TREASURE CAY, Bahamas — The pilot was anxious to help: He had gathered generators, diapers, tuna fish and other supplies. The people living on the islands in the Bahamas devastated by Hurricane Dorian needed them, immediately.
But he wasn’t sure if there was anywhere to land.
Flying over the hardest-hit areas — the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama — the pilot saw homes turned to matchsticks and boats piled in heaps.
Harbors, supermarkets, a public hospital, airport landing strips — all had been damaged or blown to smithereens, frustrating rescue efforts.
Hurricane Dorian, which made landfall Sunday as a Category 5 hurricane and then lingered for days, not only left many residents in the most damaged islands without jobs or a place to live. It also stripped away the services required to meet their most immediate needs — like fresh water, food and medical care.
“It’s like a bomb went off, honestly,” said Julie Sands, who lives in Cherokee Sound, in the Abaco Islands.
The storm, barreling toward the Eastern Seaboard as a Category 3 hurricane late Wednesday night, could be close to the Carolinas from Thursday through Friday morning, with shore communities as far north as Virginia facing “a danger of life-threatening inundation from rising water,” the National Hurricane Center said.
In the Bahamas, with floodwaters receding, the trail of devastation was slowly becoming clear as residents began tallying their losses.
As of Wednesday, said Dr. Duane Sands, the minister of health, at least 20 people had been confirmed dead and the toll was expected to rise.
In a late evening news conference, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis tried to strike a hopeful note, saying that aid efforts were getting underway in the Abacos and that “more help is on the way.” He said additional security would be deployed in both the Abacos and Grand Bahama to protect homes and businesses.
Around 70,000 people were in need of lifesaving aid on the affected islands, said the top relief official for the United Nations, Mark Lowcock, speaking to reporters by phone from the Bahamas.
Families picked through the ruins of their homes, many of them too overwhelmed to fathom next steps. Some aid groups figured nearly half of the homes on the two islands were either destroyed or severely damaged.
Some residents just wanted to know the fate of loved ones.
Antonia Nixon, 19, stood at a private terminal where relief missions were concentrated in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, hoping that relatives would be among the passengers brought in on helicopter evacuation flights Wednesday morning.
They live in northern Abaco, she said, where there has been a practical communications blackout since the storm hit.
“My house is gone, and I’m in Nassau and I have no clue what my family is doing,” she said, breaking into sobs. “I just want help.”
Long lists of the missing circulated on social media groups, where families logged updates in real time.
“Mr. Atkinson contacted his son to let them know they are all alive,” read one entry for a family on Grand Bahama. Others were more worrying: “Have you seen or heard from my son Raynor,” wrote his mother, Sheron Johnson.
The montage of grief and fear was matched in its intensity by the wreckage left behind. From the air, the scene in the islands was a grim study in contrasts.
In Marsh Harbour, the largest city in Abaco, residences lay in ruins, while the estates at Baker’s Bay appeared unscathed.
Only a handful of people could be seen walking around. One pair of bicyclists rode past demolished trees. The single road leading in and out of Marsh Harbour was still flooded in places.
The pilot conducting the flyover, Peter Vazquez, saw that several airports were still clearly under water, but a few runways looked like they could be usable within a few days. This was better than he had imagined, he said.
“Today’s flight, what it gave us was huge hope,” Vazquez said. “I thought it was going to be weeks, if not months, for the runways to get clear.”
Such hope, however, was in short supply Wednesday, as officials warned of an impending health crisis. The risk of contaminated water supplies loomed large.
“We have to assume that all of the groundwater, all of the community water, is contaminated,” said Sands, the health minister.
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In Marsh Harbour, the threat was pronounced, especially in the predominantly Haitian shantytown known as the Mudd, which officials have said was demolished by the storm.
“We are incredibly concerned about the next phase, which is the risk of diarrheal diseases, the risk of rodents, the risk of mosquitoes, lack of access to proper medical care,” he added.
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On Grand Bahama, the water had receded, revealing in its wake widespread decimation. Parts of Freetown were in shambles, and communications were spotty, leaving many to wonder about the fate of relatives and loved ones.
Rashema Ingraham, a resident of Freeport and the executive director of Save the Bays, a Bahamian environmental organization, struggled to grasp the extent of the damage.
“We’re just trying to wrap our minds around the recovery efforts,” she said. “Everybody is pretty much shellshocked.”
She had left her home Sunday night as the water approached and a police officer came to the door to tell her family to leave immediately. The family has been staying with friends who live on higher ground.
“We definitely need water and that’s drinking water,” she said. “We need cleaning supplies in terms of garbage bags, gloves, bleach. Foods that are easy to prepare like cereal.
“Monday was actually supposed to be the first day of school,” she said, and children who had prepared their school supplies may have lost them all.
Then Ingraham paused, stunned at the enormity of all the needs. “I don’t know, a lot, it’s a lot,” she said.
Much of Freeport was simply paralyzed. The airport was damaged. The harbor area was in the path of the main storm surge on the north of the island, Ingraham said.
The only public hospital was damaged and the two main supermarkets, along with their warehouses, were in an area of Freeport that was completely submerged.
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Kimberly Mullings rushed to Freeport from North Carolina, where she studies communications, to be with her family.
Even on Wednesday, with the sun out and the waters subsiding, people were still waiting for rescue on the more remote parts of Grand Bahama, she said.
“People are going back and trying to clean up,” she said. “It’s important. The longer you stay displaced, the more you get discouraged.”
At the Grand Lucayan Resort and Casino, which housed some 700 people in Grand Bahama when other shelters and public buildings were damaged or flooded, most people had begun to head home. Only about 100 were left, said Jerry Davis, the hotel’s director of security.
“The majority were able to assess the damage and start cleaning up,” he said.
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But the economic paralysis following the storm was another disaster waiting to unfold.
Julie Sands, who lives in Cherokee Sound in Abaco, said her community suffered much less damage than did Marsh Harbour. But she feared mass unemployment in the aftermath of Dorian.
“Put it this way, most people that work who are not fishermen, they work in Marsh Harbour,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s a business that could just open up and say they’re in business.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.