The first images of Dorian’s destruction emerged Sunday as the fierce hurricane raked the northwestern Bahamas — social media photos and videos of wind-battered buildings, stunned residents seeking last-minute refuge and storm-driven Atlantic Ocean waters drowning entire neighborhoods.
The Category 5 hurricane barreled through the town of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island shortly after landfall in Elbow Cay. The prospect of catastrophic destruction left Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis in tears.
“This is probably the most sad and worst day of my life to address the Bahamian people,” he said at a press conference at The Bahamas’ emergency management agency headquarters, according to The Nassau Guardian. For those who were unable to leave in time, he said, “I hope this is not the last they will hear my voice and may God be with them.”
Water submerged some hotels on the Abaco Islands that served as shelter through the storm. Others reportedly lost roofs. Parts of the eastern district of Hope Town, one reporter tweeted, were leveled by the storm.
In one video that circulated from Abaco, a resident recorded her street in relative calm as the massive storm’s eye hovered above Marsh Harbour. Car alarms blared in the background as battered cars, downed trees and wooden poles dotted the street.
“This is our home,” the woman could be heard saying as she panned to a structure that had been reduced to rubble. “People trying to find safety on the main road.”
The Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation said a power outage around Abaco damaged land lines, mobile and broadband services.
Dorian, forecasters say, was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the northwestern Bahamas, with 185 mph sustained winds and gusts up to a stunning 220 mph. The National Hurricane Center expected the hurricane to hover over or just north of adjacent Grand Bahama well into Monday, prolonging the battering of the Bahamian islands and delaying efforts to assess.
South Florida State Rep. Shevrin Jones also tweeted a video from his family in the Bahamas. The images show a family inside a home where the roof and windows have been blown off, as storm-force winds funnel through the residence and they ask for assistance.
Dawn Demeritte, a journalist from The Bahamas, said on Twitter that the airport and hospital on Great Abaco were opened up for residents who were forced to evacuate during the storm. One video showed how residents from the low-lying neighborhood known as “the Mudd,” fled on foot from rising waters to find safety inside the Abaco Government Complex. Some carried plastic bags with their belongings.
Demeritte reported that emergency numbers were temporarily out, as homes on Tilloo Cay — south of where Dorian made landfall — were destroyed by the storm and residents on the western Grand Bahama Island braced for Dorian.
The National Hurricane Center’s 11:02 a.m. Tweet did not mince words in discussing the Abaco’s near future:
“SEEK ELEVATED SHELTER IMMEDIATELY! Take action now to protect your life!
“A prolonged period of catastrophic winds and storm surge will affect the Abaco Islands today,” the NHC said. “Everyone there should take immediate shelter and not venture into the eye. These catastrophic conditions are likely on Grand Bahama Island later today or tonight and efforts to protect life and property there should be rushed to completion.”
A journalist and a photographer from WPLG Local 10, Miami’s ABC affiliate, were stationed in Marsh Harbour over the weekend. On Sunday, they reported their hotel was damaged from storm surge flooding, and they could hear residents calling for help.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said WPLG reporter Jenise Fernandez in a satellite phone call.
Around 2:15 p.m. Sunday, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism told people resorts and attractions in Nassau and Paradise Island remained open, as well as the Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau.
Grand Bahama International Airport and Leonard Thompson International Airport in Abaco’s Marsh Harbour both were closed.
A number of hurricanes have come and gone since the Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina was built in the Bahamas’ Marsh Harbour in 1955. But nothing like Dorian, whose outer bands began whipping at the Abaco Island Sunday morning.
Around 10:30 a.m., the resort’s general manager, Rick Lohr, said, “The water’s covered over the beach. We’re getting the gusts. But the whistling and the humming you hear [during a hurricane] we haven’t gotten that yet. But the winds have picked up a lot.”
Lohr said 40 guests were in their rooms and another 40 resort workers would ride out the storm there, ready to begin cleanup as soon as Dorian passes.
“I don’t expect that to be today,” Lohr said. “But, everybody’s safe.”
By an hour later, Abaco was the first island taking Dorian’s pounding, with low-lying Grand Bahama next in line.
Prime Minister Minnis had appealed to residents on Guana Cay to evacuate but most locals had refused, deciding to ride out the storm in place. After noon, Minnis came with one last emotional plea.
“On two previous occasions, I’ve asked Bahamians to leave the cays and those on the west and east end to move to the center of the island,” Minnis said., referring to the cays in the Abaco Islands and the east and west ends of Grand Bahama. “Many have not heeded my warning. Many have remained behind and, still, there are individuals in the western area who still refuse to leave. I can only say to them, ‘I hope this is not the last time they would hear my voice. And may God be with them.’ “
Local resident Troy Albury told The Nassau Guardian eight people left aboard a free ferry on Saturday while about 150 decided to remain on the cay. He and his wife, Maria, were among those who decided to stay.
“Our house is built solid. It’s more than 15 feet above sea level. My house isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “We’ve been through four storms.”
Albury said only eight people had sought shelter in the local school.
Reubens Joseph, 32, in Abaco, said Dorian appeared around 2 a.m. He was holed up in a home on the island and did not have time to make it to as shelter.
“A lot of wind, a lot of rain,” said Joseph, contemplating how long he could remain inside and wondering whether he should take his chances and try to go to a more secure location.
Minnis said several Caribbean leaders contacted him to say they were ready to help the Bahamas after the storm passed and the U.S. government provided assistance.
While the chain of islands has strong building codes, Minnis said, Dorian’s 180 mph winds with gusts in excess of 200 mph exceed even those stringent guidelines.
”We have some of the best standards of home building within this region. Our homes are built to withstand 150 mph so this would put us to a test like we’ve never confronted before,” Minnis said.
Minnis said parts of Marsh Harbour, where the Island Breeze Hotel was losing its roof shortly after noon, were already under water.
“Some areas you cannot tell the difference as to the beginning of the street or where the ocean begins and they have not been hit yet by the brunt of the storm,” Minnis said at 12: 21 pm Sunday.
“Abaco at this point in time,” he added, “cannot move anymore.”
While the storm approached Grand Bahama Island, relatives and friends of Abaco Islands’ residents said they had trouble reaching their loved ones.
“We’re just waiting to hear back from people, it’s just really sad,” said 26-year-old Max Devine, who lives and works part time in Bimini. “If that storm keeps heading West as it is, I’m really afraid for people here on this island, because there are people who are still fixing their roofs from the last hurricane.”