MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Survivors of Hurricane Dorian on Wednesday picked through the wreckage of homes ripped open by fierce winds, struggled to fuel generators and queued for food after one of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record devastated parts of the islands, triggering a humanitarian crisis.
The most damaging storm to strike the island nation, Dorian killed at least seven people, but the scope of the destruction was still coming into focus as aerial video of the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed wide devastation.
Dozens of people took to Facebook to search for missing loved ones, and aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people in the nation of about 400,000 people would need food and other support.
“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information,” Minnis said.
LaQuez Williams, pastor at Jubilee Cathedral in Grand Bahama, opened the church as a shelter for some 150 people. As the storm ground on, Williams said that from the higher ground of the church he could see people on their rooftops seeking refuge.
“They were calling for help, but you could not go out to reach,” Williams said. “It was very difficult because you felt helpless.”
Video from the air of Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods, littered with upturned boats, and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.
“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” one Twitter user with the handle @mvp242 said, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed.
Other posts on Twitter said entire communities were swept away.
After rampaging through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, Dorian’s wind speeds dropped on Tuesday to make it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. It maintained that level on Wednesday, but forecasters warned it was still dangerous.
Residents of coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were preparing for Dorian’s approach on Wednesday, with the National Hurricane Center warning the slow-moving storm could make landfall in South or North Carolina on Thursday or Friday.
Florida was avoiding a direct hit from Dorian.
“We certainly got lucky in Florida, and now if we could get lucky in Georgia, in North Carolina, in South Carolina,” President Donald Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp extended a state of emergency to cover 21 counties as the storm tracked north towards its coast. The emergency covers more than 900,000 Georgia residents, of whom over 400,000 have been ordered to evacuate, according to the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
Dorian packed sustained winds near 105 miles per hour (165 kph) as it churned about 90 miles (140 km) northeast of Daytona Beach, Florida around midday on Wednesday, the NHC said.
Hurricane-force winds had expanded to 60 miles (100 km) from the storm’s core.
Heavy rains and storm-surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Florida, to Surf City, North Carolina. Tornadoes were possible along the Florida coast, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.
With many telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones across social media sites.
A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 2,000 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday, although some of the comments were also about loved ones being found.
Janith Mullings, 66, from Freeport, Grand Bahama, said she had been through hurricanes all her life but had never seen anything like Dorian.
“We’ve never had hurricanes in none of our islands that have experienced the ocean rising like it did. The ocean was something no one could prepare for,” she said.
As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
“It’s heartbreaking…,” said Caroline Turnquest, director general of Bahamas Red Cross. “We know from what we’ve been seeing and hearing, that this one will require the help of all the persons.”
Food may be required for 14,500 people in the Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said.
The State Department said it did not believe any U.S. citizens who were in the Bahamas during the storm were killed. Most Americans in the Bahamas evacuated before the storm, a senior State Department official told reporters.
Many Florida residents were relieved on Wednesday as their state was spared the worst of Dorian’s wrath.
“This storm wasn’t bad as I thought it was going to be. The winds have been pretty tame,” said Andres Cuartas, 46, who owns rental homes in Jacksonville Beach. “By the size of the storm, I was a little bit worried. I panicked when it was in the Caribbean, when they had it at a (category) 5.”
People crept back into Jacksonville Beach as Florida appeared to be escaping the worst of the storm, with a couple of people seen surfing by its pier on Wednesday morning.
Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida, Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida, Peter Szekely and Matthew Lavietes in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and and Rebekah F. Ward in Mexico City, Writing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman