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Hurricane Dorian leaves terrible destruction in Bahamas as it rolls toward U.S.

Aerial helicopter footage taken by Brandon Clement of WxChasing / LSM Aerial on Sept. 3, showed the vast destruction of Hurricane Dorian in Abaco, Bahamas. (Video: Brandon Clement / LSM)

NASSAU, Bahamas — Hurricane Dorian’s fury as it stalled over the northwest Bahamas has left shocking scenes of destruction and fears of a massive loss of life. Authorities said Tuesday that nearly three out of every four homes on Grand Bahama are underwater, and recovery from the catastrophic damage will cost billions of dollars.

An even grimmer spectacle lies to the east, where the first aerial images of the island of Great Abaco since the storm’s retreat showed a pulverized landscape that is little more than a debris field.

Dorian expands as tropical storm conditions hit Florida and hurricane risk increases in the Carolinas

Entire neighborhoods have been wiped out, with houses turned to rubble. Cars and even huge metal shipping containers have been scattered by a storm surge that meteorologists report might have reached 23 feet on islands and cays that are just modestly above sea level. The ocean became, in effect, a bulldozer.

Winds that gusted to 220 mph lifted boats from their moorings and tossed them onto what used to be dry land. Roads and airports in the northwest Bahamas remain impassably flooded, and large portions of the islands have become, for now, little more than extensions of the Atlantic.

Dorian, broader but weaker now, is rolling north through Florida’s coastal waters, lashing the beaches with heavy surf and high winds but so far staying far enough from land that it has not threatened the kind of extreme violence seen in the Bahamas.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said Tuesday night that the official death count was raised to seven but that he expects more deaths to be recorded as authorities reach damaged areas. During an aerial tour of Great Abaco, Minnis saw a ravaged landscape, including the destruction of the Mudd, a shantytown neighborhood in Marsh Harbour that sits in a low-lying area.

“Parts of Abaco are decimated. There is severe flooding,” Minnis said. “There is severe damage to homes, businesses, other buildings and infrastructure.”

Donna Finlayson-Doran lost touch with her family in the Bahamas as the islands were battered by Hurricane Dorian. (Video: The Washington Post)

Roger Russell, a cameraman for a television production company in Grand Bahama who had been filming all day Tuesday on the stricken island, said what he saw was heartbreaking.

“We are truly faced with a demon here,” he said. “I saw little kids clinging, just clinging to people who rescued them. An old man was dehydrated and could not walk. A young lady told me she had been holding on to a pole — a wooden telephone pole — for 24 hours in the storm and she had to strap herself to the pole to survive.”

The storm knocked out communication with Great Abaco, where Russell has family and the first full thrust came out of the open ocean as a Category 5 hurricane. Rescue operations were initially impossible because of the storm’s relentlessness. Dorian made landfall Sunday and became entirely stationary by Monday evening, when it reached the north side of Grand Bahama.

Bahamas Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest, who is also the finance minister, said the island’s infrastructure was wrecked, estimating astronomical costs for reconstruction.

“With approximately 70 percent of the homes underwater, we anticipate tremendous social and economic dislocation and disruption in the short term,” Turnquest said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The mental health of those who have endured this monster storm is a priority concern of the government.”

The hurricane — which registered top sustained winds of 185 mph at landfall, as powerful as any Atlantic storm to touch land in recorded history — barely moved for 38 hours before atmospheric changes finally lured it northwest, toward the southeastern United States.

“There are many difficult days, weeks and months ahead of us as a people and as a country,” Minnis said on Twitter Tuesday afternoon. In England, Queen Elizabeth, the head of state of the Bahamas, said she was “shocked and saddened to learn of the devastation” caused by the storm.

“I caution Bahamians everywhere that chances that we find more persons dead, those chances are real,” National Security Minister Marvin Dames told The Post. “I can’t see any way out of it.”

The destruction in the Bahamas sparked relief efforts in the United States, including supplies amassed by expatriate Bahamians living in South Florida. Six U.S. Coast Guard helicopters, operating out of the Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in the Bahamas, have been evacuating injured Bahamians from the Marsh Harbour clinic on Great Abaco, flying them to Nassau for urgent care. The British Royal Navy dispatched an auxiliary aid ship, the RFA Mounts Bay.

The prime minister’s office asked people stranded on Grand Bahama, home to the tourist city of Freeport, to send their GPS locations via WhatsApp.

“Freeport gospel chapel multipurpose building,” one user posted.

“Hi stuck by grand central 4way in plz send help holding on to a wall,” posted another.

Others posted the addresses of people trapped on roofs, sometimes with detailed directions: “Easiest approach use Casuarina bridge 1st left. House is under the little bridge. Green trimmed white. Please help them.”

The Bahamas Press tweeted Tuesday that the list of missing people has been growing in the Abaco islands, reflecting the shattering blow Dorian brought to entire families:

“Less Forbes, Less Forbes Jr,” it read. “Michaella Ferguson and her son, Deon Ferguson;” “Elgbert Thinker and his wife.”

Cocoa Beach, Fla. is usually full of tourists at this time of year, but Hurricane Dorian has turned it into a ghost town. (Video: Ray Whitehouse, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The Abacos, the islands east of Grand Bahama, are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, said Stephen Bennett, editorial director of an online travel guide,

“All of them are so flat and their landmass composed so much of sand and limestone that no doubt their very shapes will not be the same moving forward,” he said. He was frantically trying to reach close friends who live and work on the island but couldn’t because phone lines and data service were down. “We are heartbroken,” he said from Fort Lauderdale.

The threat to the United States remained roughly the same as it had been for several exhausting and exasperating days: a small, if still unnerving, chance that the storm could come ashore in Florida or the Carolinas a day or so later. The weather models for several days have called for the storm to stay barely offshore and then curve to the northeast as if on a surveying expedition along the Southeast coastline.

Dorian has changed a bit for better and worse. It has become larger, with hurricane-force winds extending farther from the eye. But the core of the storm, the eyewall with the highest winds, is significantly weaker. That has brought more of the coast and more people into the zone likely to be hit by the storm’s broad wind field, but the weaker core means Dorian won’t hit as hard as it did in the Bahamas.

The National Hurricane Center expanded its hurricane warning into North Carolina. Mandatory evacuations have been in effect across four states and hundreds of miles. Schools are closed, and coastal residents are largely hunkering down, waiting for Dorian to pass and eventually, if forecasters are correct, run out of steam somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said that more than 5,000 national guardsmen and 2,700 active-duty personnel were either deployed or positioned to respond in 24 hours or less to the hurricane as it threatens the United States. O’Shaughnessy said the Department of Defense had authorized him to provide logistics, health and engineering support to the Bahamas. That could include helping reopen flooded airports so that supplies and aid can begin flowing onto the affected islands.

So stationary had Dorian become on Monday that it counted as big news when the storm started edging its way toward the northwest at 1 mph early Tuesday. Then it hit 2 mph by late morning, and by early afternoon, it had shifted gears again, up to 5 mph. Live cams from the Florida coast showed an angry sea pounding deserted fishing piers.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) warned that just a slight shift west in the hurricane’s path could bring “enormous damage” to the state. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared emergencies in a dozen counties. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) ordered people to evacuate barrier islands along the coast.

“We have seen the life-and-death effects of this storm in the Bahamas, and we urge everyone on the islands at the coast to leave,” Cooper said.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., the Volusia County sheriff’s office said it had arrested two men on suspicion of stealing sandbags from a construction site early Monday evening. Sheriff Mike Chitwood also warned of scammers trying to exploit the hurricane, including a person who tried to trick an elderly woman into paying to cut a tree on her property and a burglar who posed as a city official to enter a visually impaired person’s house.

People taking shelter at a high school four miles inland said they were feeling antsy after a week of changing expectations.

“I want Dorian to do whatever it’s going to do already and be done,” said Tonya Parham, a resident of Woodbridge, Va., who was vacationing with her mom at a timeshare before resort officials evacuated visitors.

Florida residents said they were comforted by signs that the state would not get a direct hit, but the storm’s size and videos of destruction from the Bahamas kept them on alert.

“It done destroyed Bahamas and chewed it up and spit it out,” said Richard Mills, who is 53 and lives in a trailer park in Holly Hills.

In Jacksonville, Larry Coleman recalled the ferocity of Hurricane Dora in 1964, when his roof rattled like it was about to blow away. But the 70-year-old said he is not worried about Dorian.

“I’ve seen so many of these dang things, you more or less have a feeling for it,” he said as he sat on a park bench on the north bank of the St. Johns River.

In Hilton Head Island, S.C., the weather remained pleasant, and it didn’t look like a place under a mandatory evacuation order. Mike Shuster of Cincinnati, who owns a vacation home on the island, was with his family on the beach. Family members dug small trenches in front of a tent they had set up.

He was hoping to stay but willing to leave if conditions became difficult.

“To me, the issue now is the flooding. The center of the island, most of it is below sea level if not at sea level, so if you get a good surge wave, we’ve got issues. You know, the power going out. No power, no water — that makes for a long week,” Shuster said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center announced that weather models continued to show Dorian staying offshore but somewhat closer to the Carolinas.

“A track that close to the coast, even if landfall does not occur, is likely to bring dangerous winds, life-threatening storm surge, and flooding rains across the eastern portion of the Carolinas,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

Ward is a freelance reporter. Faiola reported from Miami, Sullivan from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and Achenbach from Washington. Fenit Nirappil in Daytona Beach, Susan Cooper Eastman in Jacksonville, Jessica Sparks in Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Mark Berman, Frances Stead Sellers, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Paul Sonne, Sarah Kaplan, Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman in Washington contributed to this report.