Bahamas death toll rises to 30 as aid finally flows in. Devastation is ‘unimaginable’

In a once sprawling shantytown on Great Abaco Island, Roger Isma stared out over a wasteland of soggy mattresses, splintered buildings, overturned cars, torn clothing, shattered toilets, dead dogs, bent forks and mud, miles and miles of mud.

The area — for reasons all too obvious after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian — is called The Mudd, and it was home to thousands of Haitians, Haitian Bahamians and other, largely undocumented migrants. Now it’s gone.

As the government of the Bahamas scrambled to help the living on Thursday, it was still a long way from accounting for the dead. As of Thursday night, the official death toll in the Bahamas had risen to at least 30, but many residents are convinced The Mudd has become something of a common grave.

“Nobody knows how many dead people there are because no one has started looking there,” Isma said. “But they’re out there, in the water, under the houses.”

Earlier Thursday, initial surveys had confirmed six deaths in Grand Bahama and 17 in the neighboring Abacos, according to Minister of Health Duane Sands, but the death toll rose to 30 late Thursday. That number is expected to increase as relief crews pour in from Florida and elsewhere and search and rescue teams reach more isolated areas. Sands called the devastation “unimaginable.”

Dorian was blamed for at least 34 deaths overall, including three in Florida and one in Puerto Rico. One internet list of people missing in the Bahamas included more than 5,000 names — most of them, hopefully, simply unable to communicate with loved ones.

Dozens of people also had been rescued from floodwaters in the area, and at least 20 critical patients were evacuated from the clinic in Marsh Harbour, where hundreds sheltered during the storm. The dock and airport in Marsh Harbour were cleared and opened Thursday, Sands said. More than 300 survivors are expected to be airlifted out.

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The help was not coming so fast to The Mudd, a patch of poverty in the midst of an island once dotted by extreme wealth — the kind that attracts jet-setters and mega yachts. Haitians here have long complained about discrimination and lack of opportunities. Now they fear they will be the last in line for aid.

Tania Metellus, 15, was sitting on an overturned bucket in the shade. Her home and all her belongings had been ripped away in the storm. She said she personally knows at least 10 people who are either dead or missing in The Mudd. But she said the government hadn’t gone to retrieve the bodies.

“I don’t know why they’re not looking,” she said. “I feel like they don’t like us.”

Beyond The Mudd, Dorian’s 185 mph winds also chewed up large surrounding swaths of the Abaco Islands. Luxury yachts and broken cars were strewn across roads and homes. Once high-end condos had their roofs pried off. Grocery stores and homes were turned inside out, their contents disgorged on the street.

Odeen and George Forbes rode out the storm on Treasure Cay and returned to Marsh Harbour Thursday to check in on the school they ran, Beginning and Beyond Academy. As they looked through the ruins of their building, the stench of a corpse, or corpses, was in the air.

“That’s not meat from a freezer,” George Forbes, 55, said. “That’s a body.”

While some of the neighbors were poking around in the debris trying to find the source of the smell, no one could amid shifting winds.

In some ways, keeping the living alive has taken priority over finding the dead. The government and nonprofit organizations continued evacuating the elderly and sick from Abaco, but the process so far has been grindingly slow. While fixed-wing aircraft were landing on the still waterlogged airstrip, they were strictly emergency flights — not the mass and steady air bridge that might be needed to accommodate all those who want to leave.

About 300 to 400 people had gathered outside Abaco airport as rumors spread that there were evacuation flights. Instead, people watched as single-engine planes — with room for four to six people — taxied down a runway that’s still under water in parts and closed to commercial aviation. They were lying on the ground, leaning against walls and trying to stay calm.

Dennis Bain, a pastor and a cab driver, lost his home, his church and his taxi to Dorian. Now he wants to get off the island and stay with family in Nassau.

“There are hundreds of us out here,” he said. “When will we get out? Next week?”

No one at the airport was providing information, but aid groups were evacuating the elderly and people with medical emergencies. Aid workers also said there were hopes that larger flights might begin Thursday evening.

Amid the heat and the hunger and the growing unease, Rashad Reckley was playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” on his saxophone — the only thing he salvaged from the storm.

At Dorian’s worst, he said, the water was up to the crown molding of his roof.

“My girlfriend and I had to swim from the bedroom out the front door,” he said. From there, they hung onto a tree until the water receded.

Now he’s trying to get to West Palm Beach, where he has family.

“Is the U.S. taking hurricane refugees?” he asked.

Mildred Ferguson, 84, was also at the airport hoping for a ride out. She lost everything in the storm, including the church where she was a pastor.

Asked to describe the hurricane, she was at a loss for words.

“You see things like it on TV, but then you live it and it becomes your reality,” she said. “It was like ... a dream.”

The only road that connects Marsh Harbour to areas in the south, which were not damaged as badly, was covered in water in some areas. Cars that had tried to make the journey lay stalled with water up to their windows.

But with Dorian’s powerful winds having moved hundreds of miles north, the weather was finally clear enough for aid to begin streaming in from planes, boats and even cruise ships to the hardest hit areas of the northwestern Bahamas.

The first large relief ship arrived in Freeport on Thursday, with tugboats ferrying water bottles, cereal and meals from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Empress of the Seas. About 20 people were lined up outside the Freeport Port Services office by 11 a.m., awaiting the relief supplies, food and water. Rough seas delayed smaller boats trying to bring the supplies ashore.

Chino Cornish, 39, moved to Freeport from the Abacos six months ago for work. He spent 24 hours crouched in his ceiling rafters to escape the 8 to 10 feet of water that submerged his home in the Lady Lake subdivision.

“I prayed the roof didn’t go, it was the only thing holding me there,” he said.

Destruction from Hurricane Dorian in an area called “The Mudd” at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. AL DIAZ

When the wind died down Monday, Cornish crawled out from the ceiling and walked through chest-high water to escape. He got in contact with his dad in the Abacos and realized the two had suffered similar fates.

“Dad lost his home in Abacos Sunday, and then I lost mine Monday,” he said. “I haven’t been back. I don’t know if I’m ready to see that.”

Though exactly how many people were killed by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas is still unknown, a website created to help find the missing suggests the numbers could be much higher.

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Type almost any name into — Rolle, Lightbourne or Avery, for example — and dozens of names pop up on the site. Type in a letter, A for example, and even more names beginning with the letter pop up.

The list, created by a woman named Vanessa Pritchard, has about 5,500 people listed as missing or unaccounted for.

“When you see that somebody has been found and the family knows where they are you feel a moment of elation,” Pritchard told the website Daily Beast. “But you also know there are so many thousands of others who have not been accounted for.”

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Marsh Harbour, many survivors gathered in front of a pink, colonial government complex to take stock of what they had left. Sprawled beneath what little shade was left, they had spread out prized possessions in the grass to dry.

Gerta Major, 63, had only rescued her Bahamian passport, a pair of jeans and a swimsuit. The articles of clothing were new, they still had tags on them, and she had hoped to sell them

“This is everything I own,” she said motioning at the small pile. “That’s it.”

Like almost everyone here, Major describes the storm almost in surreal terms. She says she was trapped in a church and as the floodwaters rose to her neck she was pulled onto a wooden pew that she used as a raft.

“I said, ‘Oh Lord, what is this? I can’t swim,’ ” she recalls. At one point the water was so high she says she could grab onto a lamp fixture dangling from the ceiling. “That’s when I knew I would be OK.”

In other developments:

The monster hurricane’s toll also rose outside the Bahamas, including one death in Puerto Rico and at least three in Florida. David Bradley, a 68-year-old Indialantic man, fell while putting plywood on his windows. Joseph Waldon, a 55-year-old man from Ocoee, died after falling while trimming trees. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis identified the third fatality in Florida as an elderly man who died in a shelter but offered no other information.

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Destruction from Hurricane Dorian in an area called “The Mudd” at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. AL DIAZ

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott asked President Donald Trump to waive visa requirements for Bahamian victims of Hurricane Dorian. At a Thursday morning press conference, DeSantis said he hasn’t seen the request and would not comment on whether he supports the request to allow people who do not have a home to live in Florida on a temporary visa waiver.

“I’m not sure what the visa situation would be and obviously that is something the Trump administration is going to have to make a determination on,’‘ he said at a briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “I think we’re in a situation where we have a chance in Florida to be helpful and I think we want to do that.”

He added that unlike after Hurricane Maria, where Puerto Ricans stranded by the storm could come to the U.S. as citizens, the residents of the Bahamas are foreign nationals.

Destruction from Hurricane Dorian in an area called “The Mudd” at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. AL DIAZ

“When you’re foreign nationals, that has to be done consistent with whatever the federal policy is and we’ll see how that shakes out, he said, adding: “Those are not my decisions to make. Those are the decisions for the federal government.”

State Rep. Shevin Jones, a Bahamian American with family in the Bahamas, said he also spoke with Rubio early Thursday.

Rubio told Jones he had spoken with the president and told him that Bahamians are not looking for temporary protective status, which would allow those affected by the disaster to live and work in the U.S. for a limited time, nor are they looking to come to the U.S. permanently. Instead, Rubio told Jones, he told the president “they just need a place to stay while they get back on their feet.”

Haiti Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond told the Miami Herald that following President Jovenel Moïse’s instructions he is sending additional financial assistance to the Haitian embassy in Nassau so it can provide some assistance to the Haitian migrants who were victims of Dorian.

“We understand their plight because we have been through this,” Edmond said. “We just want to continue to express our solidarity to the people and authorities of the Bahamas.”

He also added that given the destructive nature of the storm, “it is absolutely important to put emphasis on the issue of climate change. For us in the Caribbean Islands, it is an issue of national security. It is a threat on our way of life.”

Edmond said a Haitian delegation from the embassy will be making its way out to Abaco on Friday from Nassau. Several other Caribbean leaders also arrived in Nassau and assessed the damage from Dorian from the skies.

Miami Herald reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Charles Rabin also contributed to this story. Herald reporter Jim Wyss reported from Marsh Harbour. Herald reporter Taylor Dolven reported from Freeport.

Chuck Rabin, writing news stories for the Miami Herald for the past three decades, covers cops and crime. Before that he covered the halls of government for Miami-Dade and the city of Miami. He’s covered hurricanes, the 2000 presidential election and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. On a random note: Long before those assignments, Chuck was pepper-sprayed covering the disturbances in Miami the morning Elián Gonzalez was whisked away by federal authorities.
Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.