The Bahamas' minister of health says the government is in no way suppressing Hurricane Dorian's death toll, and are tallying confirmed deaths that have arrived at the morgue.
With people reporting on social media that they have personally counted scores of dead bodies, and others asking why the government isn't telling the truth about the number of individuals who died in the Abacos and on Grand Bahama Island during Hurricane Dorian's catastrophic Category 5 winds, Health Minister Duane Sands said the narrative is "false" and unfortunate.
The public, he said, should have a better appreciation for the task facing the Bahamas, which has U.S. search and recovery teams, cadaver dogs and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters combing the devastation in search of missing individuals. Meanwhile, teams have begun setting up field hospitals, including a mobile floating hospital to cover a number of the Abaco cays, and the government is preparing to build temporary shelter facilities for storm victims.
"I am actually a bit concerned that the focus has been for some people the body count," Sands told the Miami Herald in an interview. "It is not the priority. 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."
Still, the government is searching for missing individuals and bodies. On Sunday, the death toll was upped from 43 to 44 after search teams late Saturday recovered one body in Abaco.
"We head there were all of these bodies in a particular area so teams from the United States, from the Bahamas and Jamaica and other places went out and we recovered one body yesterday," Sands said.
"We've heard the numbers, a 1,000, 200, 500, 600. We've heard all of the claims," he added. "And the language I have used and the language that the prime minister has used and all of the cabinet, and 1/8the National Emergency Management Agency3/8, has been a description of the number of confirmed deaths, these are people in the morgue.
"We've also noted that there are a number of missing persons. We also acknowledged that there are people we know who are in the field and have not been retrieved," he added. "What the number is unclear but we expect that number to rise from the 44-storm related deaths in our morgues to rise significantly."
And whatever that number is, he said, the government is ready. He acknowledged that additional body bags have been requested by the public health agency with responsibility for the mortuaries but said he did not know how many.
"We have to prepare for whatever inevitability and so whether it's a thousand, or 2,000 or 500 body bags, we need to have the ability to make sure that every single remain can be treated with dignity and managed appropriately," Sands said. "So yes, there are refrigerated coolers in Grand Bahama; yes there are refrigerated coolers in Abaco; yes there are body bags; yes we need to make sure we have enough.
"There are teams on the ground right now who are tasked deliberately, teams greater than 100 people, tasked with the recovery and retrieval of missing persons," he added. "They would have retrieved one yesterday after covering many, many square miles."
Sands said the government is also trying to keep a database of missing individuals but the damage to cell towers, has made communications difficult. He noted that his wife's father was missing and was not found until two days ago. It took time to learn of his fate because of the communications issues.
"There are many people missing who may have perished or been injured. There are other people who are defined as missing because they have no way of letting their loved ones know where they are. And so as we go through this nightmare, all of these moving parts, much of it having to be done by persons who themselves have either lost loved ones or property."
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 whom they have been been unable to make contact with since Dorian's passage.
An archipelago with 700 islands and cays, the Bahamas is expansive. And so too is each of the islands devastated by Dorian's life-threatening wind and 165 mph winds. In addition to leaving an estimated 70,000 in need of assistance, according to the United Nations, the storm left a trail of destruction that residents and rescue crews are still trying to manage.
Cars are under water, fuel is a problem and in the case of Grand Bahama, only 1 ambulance out of more than 10, survived the floods.
"Abaco is 100 miles long. Grand Bahama is almost 100 miles long," Sands said. "We are talking about 1200 square miles to be covered, step-by-step with debris. It's hostile territory. There's flood waters 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.
The relief effort in New Orleans' Katrina, was $185 billion, Sands said he was told. Though one of the wealthier Caribbean nations, the Bahamas' gross domestic product is less than $15 billion, he noted.
"When we are talking about the amount of damage done by just not wind, 185 mph, floodwaters that were 20 to 25 feet above sea levels and most of the Bahamas is 10 feet above sea level, torrential rain and the damage to human beings' property, equipment," Sands said one is talking about "an apocalyptic impact" on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
"We are talking about a massive, multi-island operation," Sands said. "We could not land a fixed-wing airplane until two days ago. The harbour 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: How do you get somebody who is 50 miles down the road when vehicles are destroyed? Do they walk?"
Along with finally being able to get fixed wing airplanes into Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay airports on Abaco, the rescue operations have picked up speed. Still, not everyone is happy.
On Saturday, as David Webb waited at the Eleuthera 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 while also showing a "Thank you" email from Sweeting to him. 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, 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, "which is a bit of a hurricane hole," to ride out the storm. Their hotel room did not survived. The sliding glass doors blew out, the ceiling fell down and water rose to their ankle.
It is unclear the damage to their boat, which was still floating but pushed up against a dock.
Sands said the public should have an appreciation for the challenges confronting the government. Part of the task is rebuilding the capacity, "to do what you have to do," and false, "malicious reports," either about the deaths or cholera epidemic outbreak don't help.
On Saturday after a rumor started about a cholera outbreak on Abaco, he found himself having to devote his attention to addressing that by putting out a joint statement with the Pan American Health Organization "to squash that malicious, false rumor," which can lead to panic".
"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."
"We recognize that when people are panic, frighten, hungry, that it can lead to all manner of hearsay and speculations of the moments. Once a message takes roots, it gets embellished and one becomes 10, ten becomes 100 and a hundreds because a thousand.
"This narrative that we are suppressing information is whole inaccurate, absolutely not true and quite frankly I believe is very unfortunate," Sands said. "What we are being very careful to do is make the public aware of the facts what we know them to be."
RELIEF EFFORTS ONGOING
Ninety-three people were evacuated from Abaco and surrounding cays to the capital Nassau early Sunday morning, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force said in a statement. In total, approximately 3,000 people have been evacuated, the armed forces said.
Frustration is building, however.
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."
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.
"There is no shortage of support from the United States," Sands said. "Ultimately it's as if all we have to do is ask."
"The response has been multi-pronged. I wish I could tell you we have an all clear. We are nowhere near that. But every single day what we try to do is look at the report, the cries, the concerns; look at them to determine whether they are credible, reliable or what not.".
Sands said the government is being proactive about preventing public health outbreaks like cholera and noted that field hospitals, including floating ones, were being set up and shelters were being built to help storm victims.
"We have an entire army of public health officers on the ground in Abaco and Grand Bahama. We are working with WHO, with PAHO, with the Dutch government, with the German government, etc. We are using international best standards for mitigation of natural disasters ... all of the infectious challenges that arise."
He said the Pan American Health Organization's disaster coordinator is currently in the Bahamas, and they met two days ago. "I've been personally in touch with the director general of the World Health Organization," and has been assured of logistics support and response if needed.
On Saturday, 50 security personnel from the Jamaica Defense Force arrived in the Bahamas, as part of an effort organized by the Carribean Community (CARICOM), 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.