Sept. 7 (UPI) — The number of confirmed dead in the Bahamas has risen to 43 but officials expect the number to grow “significantly” with thousands missing after Hurricane Dorian leveled several islands earlier this week.
Around 70,000 people are in need of assistance on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, the United Nations said. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the Bahamas, including more than 1,550 on a cruise ship sent from Florida, which is less than 200 miles away.
On Friday night, Bahamas Health Minister Duane Sands told media personnel the official death toll had climbed from 30 to 43.
“I am sure that your reporters have seen uncollected bodies on the ground,” Sands said. “I am sure there are many person who know individuals who have personally lost loved ones. So where we end up with the death toll is likely to be significantly higher than where we are right now.”
In an effort to avoid “mixed information” and to ensure accuracy, Sands said a new process will be used for updating the death toll. It involves comparing numbers from health teams and the Royal Bahamas Police.
“I want to be very clear,” he told reporters. “Certainly, The Ministry of Health and the government of the Bahamas has no interest in suppressing information. What we want to do is ensure the information that is given is accurate.”
In the meantime, people are desperate to hear from family members.
That is difficult because infrastructure — communications, electricity and transportation — are severely diminished.
Despite limited access to phones, more than 6,660 people were listed on the website Dorian People Search Bahamas as of Friday morning, site founder Vanessa Pritchard-Ansell, told NBC News.
“The Bahamas faces a long road to recovery,” said Jan-Willem Wegdam, who led a U.S. Emergency Response Team, which arrived in Nassau on Wednesday. “Building back the destroyed infrastructure, with increased resistance in the face of extreme weather, will be critical to increase the resilience of the communities.”
U.N. personnel expect the death toll to rise.
“I can’t tell you what that would be, but we’re really worried about it,” Dr. Ian Norton, Manager of the World Health Emergency Medical Teams Initiative, told journalists in Geneva. “What we’ve seen unfortunately in this devastating storm surge — especially in a stationary storm – (it) produces what you would see maybe after a tsunami,. And what we don’t see in those cases is injuries as such, we see unfortunately a lot of people drowned and losing their lives — drowning or surviving.”
The United States has provided massive assistance, including from the military and nonprofit agencies.
“Thank you to Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis for your very gracious and kind words in saying that without the help of the United States and me, their would have been many more casualties,” Trump posted Saturday on Twitter about his conversation with Minnis.
“Give all credit to FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, & the brave people of the Bahamas.”
Coast Guard crews have rescued 239 people. Seven MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and five MH-65 Dolphin helicopters are “conducting search and rescue missions, area assessments and providing logistical support,” according to a Coast Guard news release.
Aboard planes and boats, thousands have been fleeing the islands, mainly to Florida.
That includes coming aboard the Grand Celebration ship, which arrived at Port of Palm Beach on Saturday morning.
The ship went to Freeport filled with relief supplies and rescuers, including medical personnel.
“Bahamas, we’re still with you,” Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line Facebook posted on Facebook.
“Every donation we’ve received so far has significantly helped in our mission to bring relief and aid to our brothers and sisters on Grand Bahama Island — our beloved second home. Together with first responders and volunteers, we were able to provide Bahamian residents with food, water, personal hygiene products, medical equipment, generators, and other desperately-needed supplies.”
Long lines of people waited to board the ship to Florida in stifling heat. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is working with the cruise line to process their paperwork.
“After midday, things got out of control,” Urnik Forbes, 13, told The Miami Herald. “I was panicking holding my little sister.”
Boat is the main way to leave the islands with airports in Freeport and Abaco originally destroyed. The airport in Nassau, which was relatively unscratched from the hurricane, has been open.
Bahamas Air resumed its service to Marsh Harbour in Abaco and Freeport in Grand Bahama, according to public broadcaster ZNS.
The situation is grim in Abaco and Freeport, according to witnesses and aerial footage.
“It was like an atomic bomb went off,” said Sherrie Roberts, who was on Abaco Islands as the Category 5 hurricane hovered over the island and elsewhere, packing sustained winds of 185 mph for more than a day, starting Sunday. Dorian formed in the Atlantic Ocean one week earlier.
Reporters surveyed the damage.
“When we were driving up, we could smell … death,” CNN’s Patrick Oppmann said about Bevans Town on the island of Grand Bahama. “Every house, every structure, every life has been essentially destroyed in this area.”
The Department of Defense is bringing in personnel and equipment from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida.
“They’re the only ones that have large aircraft and they’re experts at moving food and water and logistical support,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who toured the disaster zones Friday on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, along with fellow Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“All that destruction. Your heart goes out to them,” Scott told reporters after the trip to view the islands from the air. “The international community has to show up.”