PORT SAINT LUCIE: Monster storm Dorian hovered over the Bahamas as surging seawaters and ferocious winds sowed chaos in low-lying island communities, killing at least five people and spurring mass evacuations on the US east coast.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis on Monday termed the hurricane a “historic tragedy” for the archipelago.
“Thus far, the Royal Bahamas Police Force has confirmed that there are five deaths in Abaco,” Minnis told a news conference, referring to the islands where Dorian made landfall as a Category 5 storm on Sunday.
It weakened slightly to a still-dangerous Category 3 storm on Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
As Dorian ground to a standstill, pounding Grand Bahama further to the west of the island chain, the Bahamas tourism and aviation ministry announced the start of rescue operations “in parts where it is safe.”
US forecasters said the storm would keep hammering the Bahamas overnight into Tuesday.
For many, the wait for help to arrive has been terrifying.
A text message seen by AFP from a woman named Kendra Williams, who lives on Grand Bahama, said: “We are under water; we are up in the ceiling. Can someone please assist us or send some help. Please. Me and my six grandchildren and my son, we are in the ceiling.”
Florida is beginning to feel the effects of Dorian, with heavy rain and “gusty winds” forecast, and the possibility of tornadoes on Tuesday, the Miami-based NHC said.
More than 9,500 people have taken cover in 121 shelters in Florida, according to the state’s Division of Emergency Management.
Among them is 30-year-old Stefanie Passieux, who took shelter along with her two children and mother.
“I came yesterday, as soon as it opened. They said we were in a state of emergency so I came,” she said.
“My dad is staying with the cats, but we left. He never leaves. He doesn’t do shelters,” Passieux said.
At 0500 GMT Tuesday, the hurricane remained stationary, the NHC said, whipping the Caribbean island with torrential rains and winds of 125 miles (205 kilometers) per hour, with higher gusts.
The storm is forecast to resume moving westward overnight.
“Although gradual weakening is forecast, Dorian is expected to remain a powerful hurricane during the next couple of days,” the NHC said in an earlier bulletin.
Fear gripped residents of Freeport, as winds tore off shutters and water began entering homes, Yasmin Rigby said by text from the Grand Bahama island’s main city.
“People who thought they were safe are now calling for help,” Rigby said. “My best friend’s husband is stuck in the roof of their house with seven feet (two meters) water below.”
Initial Red Cross estimates were that 13,000 buildings may have been damaged or destroyed by Dorian, officials in Geneva said.
Video posted on the website of the Bahamian newspaper Tribune 242 showed water up to the roofs of wooden houses in what appeared to be a coastal town. Capsized boats floated in muddy brown water dotted with wooden boards, tree branches and other debris.
The NHC warned of a 12- to 18-foot storm surge above tide levels in parts of Grand Bahama, accompanied by large and destructive waves, saying that people on the island should “remain in shelters.”
Water levels in the Abacos, swamped by a similar surge on Sunday, were expected to slowly subside.
“The hurricane will then move dangerously close to the Florida east coast late Tuesday through Wednesday evening and then move dangerously close to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts on Wednesday night and Thursday,” the NHC said.
All three eastern US states have ordered coastal residents to evacuate, affecting close to a million people.
Neighboring North Carolina has also declared a state of emergency, as has Virginia further north.
Florida senator and former governor Rick Scott wrote on Twitter that “a slight wobble West” would bring the storm “onshore with devastating consequences.”
“If you’re in an evacuation zone, get out NOW. We can rebuild your home. We can’t rebuild your life.”
In southern Florida’s Port Saint Lucie – a low-income area where mobile home parks stood all-but emptied of their residents – Dan Peatle, 78, fled his retirement community to take shelter in a hotel.
“It makes me sick. I don’t like it,” he told AFP as he stepped outside for air before the storm closes in.
“I’ve been through seven or eight of them since I’ve been in Florida, since ’73. And, they’re all the same, you know. Tear everything up, put it back together.
“But, I chose to live here so I might as well live with it, you know.”