Having battered the central and southern islands of the Bahamas, Hurricane Joaquin continued to veer away from the East Coast on Sunday night and out toward the North Atlantic — brushing by the British territory of Bermuda and buffeting the island with wind and rain.
The storm had weakened after its destructive pass over the Bahamas. Still, forecasts called for Joaquin to deliver hurricane conditions overnight in Bermuda, about 900 miles northeast of Nassau, as the storm’s ragged eye passed just west of the island nation.
The National Hurricane Center advised that the storm packed winds topping 100 mph, and warned of possible isolated tornadoes and a dangerous storm surge expected to produce significant coastal flooding in Bermuda, with large and destructive waves.
As Bermuda braced for the storm, a coalition of international government agencies, nonprofit groups and private citizens worked to deliver relief in the aftermath of Joaquin, which destroyed homes, flooded roads and knocked out communications in the Bahamas.
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The U.S. Coast Guard also continued to search for an American-flagged cargo ship with 33 people aboard that likely sailed into the storm’s path through the southeastern portion of the Bahamas archipelago. Rescue crews had not located the 790-foot-long cargo ship, named El Faro, as of late Sunday but reported finding debris in the area.
As relief efforts commenced in earnest Sunday in the Bahamas, the extent of the storm’s destruction began to emerge.
Much of the damage was centered in the southeastern Bahamas, particularly Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Long Island and San Salvador. The storm ripped roofs from homes, flooded main roads and farms, spoiled wells for drinking water and forced the closure of small airports, creating a logistical nightmare for rescue and relief efforts.
As of late Sunday, the storm had claimed one life, according to Bahamian officials, who reported that the man died when the roof of his home on Long Island collapsed as a result of high winds, said the Rev. Keith Cartwright of the Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Cartwright surveyed the damage from aboard the private helicopter of Mike Fernandez, a Coral Gables resident and healthcare entrepreneur who flew to Nassau on Sunday morning to help with relief efforts.
“The situation is devastation, devastation, devastation,” said Cartwright, who together with Fernandez delivered water, tarps and medical supplies to the sparsely-populated settlement of Albert Town on Long Cay, where the hurricane had leveled a historic church, shredded houses and flooded roads.
Fernandez said he was motivated to act after speaking with friends in the Bahamas and learning of the slow pace of relief efforts.
“I heard that nothing was happening down south, where all the damage was done,” Fernandez said by phone while stopped in Georgetown to refuel his helicopter. “All we can do is provide help ourselves and do what we can.”
Fernandez is among a team of private citizens who are using their personal resources to help deliver relief to Bahamian residents, Cartwright said. They have centralized their efforts in Nassau and are operating out of Lynden Pindling International Airport, delivering supplies and airlifting stranded people by helicopter.
The U.S. Coast Guard also is leading relief efforts. The U.S. Embassy in Nassau provided 70,000 pounds of aid items, according to the Tribune in Nassau. And Prime Minister Perry Christie has said the British Navy is en route.
“We are not going to spare any effort at all in being able to bring immediate assistance to the people wherever they are,” Christie said during a press conference on Saturday.
But the Bahamian government is under fire for its slow response to the crisis and its inability to reach the most devastated areas. Christie said the government planned to ask the U.S., which flew teams out on Saturday, if they can once against assist, but this time with helicopters in order to access Acklins and Crooked islands where the airports were under water.
Flooding hampered government efforts to restore phone service and electricity. Flooding also has isolated residents.
Leon Williams, CEO of Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC), said repair crews could not travel the flooded main roads and that information on the breadth of damage was limited.
“In Long Island and some of the other islands, staff can’t get to the other settlement because of the water,” he said. “So they can only tell you what is damaged really within their settlement. That’s the challenge we have.”
Fernandez of Coral Gables said he helped deliver medical supplies and a nurse to Long Island, where he said the airport had been closed due to the storm’s destruction.
While on Long Island, Fernandez said he picked up three Chinese students who were on vacation and stranded for two days.
“They were hugging,” he said. “We dropped them off in the Exumas. We are going back to pick up two individuals who are in very bad shape.”
Fernandez said he brought supplies, such as drinking water and relief materials, donated by the Coral Gables Fire Department to be distributed in the hardest-hit areas southeast of Nassau.
“All the water is contaminated,” he said. “They’re really in need of everything … water, baby food, Pampers, anything. This place is devastated.”
U.S. Coast Guard officials on Saturday flew over the Bahamas in an HC-144 aircraft to assess the damage. The crew flew over seven islands over 10 and a half hours, circling over them a few times, Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
“A lot of damage,” he said. “We saw houses that were flooded, torn apart and flooded runways.”
Barney said the devastation was similar to what the public saw in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. “A lot of scattered debris,” he said. “Even a barge ended up getting up on the shore.”
Barney said that as they flew over, they were looking to see if anyone was out in distress, but they didn’t see anyone. Also, neither he nor any of the 13 others aboard the flight, including Bahamian officials, reported seeing any bodies floating in the water, particularly on Long Island.
Meanwhile, several relief efforts are under way in the Bahamas, where businesses and organizations are raising cash and collecting donations of new and gently used clothes.
The Rev. Cartwright said donations of cash are desperately needed and should be sent to the church for the islands, or to the government of the Bahamas.
He asked that donations of drinking water, medical supplies, canned foods and other goods be sent to Betty K Agencies at 3701 NW South River Drive in Miami. Donated supplies should be marked “Hurricane Relief Bahamas, care of Father Keith Cartwright, Nassau.”
Although Joaquin continues to track away from the United States, the storm is expected to produce strong surf affecting portions of the Bahamas and the southeastern and mid-Atlantic coasts through Monday.
Richard Stanczyk, owner of the well-known Bud N Mary’s Sportfishing Marina in the Florida Keys, was among those who experienced the storm in the Bahamas. Stanczyk and his brother Scott, a boat captain, were vacationing on Long Island. The family was having a great time — scoring catches such as blue marlin and wahoo — when Joaquin hit.
Richard Stanczyk rode out the storm in the lower floors of his rental home, which lost its roof during Joaquin, according to Stephen Byrd, an assistant manager at Bud N Mary’s. Scott Stanczyk rode out the storm in a rental car, joined by his first mate, after the roof of their hotel blew off.
In the next few days, the Stanczyks hope to get back to the Keys on their boat, Catch 22, which suffered some damage during the storm but is still mechanically sound. The two brothers are back on the boat, and thanks to generators, they’ve got electricity again.
“We all feel really blessed here,” Byrd said. “It looked really bad.”
Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.