NASSAU, Bahamas — As the eyewall of the strongest storm to hit the Bahamas descended on the picturesque island town of Marsh Harbour, Nikieva Wallace watched in horror.
The full force of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph, was rolling in on Great Abaco, a northern island of marinas, beach houses and wood-frame huts. Already, storm surge had sent waves crashing onto the street, lapping at coastal homes.
As wind and rain pummeled her town, Wallace saw utility poles bend and trees snap like twigs.
“A pole is just about ready to hit the ground,” she said on the phone, trying to keep calm to avoid alarming her 2-year-old son.
Then came a bang.
“That was my hurricane shutter,” she said. “It just flew into the road.”
A half-hour later, her phone went dead.
As the storm’s eye passed over the island, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced that parts of Marsh Harbour, a town of more than 6,000, appeared to be “underwater,” and reports surfaced of desperate residents in roofless homes trying to seek shelter from rising floodwaters.
The storm “is one that we have never seen in the history of the Bahamas,” Minnis said, adding that the government had no confirmation of fatalities.
Addressing people on the island, he said: “I can only say to them that I hope this is not the last time they will hear my voice, and may God be with them.”
“I can say that in the Marsh Harbour area of Abaco, parts of it is already underwater and in some areas, you cannot tell the difference as to the beginning of the street or where the ocean begins,” Minnis continued. “And they have not yet been hit by the brunt of the storm.”
Dorian’s strike on the northern Bahamas, officials and witnesses said, appeared to be a catastrophe in the making, with wind speeds accelerating just as the storm slowed. Residents of the northern Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama — including villagers who stayed put on low-lying cays — were hunkering down for a siege that could see some parts of this nation of nearly 400,000 people withstand hurricane conditions for two days. It could feel to some like an hours-long tornado.
On the Abaco Islands, violent waves and lashing wind and rain tore apart docks and power lines as Dorian strengthened to Category 5 right before it struck. Drone footage from state broadcaster ZNS and images on social media showed massive flooding and damaged, impassible roads in Marsh Harbour. One of the country’s two major cellphone operators lost service, but some residents in the hardest-hit areas still had limited communication at least through the eye of the storm.
Low-lying Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the Abacos, suffered storm surges. Officials said the Mudd, a shantytown of Haitian immigrants, was severely damaged. Roofs were blown off hotels and homes.
In a desperate live video posted on Facebook, a woman wailed from her perch in a roofless apartment building in Marsh Harbour as the floodwaters rose around her.
Gertha Joseph, a 34-year-old mother of a 4-month-old who goes by the name Jetta Clavi on social media, said some neighbors tried to swim across the rushing waters to a cluster of houses.
“But the water just took them,” she said in the video. “Some people, they didn’t get to make it.”
“Pray for us, pray for us, me and my baby, everyone who stayed in the apartment building, we stayed right here, please pray for us, pray for Abaco,” she sobs. “I’m begging you, pray for us.”
Another video surfaced of one man begging for help as rain raged inside his home.
The nation’s Ministry of Health said late Sunday afternoon that it had not confirmed any deaths from the storm.
Social media, for those able to find limited cellular service, became a lifeline and information depot. In the island district of Hope Town, according to a Facebook page set up by residents, villas and furniture were washed away, a local lodge had collapsed, and “many houses” had been destroyed.
Dorian’s eyewall was on course to hit island communities farther west, even as the storm was slouching forward at a painfully slow 7 mph. The speed could reduce further, experts warned.
In a country still struggling to recover from a litany of major storms in recent years, targeted evacuations had been ordered. Authorities and volunteers aided with transit by sea and land. More than 50 residents of Grand Cay were trapped for more than seven hours overnight as they attempted to leave the area. They finally escaped by boat.
“A vessel departed at 5:30 a.m. from Grand Cay with 58 persons onboard en route to Grand Bahama,” said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Agency. “There may be a few more, but that’s the most the boat can take now under the circumstances, and that may very well be the last trip there.”
Maxine Duncombe, administrator of Central Abaco, said more than 500 people lived on cays off the district and most had remained despite evacuation orders.
“I would say at least 90 percent of the persons stayed on the cays,” she said. “They did not avail themselves of the transportation that was provided for them to be evacuated.”
The northern Bahamas could spend an extended period within Dorian’s eyewall, the National Hurricane Center said, where they would be subjected to punishing wind, more than two feet of rain, and storm surge 10 to 15 feet above normal. Airports were closed on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama.
Grand Bahama is home to Freeport, the nation’s second-largest city, which stood right in the storm’s path. Islanders there joined desperate lines to stock up on food and gas. On Sunday, one woman described conditions as “eerily calm.”
“The weather is really okay here,” said Sarah Kirby, a 50-year-old public relations executive. “It just looks like a regular rainy day. But we all know that a big storm is coming.”
Faiola reported from Miami.