WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As rescue crews continue to look for and evacuate people from the devastated islands of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, relatives and friends are trying desperately to find loved ones in the Bahamas amid the chaos of recovery after Hurricane Dorian.
Access to the battered northern islands, where the storm caused catastrophic damage, has been limited. Search and rescue teams, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the British Royal Navy, were on the islands in the past two days trying to find survivors.
Amid communication lapses and widespread devastation, though, news about individuals is slow to arrive and difficult to find, so thousands of people have taken to social media to track down their kin.
One site — DorianPeopleSearch.com — started trying to help on Sunday night, in the middle of the storm, when a Realtor in Nassau said she saw a growing need even while the hurricane was still hitting the islands. Vanessa Pritchard-Ansell said Facebook groups of worried people had grown so numerous and unwieldy that it made finding names of those missing difficult. A Google Docs spreadsheet had grown to 40 pages and was difficult to navigate, she said.
“Each of those Facebook pages had a purpose, people asking for information about their loved ones,” Pritchard-Ansell said. “My concern was that the purpose would get lost.”
By Thursday, friends and family members had posted the names of nearly 6,500 people on Pritchard-Ansell’s site. She said she is working with the U.S. and Canadian embassies to cross-check names with citizens of those countries.
She has an international team of volunteers helping.
“I know this kind of thing has been done before,” she said. “A guy from Spain reached out to me, and he had done something like this for a different hurricane, so it all came together.”
The Bahamian government created a form that asks detailed questions. DorianPeopleSearch is stripped down and basic: the name of the missing person, the town where they were believed to be before the storm, and their status — known or, in the vast majority of the 6,464 names, unknown. The names are listed in alphabetical order.
If there’s a critical need for evacuation, that is noted as well by whoever is posting the name.
One woman was listed as “last seen — Murphy Town by Change Ministries Church — needs insulin.”
“There have been people on dialysis; there was a woman in labor,” Pritchard-Ansell said. “Another woman who had a 5-week-old baby.”
Just a few missing people on the website are in the “status: known” category.
“When you see that somebody has been found and their family knows where they are, you feel a moment of elation,” she said. “But you also know that there are so many thousands of others who have not been accounted for.”
It might be small comfort to frantic loved ones, but the number of people reported missing in the initial hours after a hurricane typically goes down dramatically in the ensuing days, when power and communications are restored and people can more easily find one another and use cellphones and the Internet to reconnect. The Bahamian government has thus far listed 23 recorded deaths as a result of Hurricane Dorian, but they caution that the number probably will rise as authorities reach decimated areas of the islands.
There are approximately 70,000 people who live on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama combined. It is unclear how many were able to evacuate particularly vulnerable areas, such as the Mudd, a low-lying shantytown in Marsh Harbour that authorities said was decimated.
U.S. and British rescuers are assisting the Bahamian government in searching for survivors, many of whom will be brought to safer spots on the southern islands. Pritchard-Ansell is also working with Trans Island Airways to get names of people they are evacuating.
TIA operations manager James Ingraham said search and rescue operations have been difficult because of the devastation — Freeport’s airport was destroyed. Getting information about where people are — and if they are stranded — is a challenge.
“Our priority is getting people to safety,” Ingraham said. “But it’s nice to let family members know that their loved one survived, to give them some reassurance. That’s important.”
Pritchard-Ansell said her family was safe in Nassau: “We barely got a surface scratch here.” But she said she knew even before Dorian left the islands — and it took 48 hours for it to finally pass — there would be a great need for information about those in hard-hit areas.
She said a simple, easy-to-use website seemed best, just listing names and hometowns.
“On the islands, the degree of separation is really quite small,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone or is a friend of a friend.”
Allaya Hagigal started helping people connect as she was watching reports of the devastation Monday from her home in Nassau.
“I got on Twitter, and someone I follow said, ‘My family and I are in my home, someone please help, I’m unable to call emergency services and the water is rising fast,’” Hagigal, 20, said. “I was starting to panic thinking about that, so my mother was like, let’s find someone to help.”
Hagigal called emergency services in Freeport, they took the information, and the family was rescued. Since then, she has made more than 350 calls on behalf of dozens of families to agencies such as the Royal Bahamas Defense Force and police departments in several towns, as well as the National Emergency Management Agency, passing on vital information. They recognize her voice when she calls, she said.
“The government is doing the best they can, but civilians are definitely needed. It’s such a huge catastrophe, it has to be a combined effort,” said Hagigal, a model and actress. “It’s been exhausting. I’m hearing everyone’s stories, trying to quell their fears, submitting countless names and addresses, getting family photos. I’m trying to do as much as I can. So many people need help.”
Several U.S.-based groups are also helping people get information on loved ones in the Bahamas. Matt Marchetti, co-found of CrowdSource Rescue, said search and rescue volunteers on the islands are being asked to look out for people reported missing by family and friends to the CSR website.
“It’s been very tricky,” Marchetti said. “This is the most difficult storm we’ve ever been a part of. It’s an international location, it’s islands, there’s very little communication, and you can’t just drive there.”
CrowdSource Rescue volunteer Beth Powell said 200 families have reached out for help.
“It’s kind of frightening to know that 200 families were out there that didn’t know what happened to their loved ones,” Powell said. “The good news is, we’ve been able to clear more than 40 of those. Communication was lost for a period of time, but we’re still working, and hopefully in time everybody will find each other.”
Jeff Williams, 26, of Broward County, Fla., has been looking for news about his girlfriend, Deneze Bootle, 20, for several days.
“I’ve been on Instagram, I tried to join Facebook groups, but it’s been so long since I’ve used it that I forgot my password,” Williams said. “I’m just looking up every little database and Google Doc and whatever I can find to get news about her. I’m checking every hour, and trying to call the embassy. I haven’t heard a thing.”
Bootle is listed on DorianPeopleSearch as being in Murphy Town on Abaco, where her family lives. Abaco was among the areas hardest hit by Dorian.
“I talked to her on Saturday. We were talking about just regular stuff, making each other laugh,” Williams said. “She told me she would charge her phone before the hurricane. The next thing you know, the hurricane hits and just sits on top of the island. Then the images started coming in, and I started to cry.”
He said Bootle had recently graduated from the University of the Bahamas in Nassau and was home visiting family. Williams said he bought an engagement ring but had not yet proposed.
“Deneze is my soul mate.” Williams said. “And now I don’t know what to do. I just keep checking and hoping that I’ll find her. And I keep praying, and crying, and hoping those tears will lead her back.”
Late Thursday, Williams got the news he had prayed for: Bootle was safe. In a text message, Williams said he hopes she can leave soon: “Due to the conditions on the island, no-one is truly safe until they are off of it. So, I’ll continue to pray for her evacuation.”
Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida.