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Relief efforts ramped up for Bahamas where 'staggering' Dorian death toll feared

Charities, government agencies and even cruise ships loaded with supplies and volunteers rushed emergency aid to the storm-ravaged Bahamas on Saturday amid fears of a "staggering" death toll in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

Canadian Armed Forces helicopter joins Jamaica's airlift efforts amid shortages of food, water

Hurricane Dorian food relief boxes are loaded onto trucks after arriving from the Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas ship in Freeport, Bahamas, on Saturday. The ship delivered thousands of meals and cases of bottled water to Freeport early Saturday. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/via The Associated Press)

Charities, government agencies and even cruise ships loaded with supplies and volunteers rushed emergency aid to the storm-ravaged Bahamas on Saturday amid fears of a "staggering" death toll in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

Bahamian leaders believe hundreds and perhaps thousands remained missing in the archipelago nation of about 400,000 people, even as the official death toll rose only to 43 as of late on Friday.

The centre of Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Bahamas, remained parked over part of the archipelago for almost two days earlier this week, pummelling it with Category 5 winds.

The storm levelled some neighbourhoods, swallowed others with storm surges and caused what one official described as a "staggering" number of deaths.

Dorian also devastated parts of the Outer Banks Islands in North Carolina on Friday and it continued to push northward along the U.S. Atlantic coast toward Atlantic Canada. It strengthened to a Category 2 storm on Saturday afternoon as it approached the Maritimes.

A woman carries her baby prior to boarding a ferry to Nassau at the port in Marsh Harbor, Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Saturday. The Bahamian health ministry said helicopters and boats are on the way to help people in hurricane-affected areas, though officials warned of delays because of severe flooding and limited access. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

The storm brought tropical-storm force winds to southeastern Massachusetts and Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard on Saturday morning, according to an advisory from the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).

"Dorian's rain is just grazing New England," said Alex Lamers, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The storm was about about 500 kilometres southwest of Nova Scotia early on Saturday morning, the NHC said.

It is expected to make landfall in Nova Scotia on Saturday evening with hurricane-strength winds of about 160 km/h and leave up to 175 millimetres of rain before pushing further east as a weakened post-tropical storm by Sunday, the NHC said.

The Bahamas had only a slight, 10 per cent, chance of rain Saturday that was not expected to hamper relief efforts as Bahamas Health Minister Duane Sands spoke of "a tremendous loss of life."

Higher number of dead feared

The medical chief of staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau said two refrigerated, 40-foot trucks would be needed to hold the "staggering" number of bodies likely to be found.

"We've ordered lots of body bags," said Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway.

Sisters Schemelda, left, and Sheila Saintilien stand outside the Bible Truth Hall church Friday on Great Abaco Island on Friday. The sisters and their family are living in the church after they lost their home in the hurricane and plan to leave the island. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

The United Nations estimated 70,000 people were in "immediate need of life-saving assistance" such as food, water and shelter. The UN World Food Program was airlifting storage units, generators, prefab offices, and satellite equipment as well as eight tonnes of ready-to-eat meals.

The American Red Cross said it had committed an initial $2 million US to help the Bahamas recover from the hurricane, with food, water and shelter and other necessities.

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      "Our relief operation is growing, but we are also facing serious challenges in terms of delivering aid," Red Cross spokesperson Jennifer Eli said. "Even search-and-rescue choppers haven't been able to reach some people because there's no place to land. These challenges are affecting everyone."

      Near an area called The Mudd in Marsh Harbour on Abaco Island, a witness reported most houses levelled, the body of a man lying near a main street and dead dogs floating in water. Some residents were leaving the area with meagre possessions, while others were determined to remain.

      Reports of looting

      "There was an eery silence as we walked through a section of Marsh Harbour, one of the hardest-hit areas," CBC's Steven D'Souza said on Saturday. "And the people we encountered almost seemed as if they were in a daze, still shell-shocked.

      "We talked to some of them about some of the issues they're facing — safety issues. There are reports of looting, of people just trying to survive, to get anything they can," he said.

      A police officer stands guard at the Marsh Harbour Government Port during an evacuation operation on Friday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

      An Ottawa man who owns property in Freeport told CBC that police and defence forces are "overwhelmed" by reports of "serious looting" and break-ins.

      "The offices downtown are now all getting broke into," Vonny Malbasha wrote in an email, citing friends living in the Bahamas.

      More Canadian assistance

      A Canadian Hercules aircraft arrived in Nassau on Friday and then continued to Kingston, Jamaica, to help the Jamaican Defence Force's Disaster Assistance Response Team, which is taking part in an airlift operation.

      A Canadian Disaster Assistance Team (CDAT) has been sent to Nassau to assess the needs on the ground.

      Two women look through the remains of a house in the Mudd area of Great Abaco Island on Sept. 5 in the aftermath to Hurricane Dorian. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

      The assistance is in addition to the $500,000 Canada pledged last Wednesday to help the Canadian Red Cross build emergency shelters and provide other relief.

      The runway at the airport on Grand Bahama island has been cleared and is ready for flights, Security Minister Marvin Dames said. Authorities also said all ports have been reopened on that island and Abaco.

      U.S. President Donald Trump's administration requested airlift and logistical support from the U.S. Defence Department on Friday to support relief efforts for the Bahamas, the Miami Herald and other media reported.

      The U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies have already provided help, with U.S. Northern Command chief General Terrence O'Shaughnessy arriving in Nassau on Friday.

      The Coast Guard said Saturday it had rescued a total of 290 people in the Bahamas following the storm. Six MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters are carrying out search-and-rescue missions and providing logistical support. It says nine Coast Guard cutters are also helping in the Bahamas.

      Cruise ship ferrying supplies

      Relief groups were focusing on getting doctors, nurses and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas and helping survivors get food and safe drinking water.

      Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. committed $1 million US for hurricane relief and its ship Norwegian Breakaway left Miami on Thursday with supplies donated by the company and its employees, in addition to items collected by the City of Miami and various charities.

      More than 1,100 Bahamians have also arrived in Palm Beach, Fla., after being carried out by cruise ship.

      The Grand Celebration cruise ship returned to its home port after setting sail Thursday for Freeport, Grand Bahama, to deliver more than 100 tonnes of supplies and transport dozens of health workers and emergency crews.

      "I feel lost between a rock and a weary line but I guess I will make it through," said Thomas Stubbs, soon after he got off the ship.

      The 42-year-old owner of an air-conditioning and refrigeration business in Freeport said he will gather building supplies and return to that city in the next few days to help repair the homes of about 50 family and friends.

      "I have a lot, a lot, a lot of stuff lost ,but I will be back," he said.

      A passenger is transported by emergency workers in Riviera Beach, Fla., after disembarking the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ship, Grand Celebration, on Saturday. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

      Celebrity chef Jose Andres and members of his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, were on the ground in the Bahamas to aid hurricane survivors by preparing thousands of meals.

      The risk of outbreaks of diarrhea and waterborne diseases is high as drinking water may be tainted with sewage, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which described the situation for some people on Abaco as "desperate."

      Claudin Loriston, 39, a Haitian carpenter, said he and his three young children were among the "lucky ones" to get on a plane out of Abaco. He said he had no documents with him, but would try to get a job to support his family.

      "There are too many dead bodies there. The government needs to remove everyone from the island, the smell is everywhere, it's in the water."

      With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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