaged or gone and the main supermarket, Maxwell’s, lost its metal roof.

Most of the water had started receding, she said, but what it revealed was heartrending, in Marsh Harbour and beyond.

“Massive, massive destruction in Marsh Harbour and Hope Town and Green Turtle [Cay],” she said, adding that people on Abaco are anxiously waiting for word from those who remained on the out islands of Great Guana Cay and Man-O-War Cay.

“We haven’t heard from them yet,” she said, talking on a phone with in-and-out reception. “We have very little communication and you probably need a boat to see what’s happened.”

Elbow Cay was also hit hard, she said, and the school that was supposed to serve as a hurricane shelter on Green Turtle reportedly failed in the storm.

The fate of her husband’s hardware store is still unknown. At her home, Snow said she lost her exotic plant greenhouse, and a shutter came off in the kitchen so wind and water got inside but she feels lucky. “Minimal damage, thank God,” she said.

On other parts of the island, she said, the damage is so severe that people will need “everything. Food and ice and clothes. Marsh Harbour lost everything.”

She said social media has helped: People in Nassau have begun posts trying to find family and friends on the islands, and there was word that a ship is coming soon.

“They’re hoping and praying that a ship is on the way to bring supplies. We’re just extremely grateful for all the love and support. … We’ll pull together and share our food and hope to God that help will be coming,” she said.

The Bahamas electricity company confirmed that the storm had damaged its infrastructure in the Abacos, and torrential rain had led to an island-wide power outage in New Providence at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.