GREAT ABACO, Bahamas — As sunshine returned to the northern Bahamas on Wednesday, residents and authorities surveyed the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco, overwhelmed by incredible destruction from Hurricane Dorian, which reportedly also took at least 20 lives.
Hurricane Dorian pulverized the islands for two days, hurling catastrophic winds and relentless rain. It was the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the country.
At least 20 people died in the northern Bahamas, according to a Washington Post report that cites Bahamian Minister of Health Duane Sands. The minister told the Post that 17 people died on Abaco Islands and three on Grand Bahama Island.
The damage is immense and will require a massive recovery and relief effort.
The only airport on the island of Grand Bahama has been ripped apart by Dorian.
“After two days of trying, we’re finally able to get into the Freeport airport,” CNN’s Patrick Oppmann said from the scene Wednesday.
“It’s gone. … The level of devastation is actually breathtaking. There are no walls left at the airport. The ceiling has come crashing.”
The airport’s obliteration deals a devastating blow for residents who desperately need medical evacuations or emergency aid.
“The runway field is now a debris field,” Oppmann said.
Now that Dorian’s vicious bands of rain and wind are slowly crawling up the southeast US coast, Bahamians are finally seeing sunlight again.
“Nothing compares to what we went through the past two days,” survivor Michael Hynes said. “Almost 48 hours now with nonstop carnage.”
The death toll includes an 8-year-old boy. Authorities say that number will almost surely rise.
“We can expect more deaths to be recorded,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said Tuesday. “Our priority is search, rescue and recovery.”
Volunteers are rushing to rescue trapped residents and deliver aid three days after Dorian slammed the country as a Category 5 storm.
“There is tremendous human suffering,” storm chaser Josh Morgerman said. “These people really need help. They’ve lost everything.”
Volunteers wade through flooding to save strangers
Rochenel Daniel is one of the many Bahamians who took it upon himself to rescue others.
“The first one we found was my brother. He was clinging on to a tree, and he made it out safe,” Daniel said.
“But we are unable to locate his wife at the moment. We hope that she’s OK.”
Volunteers are fighting their own fatigue to save survivors worn out from the prolonged hurricane.
“Some people, they were exhausted. Some we had to carry,” Daniel said. “Some couldn’t even make it.”
Freeport resident Harold Williams and his son went out on a Jet Ski to get stranded relatives who waded out to them in chest-deep waters.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this in our lifetime,” Williams said. “Total destruction.”
In parts of the Abacos, going door-to-door isn’t an option because there are no doors. Houses have been replaced with rubble.
A hospital isn’t even reachable
Swaths of Grand Bahama now look like ravaged wastelands.
Injured residents can’t reach one hospital because it’s blocked by submerged cars.
Not only is the island’s airport ruined, a road leading up to it has been replaced by a river of floodwater.
Between Grand Bahama and the Abacos, about 60,000 people may be in dire need of food relief, the World Food Programme said.
The US Coast Guard has conducted 61 rescues in the Bahamas so far and is doing aerial surveys, Rear Adm. Doug Fears told reporters during a FEMA conference call Wednesday.
Houses look like they were put in a blender
Even new homes built under more stringent building codes were destroyed, said Brandon Clement, who shot footage of the destruction from a helicopter.
One older neighborhood was wiped out, he said.
“You can’t tell that there are any homes there,” he said. “It looks like a bunch of building materials were put in a big grinder and thrown on the ground.”
The Abacos suffered massive destruction, the Prime Minister said, with 60% of homes in the town of Marsh Harbor damaged.
“There are no words to convey the grief we feel for our fellow Bahamians in the Abacos and Grand Bahama,” Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Hotels in the Abaco and Grand Bahama islands are closed, according to the tourism ministry.
Most of The Bahamas’ other islands are open for tourists.
A catastrophically slow-moving storm
Bahamians endured Dorian’s brute force for days, as the hurricane moved only 30 miles in 30 hours from Monday into Tuesday.
By Wednesday morning, all tropical storm warnings for the country had been discontinued. But the arduous recovery is just beginning.
“It’s very hard, but we shall overcome.” said Daniel, the rescue volunteer.
The recovery will be especially difficult for Freeport resident Howard Armstrong. His wife drowned in front of him after a storm surge overwhelmed their home, leaving only their heads above water.
The couple waited for hours to be rescued before Armstrong’s wife succumbed to hypothermia and slipped beneath the surface.
“She was standing on top of the kitchen cabinets until they disintegrated. And I kept with her, and she just drowned on me,” Howard said. “She was gone so quickly.”