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Counting bodies ‘not the priority’: Bahamas not lying about Dorian deaths, health chief says

On Sunday, white-clad body recovery crews were working their way through a field of rubble on the island of Abaco on the hunt for the hidden victims of Hurricane Dorian, following the smell of rotting flesh through the rubble.

It didn’t take them long. Lying on the foundations of what was once a house was the body of a middle-aged man, his rigid arms outstretched. He was wearing an orange shirt.

As those who survived Dorian are continuing to flee the area of Marsh Harbour by boat and plane, search and recovery crews are finally punching deeper into the mountains of debris, going house to house looking for the dead.

The slow pace of such work — and a death toll that stands at just 44, despite photographs of massive devastation — has led to wide speculation that the true number of dead is far higher. With many Bahamians still unaccounted for, people on social media say they have personally counted scores of dead bodies. Others question whether the government is telling the truth about the number of people who died in the Abacos and on Grand Bahama Island during Dorian’s catastrophic Category 5 winds and rains.

But Duane Sands, the Bahamas’ minister of health, says the government is not suppressing Hurricane Dorian’s death toll and is simply tallying confirmed deaths as the bodies arrive at the morgue. In an interview with the Miami Herald Sunday, Sands called information suggesting a cover-up “false” and “unfortunate.”

The body count “is not the priority,” he said. “The priority is find those people for their loved ones who are missing them; to take care, provide comfort to those people who are hurt, who are suffering, that’s the priority. To put food in people’s bellies, water in their throat.”

The public, he added, should have a better appreciation for the task facing the Bahamas. Cadaver dogs, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and U.S. search and rescue teams, including a six-man team of firefighters from Gainesville, combed the devastation in search of the missing.

The men from Gainesville — specialized in urban search and recovery — were going house to house and block by block, part of an estimated 200 people working on search crews in Marsh Harbour on Sunday.

“We found a lot of damage and that’s what we’re working through, to determine if there’s anybody requiring heavy rescue or body recovery,” said Joseph Hillhouse, Gainesville’s assistant fire chief.

While the team was spray painting houses with an orange “C” for clear, it was becoming obvious that more muscle would be needed — particularly in the hard-hit area known as The Mudd, once home to hundreds of Haitian migrants.

“Getting into that area is going to take a lot of heavy equipment,” Hillhouse said of what is now a flattened field that used to be a thriving shantytown. Monday, he added, “will be our big push.”

Wendell G. Dean II, the funeral director of Emerald Memorial Mortuary, who had been brought in with others to run the Marsh Harbour morgue, criticized the speculation about the true death toll.

“It is unfair to the persons affected by this tragedy to have numbers out there left, right and center,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that we don’t know, and at the end of this process, I still think we will not know the extent of lives lost.”

Even so, Dean said that his decades in the funeral industry hadn’t prepared him for the scale of what he’d seen in Marsh Harbour.

“The aerial shots and pictures shown in the media pale in comparison to what we’ve [found] here. It’s heart wrenching,” he said. “For me having been in funeral service for almost 40 years, I’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude.”

The Bahamas Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development has established a telephone line (242-323-1877) for the public wishing to register the names of family members with whom they have been unable to make contact.

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Royal Bahamas Defense Forces and Royal Bahamas Police help evacuees gathered at Marsh Harbour Port in Abaco on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, waiting to leave the island after Hurricane Dorian swept through the Bahamas. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Bahamas is an archipelago with 700 islands and cays. Many felt the effects of Dorian’s winds and flooding and two of its most popular with tourists were devastated.

Cars are under water, fuel is a problem and, in the case of Grand Bahama, only one ambulance out of more than 10 survived the floods.

“Abaco is 100 miles long. Grand Bahama is almost 100 miles long,” said Sands, the health minister. “We are talking about 1,200 square miles to be covered, step-by-step with debris. It’s hostile territory. There’s floodwaters still there, roads that are impassable. I mean no offense to the honor and memory of the victims of Katrina, but just remember how long it took in the Ninth Ward to get to homes. It took weeks, if not months to complete that process.

“We are talking about a massive, multi-island operation,” Sands, a cardio-thoracic surgery said. “We could not land a fixed-wing airplane until two days ago. The harbor was not available because of debris. Most of the vehicles on the ground were destroyed because they were under water. I need people to understand the logistics of this.”

bahamas photo al diaz.jfif
Devastation on the island of Abaco and a rush to help survivors have meant the Bahamian government isn’t able to prioritize establishing a final death toll, according to Health Minister Duane Sands. The actual toll is believed to be far higher than the 44 deaths reported so far. Al Diaz Miami Herald

On Saturday after a rumor started about cholera in Abaco, Sands found himself having to devote his attention to addressing that, putting out a joint statement with the Pan American Health Organization denying an outbreak.

“There’s no such thing happening in Abaco. But once that is spread by social media, it goes like wildfire. The time we could be spending on actually helping people, we’re having to put out multiple fires.”

Relief efforts ongoing

Teams have begun setting up field hospitals, including a floating one to cover a number of the hardest-hit Abaco cays, and the government is preparing to build temporary shelter facilities for storm victims.

On Abaco, aid distribution seems uneven amid the communication hurdles. While there were reports of some regions receiving scant aid, in Marsh Harbour there sometimes seemed to be too much. A box of sandwiches that had been brought to the hospital on Saturday was finally tossed in a red bio-hazard bag on Sunday, uneaten.

Many people are trying to leave the devastated area.

On Sunday morning, 93 people were evacuated from Abaco and surrounding cays to Nassau, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force said. In total, approximately 3,500 people have been evacuated, National Emergency Management Agency spokesman Carl Smith said in a press conference Sunday evening.

Frustration is building, however.

On Saturday, as David Webb waited at the Eleuthera airport to take an Aztec Air flight to Florida with a friend and their dog, he recounted the story of Sandra Sweeting, a distraught mother who was told by Bahamasair she had to pay $75 for her autistic son to travel off the devastated island to his father in Nassau.

“It just broke my heart,” said Webb, breaking down in tears. He gave her $150 for her and her son to get the plane ticket. “She was not the only one. There were other people trying to help other people pay. I was just so grateful that she was able to get out.”

Webb said he and his friends had recently left their jobs and bought a sailboat, and came to the Bahamas before the storm. They were in Marsh Harbour when Dorian was approaching and decided to go to Treasure Cay to ride out the storm. Their hotel room did not survive. The sliding glass doors blew out, the ceiling fell down and water started to rise.

Even as Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told stranded residents at an airport in Treasure Cay that the government would offer Abaco residents free flights to New Providence, some people in the crowd shouted back.

“I can’t handle this anymore!” one man yelled, according to the Nassau Guardian.

“It’s a matter of when,” another woman cried. “It’s a matter of when, Lord. We’ve had enough.”

“It’s unlivable,” resident Matthew Taylor told the newspaper. “After the water is gone, what do you do? You know, you have bodies contaminating the water and stuff like that, so the water is undrinkable. That’s where the panic is now.”

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A shoe floats down a canal in Freeport, Bahamas, on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Thousands of Bahamians are heading to Freeport Harbor trying to escape Hurricane Dorian’s devastation. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Meanwhile, regional governments are mobilizing to provide manpower and resources to the Bahamas.

The U.S. Coast Guard said its crews have rescued 308 people in the Bahamas as of 9 a.m. Sunday. The Coast Guard has deployed five MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and five cutters.

On Saturday, 50 security personnel from the Jamaica Defense Force arrived in the Bahamas, as part of an effort organized by the Caribbean Community, an intergovernmental organization, with another 70 expected. CARICOM had also arranged for a contingent of 100 officers from Trinidad and Tobago to arrive Sunday.

So far, the government of the Bahamas says it has deployed a total of 274 police officers and military personnel to Abaco. It has sent 666 police and soldiers to Grand Bahama. The Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency said it was setting up temporary housing on Abaco, but was also looking for people in less affected islands to open up their homes to the displaced.

The United Nations World Food Program said in a tweet it was sending 38 metric tons of supplies, including generators, communications equipment, storage units and prefab offices. A Royal Caribbean Cruises ship, Navigator of the Seas, arrived in Freeport Sunday morning with volunteers, relief supplies and 10,000 meals, according to a company news release.

The Miami Herald has compiled a list of ways readers can help relief efforts online.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.
Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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