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In the Bahamas, ‘slow’ government response leaves residents turning to strangers for help

Hurricane Dorian came ashore at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina Friday, still packing winds of 90 miles per hour and threatening a storm surge of four to seven feet. More than 330,000 homes and businesses across the Carolinas and southern Virginia lost power. But in the Bahamas, the situation is “dire and severe,” as residents try to escape devastated areas like Abaco Island. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hurricane Dorian is sweeping up the United States' Eastern Seaboard tonight after adding its list of victims. The storm is now blamed for at least six deaths in the U.S. and 30 in the Bahamas. And it doled out surprising damage today along North Carolina's outer banks.

    John Yang is in Nassau, where he watched the hurricane's progress.

  • John Yang:

    Dorian roared ashore at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, this morning, its first landfall in the United States after devastating the Bahamas days before. Sustained winds had dropped to 90 miles an hour, just half what they had once been.

    But Governor Roy Cooper warned those in the hurricane's path to remain on high alert.

  • Roy Cooper:

    The danger right now is the rising storm surge of four to seven feet and flash floods as the hurricane churns along the coast.

  • John Yang:

    One area of greatest concern? Ocracoke Island, about 40 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras. The low-lying, 16-mile-long barrier island was quickly inundated. Rising water trapped hundreds of people who chose not to evacuate.

  • Roy Cooper:

    Communications experts, law enforcement and a medical strike team have been transported there. And a search-and-rescue team is on the way. We estimate about 800 people remained on the island during the storm.

    And I have heard reports from residents who say the flooding there was catastrophic.

  • John Yang:

    More than 330,000 homes and businesses across the Carolinas and southeastern Virginia lost power. Virginia Beach saw strong winds and large crashing waves along the shoreline. Heavy rain triggered flash flooding.

    Farther south, cleanup efforts were under way in Charleston, South Carolina. Residents took down plywood from store windows as crews cleared away downed branches under sunny skies.

    But in the battered Northern Bahamas, massive piles of debris as far as the eye can see. Hundreds of people on Abaco Island gathered today at the damaged airport, desperately hoping to escape to Nassau.

  • Sabrina Ralle:

    We have no power, no water, and it's bad. Everything, we have lost. Everything is damaged.

  • Gee Rolle:

    It's chaos here, and the place is uninhabitable. Nobody can live here. So, we're trying to get out. And they only have limited ways of getting out here.

  • John Yang:

    Small planes were able to evacuate some, including the elderly and the sick, a few at a time. For those unable to leave, aid groups were starting to arrive to assess how to meet their needs.

    Tom Cotter is director of emergency response and preparedness for the global relief organization Project HOPE.

  • Tom Cotter:

    This is the real deal. There is no searching for the disaster. The disaster is very apparent. Every street is affected. Every person is affected. This is an incredibly dire and severe situation.

  • John Yang:

    Cotter described the extreme challenges he and his team encountered.

  • Tom Cotter:

    It's really hard to get to an island, and it's really hard to get to an island with an airstrip that has been heavily damaged and is limited in what kind of planes it can get. All we want to do is get supplies and responders on the island. And we have to do it a small bit at a time, instead of the large quantities that we would see if it was easier to get in.

    And it's all because of the storm that the access is limited.

  • John Yang:

    The U.S. Coast Guard has also been helping. Guardsmen returning from a mission today spoke of traumatic cases.

  • Chad Watson:

    Injuries to the head by flying debris. People were crushed by cars, by buildings, multiple fractures to legs, any limbs, anything. It just — it was bad.

  • John Yang:

    And for all of the survivors, the emotional toll looms large.

    Tom Cotter of Project HOPE:

  • Tom Cotter:

    The mental trauma of this, it's as severe and it's as important to address as the physical trauma that people might have experienced.

    Everybody knows somebody who's been really affected by this storm. And, again, with communications down, a lot of people don't know if their loved ones are alive or not alive.

  • John Yang:

    And for some, Dorian is still a threat in the making. Warnings and watches have now been posted from Delaware to Nova Scotia, Canada, as the hurricane drives Northeast.

    Here on the edge of the Nassau Airport, these two big, air-conditioned tents being set up as a transition center for evacuees from Grand Bahama Island and Abaco. This is not a government operation. This is being done by private citizens, local charities, local civic groups and NGOs.

    Inside are clean clothes if people need them, food and water if they need them, baby supplies if they need them, cushions to lie on, all the things, in short, that the people we talked to earlier today outside the government evacuation center in Nassau say they wish they had there.

    Most importantly, according to the people we talked to outside the government center, inside are people to help them find places to live in case they don't have friends or families here in Nassau.

    They're reaching out to real estate agents who rent out vacation homes here, to hotels who have empty rooms, to anyone who might have a space to offer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, John, what about those people you spoke with who had been in the government shelter? What did they say it's like there? How is it?

  • John Yang:

    It's a big sports arena.

    We weren't allowed to go in, but we talked to people as they came out. It's a big sports arena. They say people are just lying on the floor of the arena.

    We spoke to one woman, Divinia Bethel, who is a business consultant who lost her home on Abaco. She was actually able to spend one night in Nassau with some friends, but they could only host her for that one night. So she went to the shelter to look for help.

    There was no help to be found, she said. They said that the social services, people from the government told her she had to go to an office some distance away to try to find housing. So there's a lot of frustration over there about the lack of assistance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, you have also — we know you have been talking to people who have been literally trying to get on private charter planes to get to one of the other islands where their family members, loved ones are.

  • John Yang:

    That's right.

    Again, private efforts where the government seems to be a little slow. Most of these people, especially here who are being evacuated from Abaco especially, are just people who fly — get flown in — flown off the island, rather, on private planes, eight-seat planes, 18-seat planes.

    These are planes that are either chartered by people at about a cost of about $2,400 round-trip, or private plane pilots themselves fly over land and just say, 'Get on board. I will take you to Nassau.'

    I asked if that's how Divinia Bethel got out. I asked her, 'Did you know the man? Did you know anybody on that plane?' She said, 'No, but it was a plane — a seat on a plane off of Abaco.' And so she took it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, maybe in connection with that, you told us earlier today you have really been struck by the closeness of this community in the Bahamas.

  • John Yang:

    It is. It's amazing.

    You walk around, and everybody knows somebody, has family, has some connection, has friends on either Grand Bahama or Abaco. You know, I have been saying in my reports that Nassau has been relatively unaffected, and that's largely true. The damage here is very little. There is some flooding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, John, I heard someone that we heard, the challenges that Tom Cotter of Project HOPE is facing. We know there's some video that showed the sheer devastation people are dealing with.

  • John Yang:

    It is.

    It's amazing to look at those pictures. I have covered mostly tornadoes. I have never covered a lot of hurricanes. And I'm used to seeing the pictures we're seeing from Abaco at tornadoes — houses splintered, just flattened, big pieces of equipment, in this case big yachts, big boats, picked up and moved, resting against buildings.

    But in tornadoes, it's a relatively narrow area. It's the path of the tornado, which can be — pick and choose. You have a house devastated on one side of the street and left standing untouched on the other side.

    But these pictures from Abaco, it is huge areas, fields just leveled. As Tom Cotter said in the tape piece, he's seen a lot of disasters in his work, but this, he said he's seen nothing like this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Yang, reporting for us from Nassau in the Bahamas. John, thank you so much.

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