NASSAU, Bahamas — A massive search-and-rescue operation scoured the islands of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama amid a growing awareness that Hurricane Dorian unleashed a catastrophe unlike anything seen in this part of the world.
The death toll late Wednesday was 20, according to Minister of Health Duane Sands, and it is likely to rise further as emergency responders work their way through the debris and rubble and the drowned neighborhoods. Rescue workers are racing through flooded terrain looking for survivors and the bodies of victims.
The U.S. Coast Guard has dispatched nine cutters from Key West and has been deploying helicopters, pre-staged in the Bahamas as Dorian approached, to transport the injured to medical facilities in Nassau — the capital, on the island of New Providence — south of the devastation. The British Royal Navy, numerous aid groups, and first responders from Fairfax County, Va., and Los Angeles have joined, or are in the process of joining, the Bahamians’ rescue and relief efforts.
Dorian weakened for much of Wednesday, but the eye became more organized as the day wore on, and the top winds bumped up again. By late evening, Dorian strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane, with 115 mph sustained winds in its eyewall.
The hurricane continued to edge dangerously close to shore as it traced an improbable arc parallel to the southeastern coast of the United States. The National Hurricane Center warned that Dorian could make landfall in the Carolinas on Thursday before spinning away into the North Atlantic. Even if the core of the storm stays offshore, it could unleash “destructive winds, flooding rains, and life-threatening storm surges,” according to the Hurricane Center.
The most likely place for Dorian to crash ashore, given the shape of the coastline, would be North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks. In the meantime, the storm surge will be considerable in coastal cities such as Savannah, Ga., Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and Wilmington, just over the North Carolina border.
What’s certain is that Dorian is now a more moderate version of the storm that hit the northwest Bahamas on Sunday.
A storm surge as high as a two-story building, with waves on top of that, effectively obliterated the city of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco.
“An absolute catastrophe. SEND HELP TO ABACO ISLANDS,” tweeted storm chaser Josh Morgerman after riding out the storm in Marsh Harbour, where he said the winds pounded his concrete building “with the force of a thousand sledgehammers.”
Family members have gathered at the helicopter terminal of Nassau’s international airport awaiting evacuees from the Abacos. Ralanda McKinney, a 25-year-old Abacos transplant living in Nassau, was waiting for news of her parents. Their neighbor, who was evacuated with severe injuries, told McKinney that he had seen her parents at a shelter that was running out of food.
“I don’t care about possessions,” McKinney said. “I just want to see their faces.”
Bahamians were becoming increasingly frustrated with the official response. Rayven Bootle, 18, was waiting for word from her mother, grandmother and others in the Abacos community of Treasure Cay. She was frustrated that the government was not letting people in Nassau carry donated relief supplies to the Abacos.
“It’s been days. Dorian is gone,” she said. “Come on, we need to get in.”
The names of more than 5,500 people have been posted on DorianPeopleSearch.com, a site set up to connect loved ones amid the chaos. It’s unclear how many are missing or just haven’t been able to make contact.
U.S. Coast Guard officials preparing to dock in Miami Beach on Wednesday said they expected to load up on plastic tarps for shelters — one of the most in-demand items in the Bahamas — before delivering those and other supplies to Nassau on Thursday. U.S. officials said they are eager to head to the islands.
“This is not a short-term recovery,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kristopher Ensley, captain of the Paul Clark, one of nine cutters ordered to the Bahamas to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. “For now, they need food, they need shelter, they need medical care.”
The Coast Guard was still fielding emergency rescue requests from the Bahamian government; people in the United States attempting to check on relatives and friends should call the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 888-407-4747.
A major challenge for the cutters is that the waters around the islands are full of debris, sunken boats and other hazards.
“You don’t really know what to expect,” said Ardy Effendi, executive officer of the Paul Clark. “We can’t just push through a lot of debris.”
Theo Neilly, consul general for the Bahamas in Washington, said the scale of the destruction is unprecedented.
“We have not seen a hurricane of this kind in the country ever before,” Neilly said. He noted that Grand Bahama is the second-most-populated island in the chain, and Great Abaco is the third-most — “and a large portion of the economy as well.”
What happened to the northern Bahamas was something even worse than the worst-case scenario. Never had a storm so powerful become stationary for so long over an inhabited place. Dorian’s murderous 40-hour stall over Grand Bahama on Sunday and Monday is something weather experts had not seen.
“Grand Bahama Island may have just endured the longest siege of violent, destructive weather ever observed,” reported The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. By comparison, Hurricane Michael, which ripped up the Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach in October, was a fast-moving storm in which the wind and 16-foot storm surge did their damage over a couple of hours. Dorian was stronger, with a storm surge possibly as high as 23 feet — and it barely budged for a day and a half.
The White House said President Trump spoke Wednesday with Prime Minister Hubert Minnis of the Bahamas, offering condolences and promising support in the disaster response.
On Tuesday night, the president tweeted that he was signing an emergency declaration for North Carolina at the request of Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), whom Trump is supporting in the Republican primary there. But the declaration was actually requested by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
During a hurricane briefing with officials in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon, Trump displayed what appeared to be a doctored map of Hurricane Dorian’s projected track as it approached Florida. The map showed a white line encircling the area of Dorian’s most likely path — often called the cone of uncertainty — but there also was a mysterious black loop that extended the track into Alabama. Trump had been sharply criticized on Sunday for a tweet in which he claimed, incorrectly, that Alabama was among the states that would be hit “harder than anticipated” by the storm.
As reporters pressed him for answers later Wednesday, Trump said he had been told there was a “95 percent” probability that Alabama would be hit by the hurricane. He denied any knowledge of whether anyone had drawn on the map, saying only: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Alabama is safe, as is Florida, now that Dorian has passed. As the storm churned north of Florida’s coast, it left many Sunshine State residents grumbling about the protracted inconvenience of a week’s worth of often dire warnings and mandatory evacuations.
“There ain’t nothing coming this way,” said Jerome Owens, 57, who was fishing in the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, using a croaker as bait in hopes of catching a red fish. “It’s high tide, and the water is supposed to be coming over, but all we got is some rain showers.”
“Man, my neighbor is home cutting his lawn right now,” added Gary Williams, 66. “And if you go to the other side of town, you can probably find people having barbecues in their front lawn.”
As dolphins fed in the river, Williams and Owens said local officials had overreacted by ordering the evacuation of a quarter-million residents in Jacksonville, which has shown a propensity to flood.
“They made too big a deal about this storm, and they should have known when it just stopped and sat over the Bahamas that it wasn’t going to make it here to be anything like Irma,” said Owens, referring to the hurricane that inundated nearly 1,000 properties here in 2017.
Some residents in Jacksonville Beach, a barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean, also questioned city leaders’ decision to order a broad evacuation. But Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry (R) strongly defended the move, noting it takes 48 hours to successfully evacuate so many people.
“This is my third storm in four years,” Curry said. “We know what we are doing.”
In Daytona Beach, Fla., bridges that had been shut down because of high wind on Tuesday night reopened earlier than expected Wednesday morning. Few cars were on the roads, and few businesses were open.
“To say we dodged a bullet from the storm is an understatement, obviously we dodged a missile,” Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald said.
Eileen Keenan, who chose to stay in her house a block from the beach, said her only complaint was that the coffee shop near her was closed for the day.
“We can joke about it and be like ‘ugh,’ but you have to be grateful that nothing happened and we were not the Bahamas,” said Keenan, 53. “Good god, help those poor people.”
The Carolinas are now facing their Dorian moment. Some locations could see as much as five to eight feet of storm-surge flooding, which will come on top of already unusually high tides.
Randy Webster, head of the Horry County Emergency Management agency in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was dismayed that only about 15 percent of residents complied with an evacuation order for part of the county.
“Your decision to stay and not evacuate,” Webster said, “means you may be by yourself for a very long time.”
As the skies darkened Wednesday, Horry Sheriff Phillip Thompson told those who stayed: “Be calm, hunker down. We’ll get past it; we’ve been here before.”
Officials in Wilmington, N.C., urged residents to be off the streets by 8 p.m. The city is no stranger to hurricanes: Last September, slow-moving Florence drenched the Wilmington area, causing major flooding on the Cape Fear River. Officials predicted this storm won’t be as bad but asked residents to take it seriously.
Beach communities have been under an evacuation order since 8 a.m. Wednesday. Residents of low-lying areas are urged, but not ordered, to move to shelter on higher ground. A storm surge of four to seven feet is expected.
Duke Energy, the largest utility provider in the Southeast outside of Florida, predicts 700,000 people will have power outages in the eastern Carolinas, some possibly for several days, as Dorian approaches. The company said in a news release that more than 9,000 utility workers are in the Carolinas to assist with power restoration.
To the south, in Charleston, flooding also is likely. The region has become more vulnerable because of rising sea levels and coastal development. Since 1996, about 25 percent of the land and wetlands around the Church Creek basin in West Ashley, a suburban Charleston subdivision, have been filled, according to Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group.
“When we think about flooding and hurricanes, the threat to property, life and people’s well-being is obviously very important and top of mind, but what gets overlooked is the ecological damage,” he said. “Floodwater is about the dirtiest water you can conjure up, full of oil and grease, herbicides and pesticides, bacteria and pathogens, and all sorts of nastiness, and when it drains away after the visceral event is over, it can still take years for estuaries and waterways to recover.”
Dorian’s path is near the fishing grounds of commercial fisherman Mark Marhefka. The more intense the storm, the more damage to the ocean floor and marine habitat, he said. “The fish will either bunch up and bite like crazy, or they’ll be all stirred up and not want to bite,” said Marhefka, of Charleston. Typically, the fishing on the backside of a hurricane is some of his best. “There’s a nice groundswell and a lot of dancing action on the bait.”
If the electricity on shore is still out, he’ll have to drag his generator along to power his electric scale. “Got to be able to weigh the catch and get the fish to my restaurants,” he said.
Bechir Slama, manager of the IHOP restaurant in Bluffton, S.C., stayed open for breakfast Wednesday but closed at 1 p.m. so his employees could return home to ride out the storm.
“They want to work,” he said. “This is hurricane season; they always make good money in the hurricane season. Tips are always better.”
Sacchetti reported from aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Paul Clark in the Atlantic Ocean, Craig from Jacksonville, Achenbach from Washington. Jasper Ward in Nassau, Fenit Nirappil in Daytona Beach, Fla., Susan Cooper Eastman in Jacksonville, Jessica Sparks in Bluffton, S.C., Stephanie Hunt in Charleston, S.C., Patricia Sullivan in Wilmington, N.C., Reis Thebault in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Mark Berman, Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner, Jason Samenow, Andrew Freedman and Matthew Cappucci in Washington contributed to this report.