MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Survivors of Hurricane Dorian on Wednesday picked through the wreckage of homes ripped open by fierce winds, struggled to fuel generators and queued for food after one of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record devastated parts of the Bahamas.
The most damaging storm to strike the island nation, Dorian killed at least seven people, but the scope of the destruction and a humanitarian crisis was still coming into focus as aerial video of the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed wide devastation.
In the United States, South Carolina was preparing for a record storm surge and major flooding when Dorian hits the coast on Thursday or Friday.
Dozens of people in the Bahamas took to Facebook to search for missing loved ones, and aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people out of the Bahamas population of 400,000 would need food and other support.
“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information.”
LaQuez Williams, pastor at Jubilee Cathedral in Grand Bahama, opened the church as a shelter for about 150 people. As the storm ground on, Williams said that from the higher ground of the church he could see people on their rooftops seeking refuge.
“They were calling for help, but you could not go out to reach,” Williams said. “It was very difficult because you felt helpless.”
Aerial video of Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods littered with upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.
“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” one Twitter user with the handle @mvp242 said, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed.
Other posts on Twitter said entire communities were swept away. Photographs from the airport at Freeport showed a light plane torn in two, with hangars badly damaged and scattered debris.
After rampaging through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, Dorian’s wind speeds dropped on Tuesday to make it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. It maintained that level on Wednesday, but forecasters warned it was still dangerous as it approached the southeastern coast of the United States.
STORM SURGE DANGER
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued a storm surge warning that covered the whole length of the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“A Storm Surge Warning means there is a danger of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, during the next 36 hours,” the hurricane center said.
South Carolina officials said they were expecting storm surges of four to eight feet and wind gusts of 90 mph (140 kph) on Thursday, and told people to evacuate the coast as Dorian drew closer.
The NHC warned that Dorian would move near or over the coast of South or North Carolina on Thursday or Friday. More than 2.2 million people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have been ordered to evacuate.
“It’s getting here a little weaker than it could have but now it’s gotten here,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told a news conference. “Time to get out is running out.”
Pete Gaynor, the acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference that 10,000 federal and National Guard troops had been deployed in the four states, 40,000 line workers were ready to restore any downed electrical lines, and that 1,250 tractor trailers had been loaded with food and water.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp extended a state of emergency to cover 21 counties. The emergency covers more than 900,000 Georgia residents, of whom over 400,000 have been ordered to evacuate, according to the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
Six coastal counties in Georgia were under mandatory evacuation orders. The coast was predicted to see storm surges of between three and five feet.
“Everyone needs to stay away from the beaches,” Kemp said.
Florida avoided a direct hit from Dorian.
“We certainly got lucky in Florida, and now if we could get lucky in Georgia, in North Carolina, in South Carolina,” President Donald Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
Trump said the United States was sending supplies to the Bahamas, including materials that had been originally intended for Dorian victims in Florida.
“We’re having a lot of food brought in … We’re taking some of the supplies from some other places, including Florida, where we didn’t have to use them, and we’re going to be bringing them over to the Bahamas, where they really need it very badly, because that was a very hard hit,” Trump said.
Dorian had sustained winds near 105 miles per hour (165 kph) as it churned about 115 miles (185 km) east of Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday afternoon, the NHC said.
Heavy rains and storm-surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Florida, to Surf City, North Carolina. Tornadoes were possible along the Florida coast, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.
With many telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones on social media sites.
A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 2,000 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday, although some of the comments were also about loved ones being found.
Janith Mullings, 66, from Freeport, Grand Bahama, said she had been through hurricanes all her life but had never seen anything like Dorian.
“We’ve never had hurricanes in none of our islands that have experienced the ocean rising like it did. The ocean was something no one could prepare for,” she said.
As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
“It’s heartbreaking …,” said Caroline Turnquest, director general of Bahamas Red Cross. “We know from what we’ve been seeing and hearing, that this one will require the help of all the persons.”
Food may be required for 14,500 people in the Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said.
The State Department said it did not believe any U.S. citizens who were in the Bahamas, a popular tourist destination, during the storm were killed.
U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection personnel have airlifted 61 people from the northern Bahamas to the capital Nassau over two days, the U.S. Embassy said.
Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida, Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida, Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen and Matthew Lavietes in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta, Writing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool