Bahamas says 2,500 missing after Dorian; prime minister warns death toll to rise ‘significantly’

By Zachary Fagenson

NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Some 2,500 people are still listed as missing in the Bahamas more than a week after Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Caribbean island chain, although that number may include evacuees who fled to shelters, authorities said on Wednesday.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told the nation in a televised address that the death toll from Dorian remained at 50, but conceded that the large number of people missing meant that number would rise.

“The number of deaths is expected to significantly increase,” Minnis said, adding the government was being transparent and would provide “timely information on the loss of life as it is available.”

Emergency management officials told a separate news conference that the list of missing had not yet been checked against records of evacuees or the thousands of people staying in shelters.

“My friends are missing, a few of my cousins are missing over there, five in total, they lived in Marsh Harbour,” said Clara Bain, a 38-year-old tour guide, referring to the Abaco town where officials estimate that 90% of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed.

“Everyone on the islands are missing someone, it’s really devastating,” she said.

Dorian slammed into the Bahamas on Sept. 1 as a Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record to make a direct hit on land and packing top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (298 kph).

“Our sympathies go out to the families of each person who died,” Minnis said. “Let us pray for them during this time of grief. We offer you our shoulders to cry on. You will never be forgotten.”

More than 5,000 people evacuated to New Providence, the island where the capital, Nassau, is located, in the face of the worst hurricane in the country’s history. But there has since been a significant reduction in the number now asking to be relocated, according to emergency management officials.

Some 15,000 people are still in need of shelter or food, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

Officials have already put up large tents in Nassau to house those made homeless by the storm and plan to erect tent cities on Abaco capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people.

Minnis thanked U.S. President Donald Trump and the American people for mobilizing support and urged Bahamians to pitch in with relief efforts by volunteering or donating money to legitimate charities.

The White House said on Wednesday the United States would not give temporary protected immigration status to people fleeing the Bahamas after the hurricane.

The status would have allowed Bahamians to live and work in the United States while their country recovers.

Private forecasters estimated that Dorian destroyed or damaged some $3 billion in insured property in the Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Commercial flights to Abaco, one of the hardest-hit areas, resumed on a limited basis on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Nassau, Maria Caspani in New York, Scott Malone in Boston and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angele; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Florida extends state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian looms

Shoppers encounter empty bread shelves at a store while buying supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

By Zach Fagenson and Gabriella Borter

MIAMI (Reuters) – Florida’s governor on Thursday extended a state of emergency to the whole state ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, which is forecast to strengthen into a highly dangerous Category 4 storm during the weekend before hitting the Atlantic coast.

Governor Ron DeSantis took the step as authorities canceled some commercial flights, planned precautions at rocket launch sites along the Space Coast and prepared to give out sand to residents for sandbags ahead of the storm’s arrival.

Spurred on by warm late-summer waters, Dorian is predicted to pack winds reaching 130 mph (209 kph) in 72 hours, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said on Thursday.

That would make it a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity.

The center describes Category 4 storms as capable of causing “catastrophic damage” including severe damage to well-built homes. It said in such storms, “Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed.”

Dorian is likely to make landfall on Florida’s eastern coast on Monday before lingering over central Florida on Tuesday but tropical storm-force winds from Dorian could begin in parts of Florida as early as Saturday evening, the hurricane center said. The storm could affect big population centers as well as major Florida tourist destinations.

“All residents, especially those along the east coast, need to be prepared for possible impacts,” DeSantis said in a statement. “As it increases strength, this storm has the potential to severely damage homes, businesses and buildings, which is why all Floridians should remain vigilant. Do not wait until it is too late to make a plan.”

The governor had declared a state of emergency for 26 counties on the east coast but extended it on Thursday to the whole of Florida.

Currently a Category 1 hurricane, Dorian was headed toward the Bahamas on Thursday after sideswiping Caribbean islands without doing major damage. Dorian is expected to strengthen and slam the Bahamas and the southeastern United States with rain, strong winds and life-threatening surf over the next few days.

Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) on Thursday morning some 220 miles (355 km) north-northwest of San Juan, and about 370 miles (600 km) east of the Bahamas, the hurricane center said.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Floridians to heed official warnings.

“Hurricane Dorian looks like it will be hitting Florida late Sunday night,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Be prepared and please follow State and Federal instructions, it will be a very big Hurricane, perhaps one of the biggest!”

Jim McKnight, city manager of Cocoa Beach on central Florida’s Atlantic coast, made sure construction sites were secured with possible dangers like scaffolding taken down to prevent flying objects.

“We’re worried. This is not looking good for us. We woke up a lot more scared than we went to bed last night, and the news is not getting any better,” said Angela Johnson, 39, bar manager at Coconuts On The Beach, a Cocoa Beach bar and restaurant on the town’s surfing beach.

Officials were making piles of sand available for Cocoa Beach residents to fill sandbags starting on Friday.

The biggest hurricane to have come ashore in the area in recent history was Jeanne in 2004, which made land around Port St. Lucie as a Category 3 storm.

‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS’

“Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend,” the hurricane center said, warning of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of Florida’s east coast late in the weekend.

Two flights from the Orlando International Airport to Puerto Rico were canceled.

The Universal Orlando Resort theme park, owned by Comcast Corp, said it was following the approaching storm closely. Walt Disney Co, which operates the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, did not return requests for comment.

The Cape Canaveral space center said it would close Saturday afternoon with a skeleton team of roughly 100 staff staying behind in the launch control room to monitor the storm and the site’s aerospace assets.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said it would move a 400-foot (122-meter) tall, $650-million mobile launcher structure used to assemble the agency’s rocket for future moon missions from a launchpad and into a building to take shelter during Dorian’s likely impact.

Nearby towns were checking storm drains and back-up generators for waste-water plants as well as setting up round-the-clock shifts for emergency personnel.

The University of Central Florida, one of the largest U.S. universities by student population, said its main campus in Orlando will close on Friday afternoon.

The storm was forecast to approach on Saturday the northwest of the Bahamas, a popular tourist spot, the hurricane center said. Officials of the nation’s northernmost island Grand Bahama urged residents on Wednesday evening to secure houses and businesses immediately.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Miami and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Helen Coster in New York and Joey Roulette in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)

Maria drenches Dominican Republic after hammering Puerto Rico

A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed parts of the Dominican Republic with heavy rain and high winds and headed northwest in the Caribbean on Thursday after making a direct hit on Puerto Rico that caused severe flooding and cut power to the entire island.

Maria has killed at least 10 people as it raged through the Caribbean, the second major hurricane to do so this month.

Maria was carrying sustained winds of up to 115 miles per hour (185 km per hour) as it moved away from the Dominican Republic on a track that would take it near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Canter said in an 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) advisory.

Maria was ranked a Category 4 storm, near the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph), when it made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly 90 years.

It ripped apart homes, snapped power lines and turned roads into raging debris-laden rivers as it cut across the island of 3.4 million people.

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garci

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In Old San Juan, Plaza de Colon, one of the grand squares adorning the colonial heart of the capital, was choked with broken branches and trees felled by the storm. Pigeons paced the square looking for scraps, their plumage threadbare.

Aiden Short, 28, a debris management worker from London, said he had headed to the British Virgin Islands to help clean up the devastation of Hurricane Irma when Maria trapped him in San Juan.

“I was supposed to have come as a professional, but now I’ve just had to weather the storm,” Short said. “But now it looks like I might be useful here.”

All of Puerto Rico was under a flash flood warning early on Thursday as the tail end of the storm could bring another 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) of rain on Thursday, bringing the storm’s total to 35 inches (89 cm) in parts of the island, the NHC said.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said there was one death reported so far, a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.

“It’s nothing short of a major disaster,” he said in a CNN interview, adding it might take months for the island’s electricity to be completely restored. He imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew that runs through Saturday.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

MORE EXPECTED TO SEEK SHELTER

The government did not yet have an estimate of how many homes and businesses were destroyed by the storm. But authorities expected to see more people go to shelters on Thursday as they realized how badly their homes were hit, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for Rossello.

Thousands went to government shelters during the storm.

The island’s recovery could be complicated by its financial woes as it faces the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. Both its government and the public utility have filed for bankruptcy protection amid disputes with creditors.

Maria was about 95 miles (150 kms) north of Punta Cana, on the east coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday morning, the NHC said.

Punta Cana, a popular tourist area, was hit with wind gusts of 58 mph (93 kph) and Maria was forecast to bring storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, of up to 6 feet (1.83 m) in the Dominican Republic, it said.

Maria was forecast to move north in the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend. It currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was a rare Category 5 storm when it struck Dominica on Monday night, damaging about 95 percent of the roofs on the island of 73,000 people, one of the poorest in the Caribbean, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Passing early Wednesday just west of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, Maria damaged an estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of the island’s buildings, said Holland Redfield, who served six terms in the U.S. Virgin Islands senate.

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in the U.S. Virgin Islands and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts, the White House said.

The U.S. and British Virgin Islands were also hit this month by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. It left a trail of destruction in several Caribbean islands and Florida, killing at least 84 people.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

 

Caribbean faces hard road to recovery after Irma’s ravages

Buildings damaged by hurricane Irma are seen on the British Virgin Islands, September 1

By Sarah Marsh

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) – From Cuba to Antigua, Caribbean islanders began counting the cost of Hurricane Irma on Sunday after the brutal storm left a trail of death, destruction and chaos from which the tourist-dependent region could take years to recover.

The Category 5 storm, which killed at least 28 people across the region, devastated housing, power supplies and communications, leaving some small islands almost cut off from the world. European nations sent military reinforcements to keep order amid looting, while the damage was expected to total billions of dollars.

Ex-pat billionaires and poor islanders alike were forced to take cover as Irma tore roofs off buildings, flipped cars and killed livestock, raging from the Leeward Islands across Puerto Rico and Hispaniola then into Cuba before turning on Florida.

Waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along the Cuban capital Havana’s sea-side drive on Sunday morning. Further east, high winds whipped Varadero, the island’s most important tourist resort.

“It’s a complete disaster and it will take a great deal of work to get Varadero back on its feet,” said Osmel de Armas, 53, an aquatic photographer who works on the beach at the battered resort.

Sea-front hotels were evacuated in Havana and relief workers spent the night rescuing people from homes in the city center as the sea penetrated to historic depths in the flood-prone area.

U.S President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration on Sunday for Puerto Rico, where Irma killed at least 3 people and left hundreds of thousands without electricity. Trump also expanded federal funds available to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which suffered extensive damage to homes and infrastructure.

Further east in the Caribbean, battered islands such as St. Martin and Barbuda were taking stock of the damage as people began emerging from shelters to scenes of devastation.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the death toll on the Dutch part of St. Martin had doubled to four, and that 70 percent of homes had been damaged or destroyed.

Following reports of looting, the Netherlands said it would increase its military presence on the island to 550 soldiers by Monday. Rutte said that to ensure order, security forces were authorized to act with a “firm hand”.

Alex Martinez, 31, a native of Florida who was vacationing on the Dutch side of St. Martin when Irma hit the island in the early hours of Wednesday, vividly described how his hotel was gutted by the storm, turning it into a debris-strewn tip.

Doors were torn from hinges, windows shattered, cars lifted off the ground and furniture blown through the rooms after Irma hit the building with a burst of pressure that was “like you were getting sucked out of an aeroplane,” he said.

Martinez, his wife and two others barricaded themselves in their bathroom, pushing with all their might to secure the door as Irma battered it with winds of up to 185 mph (300 km/h).

“That’s when we thought, ‘that was it’,” he said. “I honestly, swear to God, thought we were going to die at that point in time. Everything continued for maybe 20, 30 minutes; my wife’s there, she’s praying, praying, praying, praying, and things just kinda calmed down. I guess that’s when the eye (of the storm came).”

Staff deserted the hotel to look after their families and Martinez and a few others had to scavenge for food and water for three days until they were airlifted out on Saturday, he said.

Dutch authorities are evacuating other tourists and injured people to Curacao, where Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk were expected to arrive today.

A man and two children wade through a flooded street, after the passing of Hurricane Irma, in Havana, Cuba September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

MALICIOUS ACTIONS

France, which oversees neighboring Saint Barthelemy and the other half of St Martin, said the police presence on the two islands had been boosted to close to 500.

The French interior ministry said 11 people suspected of “malicious actions” had been arrested since Friday as television footage showed scenes of chaos on the islands, with streets under water, boats and cars tossed into piles and torn rooftops.

Irma killed at least 10 people on the two islands, the French government said. France’s Caisse Centrale de Reassurance, a state-owned reinsurance group, estimated the cost of Irma at some 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion).

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to visit St. Martin on Tuesday.

Barbuda, home to some 1,800 inhabitants, faces a reconstruction bill that could total hundreds of millions of dollars, state officials say, after Irma steamrolled the island.

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said Irma had wreaked “absolute devastation” on Barbuda, which he described as “barely habitable” after 90 percent of cars and buildings had been damaged.

The government ordered a total evacuation when a second hurricane, Jose, emerged, but a handful of people refused to leave their homes, including “a gentleman (who) said he was living in a cave”, said Garfield Burford, director of news at government-owned broadcaster ABS TV and Radio in Antigua and Barbuda.

Irma also plunged the British Virgin Islands, an offshore business and legal center, into turmoil.

Yachts were piled on top of each other in the harbor and many houses in the hillside capital of Road Town on the main island of Tortola were badly damaged. Both there and in Anguilla to the east, residents complained help from the British government was too slow in coming, prompting a defensive response from London.

“We weren’t late,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told BBC television on Sunday, saying Britain had “pre-positioned” an aid ship for the Caribbean hurricane season and that his government’s response “has been as good as anybody else’s.”

British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, who sought refuge in the wine cellar of his home on Necker island, called Irma the “storm of the century” on Twitter and urged people to make donations to help rebuild the region.

 

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana, Matthias Blamont in Paris, Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Kylie MacLellan in London, Makini Brice in Haiti; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)