GREAT ABACO, Bahamas (CNN) — Volunteers with search dogs continue to scour neighborhoods flattened by Hurricane Dorian, while global relief agencies are rushing to get food and shelter Saturday to some 70,000 people left homeless on two northern islands.
The death toll, now at 43, is expected to rise drastically, officials said, as hundreds remain missing, buried under rubble on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands by the strongest hurricane ever to hit the archipelago nation.
“It was like an atomic bomb went off,” said Sherrie Roberts, who survived on the Abaco Islands when Dorian struck almost a week ago as a Category 5 monster, then lingered for days over the same wrecked places.
The situation has devolved into a “humanitarian crisis,” the Bahamian financial services ministry said Friday in a statement. Efforts are underway to move evacuees by the hundreds to safety, including on a cruise ship due to arrive Saturday morning in Florida.
Search and rescue personnel who arrived with cadaver dogs on the Abaco Islands brought body bags and coolers to store human remains, said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the country’s tourism and aviation ministry.
Ravaged infrastructure has impeded search and recovery efforts, as the islands remain a mess of splintered buildings, torn-off roofs, snapped power poles and scattered vehicles.
At least 70,000 people are homeless on Abaco and Grand Bahama, the United Nations estimated early Saturday. A thousand tarpaulins — strong pieces of waterproof plastic– will be provided to replace roofs that were stripped from homes, the International Organization for Migration said.
Residents are trying to leave ravaged islands
More than 1,550 evacuees are expected to arrive Saturday morning aboard the Grand Celebration humanitarian cruise ship in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said on Facebook.
US Customs and Border Protection is working with the cruise line to process the passengers when they arrive.
The cruise line said it filled the ship with food, water, personal hygiene products, medical equipment, generators, volunteers, and first responders, and headed to the island to provide first aid.
By Friday, the Coast Guard also had rescued more than 230 people off the islands. Survivors packed their few remaining belongings and searched for a way out.
Ted Curry was one of more than 300 people waiting at the Leonard M. Thompson International Airport in Marsh Harbour trying to get a flight to Nassau, the nation’s capital, to stay with family. Hundreds more had grown tired of waiting and made their way to the island’s main port.
“The island of Abaco has been through and survived many hurricanes in the past. It didn’t take long for us to rebound, but this is different from anything we’ve ever experienced. This hurricane will set us back for years to come,” he said.
On Friday, Bahamas Air announced they had resumed service to Marsh Harbour in Abaco and Freeport in Grand Bahama, offering several relief flights between those areas and Nassau, according to Bahamas public broadcaster ZNS.
The airline issued a schedule of the flights on its Facebook page.
‘Unimaginable’ death toll and human suffering
“When we were driving up, we could smell … death,” CNN’s Patrick Oppmann said about Bevans Town on the island of Grand Bahama.
The area is in ruins, he said. “Every house, every structure, every life has been essentially destroyed in this area.”
Estimated death tolls have been “harrowing and deeply distressing,” said Jibrilu of the tourism and aviation ministry.
The public should prepare for “unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering,” Health Minister Duane Sands told Guardian Radio 96.9 FM.