MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas — In the rubble that was once the most densely populated neighborhood on Great Abaco Island, the only sound Monday morning was the groan of the newly arrived bulldozer, crushing glass and wood as it inched closer to the bodies.
It was a week after Hurricane Dorian made landfall here, and efforts to rescue survivors had given way to the slow, grim work of rooting through the wreckage for the dead.
The reports came in from family members and neighbors. The body of one man was found clutching his son. Another was entangled on a fence. Another was halfway through a door, frozen in a futile attempt at escaping the most powerful storm ever to assault this island nation.
With each new lead, American and Bahamian recovery workers lumbered forward into the debris, wearing white hazmat suits and masks. There were a few dozen workers, not nearly enough to conduct an effective search of the comprehensive destruction.
The Mudd and Peas, among the poorest neighborhoods on Great Abaco, were flattened last week by the Category 5 hurricane. A search of less than one-tenth of the area on Sunday yielded five bodies.
“Based on our experience so far,” Hillhouse said, “I’d say there are a lot more.”
The Bahamian government has been slow to raise its official death toll, which stood Monday evening at 50. The count did not include the bodies the teams on Great Abaco found during the day.
Much larger numbers have been circulating. The Punch, a Nassau tabloid, ran a front-page headline Monday suggesting a final count in the thousands. Other local media have run similar stories.
That bothers Wendell Dean. He was working in the local morgue, which has been overwhelmed with bodies. Workers have resorted to storing the surplus bodies in a refrigerated container.
“It’s totally unfair to throw these numbers all over the place,” Dean said. “It only adds to the anxiety.”
Bahamian officials have declined to speculate about how many deaths remain uncounted. They say they expect the number to rise dramatically.
“I don’t know and have been reluctant to put a range of expected deaths out there,” said Duane Sands, the country’s health minister. “But I will say it’s likely to be a significant and unimaginable toll.”
The priority now, he said, is on the living.
“Teams are focused on fundamental issues of getting food, water, shelter, clothing and comfort to the people,” he said. “While it is critically important to find everybody who perished, it is more important right now to find those that have survived and make sure nobody else perishes.”
That’s standard in natural disasters, according to Trevor Rhodes, the domestic emergency response manager for the International Medical Corps.
“Until first responders have gone through and identified individuals with life-threatening conditions that they can save, the main focus won’t be on counting the number of fatalities,” he said.
Dean stood outside the container Monday morning, waiting for the next body to arrive.
There was a Bahamian team out looking, the Florida firefighters, and another team from Fairfax, Va., contracted through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
When the bulldozer arrived in the early afternoon, the Bahamian and Florida teams followed it through the wreckage.
“Adult male,” they wrote in black marker on a white sheet before wrapping a body in it.
Workers found the body of a man face down near a clothesline, the T-shirts somehow still blowing in the wind. Six workers carried it away.
Trucks lay upside down and boats on their sides. Flat-screen televisions were strewn alongside underwear and a Haitian woman’s photo ID.
One Bahamian worker shook her head.
“It’s hard to understand why some things survived and some didn’t,” she said.
No one knows how many people remain missing after the storm. The website DorianPeopleSearch.com, where people may enter the names of lost loved ones, contained thousands of names on Monday.
“We are trying to now hone this thing down,” Sands said. “There must also be many more missing, since lots of people don’t have power to charge their cellphones or communicate.”
As Bahamians desperate for information grew angry, the country’s emergency management agency explained its search plans late Sunday.
“The island has been put into a grid system and the recovery team will check each section for persons who are still alive [and] any bodies that need to be recovered,” the agency said in a statement.
But in Abaco’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, the task was more haphazard than the statement suggested. Because so little debris had been cleared, the Florida team set up a system of ropes to get closer to bodies. There were no stretchers, so team members used blankets they found on the ground to lift bodies.
“You have to understand the emotional and mental toll it takes on us,” Dean said.
Sands described a “laborious, painstaking, meticulous process,” made more challenging by impassable roads and damaged bridges.
On Monday, the discovery of one body led to the discovery of another.
“Now we’re hearing that there are four more,” one of the Bahamian workers said about 3 p.m.
The team members took off their protective gear and rested in the shade, everyone covered in sweat. They were coming to terms with what many experts already suspected — given the nature of the storm, many bodies would probably never be recovered.
“Given the storm surge and significant flooding from the hurricane, it is likely that some bodies may have washed out to sea,” said Esther Mary de Gourville, the World Health Organization’s representative to the Bahamas. “The exact death count may never be known.”
Krygier reported from Miami.