Stunned residents of the Bahamas surveyed the wreckage of their homes and officials struggled to assess the number killed by Hurricane Dorian, as the storm bore down on the South Carolina coast on Thursday, threatening record flooding.
Some 70,000 people in the Bahamas needed immediate humanitarian relief after the most damaging storm ever to hit the island nation, the United Nations said.
Aerial video of the worst-hit Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed widespread devastation, with the harbor, shops, workplaces, a hospital and airport landing strips damaged or decimated, frustrating rescue efforts.
One of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record, Dorian was rated a Category 5 hurricane when it killed at least 20 people in the Bahamas. Authorities expect that number to rise, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at a news briefing, as retreating floodwaters revealed the scope of destruction.
One of the storm survivors on the Abaco Islands, Ramond King, said he watched as swirling winds ripped the roof off his house, then churned to a neighbor’s home to pluck the entire structure into the sky.
“‘This can’t be real, this can’t be real’,” King recalled thinking. “Nothing is here, nothing at all. Everything is gone, just bodies.”
With telephones down in many areas, residents posted lists of missing loved ones on social media. One Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas had 2,500 comments, mainly listing lost family members.
Dorian killed one person in Puerto Rico before hovering over the Bahamas for two days with torrential rains and fierce winds that whipped up 12- to 18-foot (3.7- to 5.5-meter) storm surges.
POSSIBLE RECORD SURGE
Dorian was barreling north-northeast just off the coast of the United States on Thursday, moving at about 8 miles per hour (13 kph) with 110 mph (175 kph) winds, the top strength of a Category 2 storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson wind scale.
More than 2.2 million people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina had been ordered to evacuate, but Florida avoided a direct hit.
The storm was about 50 miles (80 km) east-southeast of flood-prone Charleston, South Carolina, at 11 a.m. EST (1500 GMT), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
“Dorian will continue to move close to the coast of South Carolina today, and then move near or over the coast of North Carolina tonight and Friday,” the NHC said.
The Carolinas should expect storm surges, wind, heavy rainfall and tornadoes, the NHC said. The storm surge warning covered parts of the coast from Georgia to southern Virginia.
The streets of downtown Charleston were all but deserted early Thursday.
About a foot (30 cm) of rain will drop on the city and many parts of the coast of the Carolinas on Thursday and Friday, said Bob Oravec, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“It’s pretty substantial,” he said. “It’s already raining heavy in Charleston and up and down the coast.”
More than 210,000 homes and businesses were without power in South Carolina and Georgia, according to local electric companies.
An international relief effort was underway for the Bahamas, with a British Royal Navy vessel providing assistance and Jamaica sending a 150-member military contingent to help secure Abaco and Grand Bahama, officials said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said a flight with enough relief supplies to help 31,500 people landed in the islands early on Thursday, bringing hygiene kits, water containers and buckets, plastic sheeting and chain saws.
Also arriving was a disaster assistance response team (DART) plane that included a fire and rescue team from Fairfax County, Virginia, to help the authorities search for survivors, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance said on Twitter.
Volunteers also ferried supplies to the islands in a flotilla of small boats.
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.
Norwegian energy company Equinor <EQNR.OL> said it had discovered a spill on the ground outside tanks at its damaged storage terminal in the Bahamas, but was unclear on volumes and had not seen any oil at sea.
(Reporting by Nick Brown in Nassau, Bahamas, additional reporting by Nick Carey in Charleston, South Carolina, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Rebekah Ward in Mexico City, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Rich McKay in Atlanta, writing by Scott Malone and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Bernadette Baum)