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The Bahamas’ hurricane death toll is rising fast as survivors try to get out

ELBOW KEY, BAHAMAS - SEPTEMBER 06: The ruins of homes is seen on September 6, 2019 in Elbow Key Island, Bahamas. Hurricane Dorian hit the island chain as a category 5 storm battering them for two days before moving north. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

GRAND BAHAMA — Nearly a week after Hurricane Dorian turned parts of the northern Bahamas into piles of debris, the nation has only started unraveling the damage.

The death toll rose to 43 and officials say that number will go up drastically as hundreds of residents remain missing, buried under the rubble. Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands were hit the hardest by the hurricane, which ripped off roofs, scattered pole lines and boats, and flattened entire neighborhoods.

“It was like an atomic bomb went off,” said Sherrie Roberts, who survived the hurricane on Abaco Islands.

The Bahamian Ministry of Financial Services called it a “humanitarian crisis.”

Search and rescue personnel who arrived on the Abaco Islands brought body bags and coolers. Volunteers with cadaver dogs were also there to help, said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the country’s tourism and aviation ministry.

She said those workers brought equipment that will help people on the island get an accurate count of the dead and understand the full extent of damage the archipelago suffered.

But the priority remains rescuing and evacuating survivors, she said.

The United Nations said it believes at least 70,000 people are homeless on Abaco and Grand Bahama. The International Organization for Migration will provide 1,000 tarpaulins — strong pieces of waterproof plastic– to replace roofs that were stripped from homes.

Residents are trying to leave ravaged islands

More than 1,550 evacuees from the Bahamas were on board the Grand Celebration Humanitarian Cruise ship heading back to West Palm Beach, Florida, the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said on Facebook. The ship is expected to arrive Saturday morning.

US Customs and Border Protection is working with the cruise line to process the arrival of passengers.

The cruise line said it filled the ship with food, water, personal hygiene products, medical equipment, generators, volunteers and first responders, and headed to the devastated island to help provide first aid.

By Friday, the Coast Guard had also rescued more than 230 people off the islands. The residents who survived the storm have packed their few remaining belongings and are looking for a way out.

Ted Curry was one of more than 300 people waiting at the Leonard M. Thompson International Airport in Marsh Harbour trying to get a flight to Nassau, the nation’s capital, to stay with family. Hundreds more had grown tired of waiting and made their way to the island’s main port.

“The island of Abaco has been through and survived many hurricanes in the past. It didn’t take long for us to rebound, but this is a different from anything we’ve every experienced. This hurricane will set us back for years to come,” he said.

On Friday, Bahamas Air announced they had resumed service to Marsh Harbour in Abaco and Freeport in Grand Bahama, offering several relief flights between those areas and Nassau, according to Bahamas public broadcaster ZNS.

The airline issued a schedule of the flights on their Facebook page.

Elizabeth Nixon, who had made it off the Abaco Islands and into Nassau, said her children had been left behind as the family tried to escape the islands.

She struggled to get her children through the storm, carrying some of them in coolers to escape the flooding, she said. On Friday, she said she was anxious they hadn’t eaten in at least a day as they waited for a flight out.

“Those little kids trying to push through, it’s a lot,” she said.

‘Unimaginable’ death toll and human suffering

In the neighborhoods of the wrecked islands, reminders of the disaster were everywhere.

“When we were driving up, we could smell … death,” CNN’s Patrick Oppmann said about Bevans Town on the island of Grand Bahama.

The area is in ruins, he said.

“Every house, every structure, every life has been essentially destroyed in this area.”

Estimated death tolls has been “harrowing and deeply distressing,” said Jibrilu of the tourism and aviation ministry.

“Hundreds, up to thousands, of people are still missing,” she had said this week.

The public should prepare for “unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering,” Health Minister Duane Sands told Guardian Radio 96.9 FM.

“It’s just a matter of retrieving those bodies, making sure we understand how they died,” he said. “It seems like we are splitting hairs, but not everyone who died, died in the storm.”

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