NASSAU, Bahamas — The Bahamas confronted a national catastrophe from the strongest storm on record to hit this island nation, as Hurricane Dorian’s slow and deadly strike leveled homes, tore off roofs, submerged airports, destroyed cars and transformed narrow island passes into open sea.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis confirmed the first fatalities late Monday, saying at least five people had died and at least 21 had been injured in the “historic tragedy,” even as the toll appeared set to climb. In sharp contrast with fast-moving storms that pass within an hour or two, some parts of the Bahamas, including the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island, were witnessing more than 36 hours of brutal conditions. As the storm virtually stalled, the strike on northern Bahamas was dragging into Tuesday. Few places on the planet have experienced storm conditions as horrifically lengthy.
“The Bahamas is presently at war and being attacked by Hurricane Dorian,” Minnis said in an interview. “And yet, it has no weapon at its disposal to defend itself during such an assault by this enemy.”
Dorian hit the Bahamas with the highest intensity, Category 5. It has since weakened slightly to a 145-mph Category 4 as it inched offshore, though it made little difference in terms of the severe storm surge and wind damage it was inflicting.
In the storm’s direct wake were flooded neighborhoods, debris fields and broad destruction. Minnis said the five confirmed deaths happened on the Abacos Islands. The airport in Freeport — the nation’s second-largest city — turned into a river of rushing tidewaters.
The U.S. Coast Guard was deploying helicopters to evacuate the injured from the Marsh Harbour clinic on devastated Great Abaco, flying them back to Nassau for urgent care. But government officials warned that rescue efforts were largely suspended until conditions improve, leaving desperate, stranded residents on their own.
Tidal surges from the storm were projected to reach up to 23 feet above normal levels, overwhelming low-lying cays and islands. Severe flooding and power and phone outages extended beyond the worst of the strike zone, as far south as the capital, Nassau. Unconfirmed reports of deaths emerged on Abaco Islands — reports that authorities said they were still struggling to confirm.
“But we fear that there could be truth to these stories based on reports from family,” said Duane Sands, the Bahamian health minister. “Until we are able to assess all the areas ravaged, we are unable to confirm these reports.”
Storm-weary Bahamians are no strangers to the ravaging force of hurricanes, having suffered a series of strikes in recent years. But the extent and dragged-out nature of Dorian’s ferocity stunned residents, leading to a proliferation of life-threatening situations.
Severe storm surges covered cabanas and ripped apart docks in Queens Cove on Grand Bahama, one of the government’s targeted evacuation zones. In video footage sent to The Washington Post, water had broken through the hurricane-resistant windows of resident Lena Chandler’s home. The first floor was flooded to within a few feet of the ceiling, even as water had begun rising along the staircase, approaching the second floor, where she was sheltering.
“Outside is now inside,” said Chandler, a 48-year-old alarm company owner.
Asked why she did not follow evacuation orders for the area, Chandler said that, like others, she had not anticipated such devastation on the island.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” she said.
The massive storm surge turned streets into rushing rivers, the tops of palms poking out, their fronds bending in the extreme wind and rain. On Twitter, Freeport resident LaToy Williams posted video of water more than six feet deep submerging his front porch and lapping at his windows.
“God be with us, God be with us, God be with us,” he says. “Ya’ll keep praying out there, worldwide.”
“Right now, we are getting lashed with strong winds and heavy rains,” said Lisa Pakosh, a Freeport resident. “Cell service is sporadic, but I have been in contact with friends over the bridge whose home flooded, and they are stuck with their young daughter on their countertops. Other friends have retreated to their second floor, as water has filled their main floor.”
Jamie Rose, 44, a Grand Bahama resident, said he had been in contact with his parents, who live in a lower-lying part of the island.
“They’re trying to keep themselves alive,” Rose said.
“Their house is built about 12 feet above high tide, and the water is now about two feet above the level of their windows in the living room,” he said. “It’s hurricane glass, but they’re basically sitting in a fish tank looking out at the water hitting the windows.”
Also in Freeport, Gail Woon, 60, an environmentalist, sat in a crowded hurricane shelter. Flashbacks from previous hurricanes, she said, were haunting her.
“This is terrible. These climate change hurricanes are terrible,” Woon said.
“Literally, a family of 10 just walked in and braved the storm to get here. They just came into the shelter. They are wet, and they look pretty scared.”
Stories of destruction and devastation emerged from the Abaco Islands, where Dorian made landfall Sunday and which was still feeling the storm’s fury a day later. Social media images showed patches of land, homes and buildings entirely submerged. In other images, homes appeared ripped off their foundations by a storm that could feel like a massive tornado.
Gertha Joseph, 35, a single mother of a 4-month-old son, issued a public cry for help Sunday after Dorian tore the roof off her apartment building, blasted out windows and turned furniture into kindling on the hard-hit island of Grand Abaco. In a live video posted Sunday on Facebook, she begged for assistance, for those listening to “pray for Abaco.”
Neighbors, she said, had 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.”
Reached by phone, its battery dying and no way to charge it in a blackout, she said she and her son had managed to get out of her flooding building with the aid of a man who helped them across the rushing waters on a piece of plastic. But even as she spoke, she said Dorian was peeling off the roof of the house in which she was sheltering.
“Oh my God,” she shrieked into the phone. “I see the light on the roof.”
She continued: “Oh my God. What we gonna do? Please tell me what we gonna do?”
The connection dropped. Further attempts to reach her via phone proved unsuccessful.
Aid organizations and emergency responders from Miami-Dade County and elsewhere in the United States were making preparations to set up relief operations on the hardest-hit Bahamian islands as soon as conditions allowed.
Faiola reported from Miami.