Rescue crews in the Bahamas fanned out across a blasted landscape of smashed and flooded homes Wednesday, trying to reach drenched and stunned victims of Hurricane Dorian and take the full measure of the disaster. The official death toll stood at seven but was certain to rise.
A day after the most powerful hurricane on record ever to hit the country finished mauling the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, emergency workers had yet to reach some stricken areas.
“Right now there are just a lot of unknowns,” Parliament member Iram Lewis said. “We need help.”
Dorian, meanwhile, pushed its way northward off the Florida shoreline with reduced but still-dangerous 105 mph (165 kph) winds on a projected course that could sideswipe Georgia and the Carolinas. An estimated 3 million people in the four states were warned to clear out, and highways leading inland were turned into one-way evacuation routes.
The storm parked over the Bahamas and pounded it for over a day and a half with winds up to 185 mph (295 kph) and torrential rains, swamping neighborhoods in muddy brown floodwaters and destroying or severely damaging thousands of homes.
“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” said Prime Minister Hubert Minnis. He said he expects the number of dead to rise.
National Security Minister Marvin Dames said rescue teams were fanning out as the winds and rain subsided, with more than 600 police officers and marines in Grand Bahama and 100 in Abaco.
“The devastation is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “We’re beginning to get on the ground, get our people in the right places. We have a lot of work in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
Londa Sawyer stepped off a helicopter in Nassau with her two children and two dogs on Wednesday after being rescued from Marsh Harbor in the Abaco islands.
“It looks like a bomb hit,” she said. “I’m just thankful I’m alive. The Lord saved me.”
Sawyer said that her home was completely flooded and that she and her family fled to a friend’s home, where the water came up to the second floor and carried them up to within a few feet of the roof. She said she and her children and the dogs were floating on a mattress for about half an hour until the water began receding.
Rescuers used jet skis, boats and even a bulldozer to reach children and adults trapped by the swirling waters, while the U.S. Coast Guard, Britain’s Royal Navy and disaster relief organizations tried to get food and medicine to survivors and take the most desperate people to safety.
Five Coast Guard helicopters ran near-hourly flights to stricken Abaco, flying people to the main hospital in the capital, Nassau. The U.S. government also airlifted relief supplies and sent in urban search-and-rescue teams.
Health Minister Duane Sands said the Bahamian government was airlifting 25 doctors, nurses and other health workers to Abaco and hoped to bring in mental health workers soon.
“The situation is under control in Abaco,” he said. “In Grand Bahama, today will tell the magnitude of the problem.”
Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, with a combined population of about 70,000, are known for their marinas, golf courses and all-inclusive resorts.
Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said Tuesday that more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes on Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to be severely damaged or destroyed. U.N. and Red Cross officials said tens of thousands of people will need food and clean drinking water.
“It’s total devastation. It’s decimated. Apocalyptic,” said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a hurricane relief group and flew over Abaco. “It’s not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again.”
She said her representative on Abaco told her there were “a lot more dead.”
At 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Dorian was centered about 90 miles (140 kilometers) northeast of Daytona Beach, Florida, moving northwest at 9 mph (15 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended up to 70 miles (110 kilometers) from its center.
Dorian was expected to pass dangerously close to Georgia and perhaps strike South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday and Friday with the potential for over a foot of rain in some spots. Forecasters warned that Dorian is likely to cause storm surge and flooding even if its core does not blow ashore.
“Hurricane Dorian has its sights set on North Carolina,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “We will be ready.”
With the threat to Florida easing and the danger shifting northward, Orlando’s airport moved to reopen, along with Walt Disney World and Universal. To the north, the Navy ordered ships at its huge base in Norfolk, Virginia, to head out to sea for safety, and warplanes at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, were being moved inland to Ohio.
The U.S. mainland recorded its first death in connection with the hurricane, that of an 85-year-old man in North Carolina who died after falling off a ladder while trying to prepare his home for the storm. Dorian was also blamed for one death in Puerto Rico.
On Tybee Island, Georgia, Debbie and Tony Pagan stacked their beds and couches atop other furniture and covered their doors with plastic wrap and sandbags Wednesday morning before evacuating the place. Their home flooded during both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Irma the following year.
“It’s a terrible way to live,” Debbie Pagan said. “We have the whole month of September and October to go. How would you like to be living on pins and needles?”
Another Tybee islander, Sandy Cason, said: “The uncertainty and the unknown are the worst part. Just not knowing what’s going to be here when you get back.”
Along King Street in historic Charleston, South Carolina, dozens of shops and restaurants typically bustling with tourists were boarded up Wednesday, plywood and corrugated metal affixed over windows and doors, as the flood-prone downtown area braced for high water.
Mark Russell, an Army veteran who has lived in South Carolina much of his life, went to a shelter on Monday, as soon as it became available. As for those haven’t been through a hurricane before and hesitate to seek shelter, he said: “If they go through it one time, maybe they’ll understand.”
Associated Press journalist Ramon Espinosa reported this story in Freeport, AP writer Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and AP writer Michael Weissenstein reported from Nassau, Bahamas. AP writers Tim Aylen in Freeport, Russ Bynum in Georgia and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.