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Bahamas left devastated after 3 days of pounding by Hurricane Dorian

Rescuers searched for survivors in the Bahamas on Wednesday after Hurricane Dorian, the most damaging storm to strike the island nation, left at least 20 people dead.

'There was no point staying in the house and waiting for a rescue': search, recovery ongoing

Debris extends for several kilometres and floods covers much of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. 0:59

Rescuers searched for survivors in the Bahamas on Wednesday after Hurricane Dorian, the most damaging storm to strike the island nation, left in its wake a flooded landscape dotted with pulverized homes and beached boats.

The scope of the damage and humanitarian crisis was still unfolding as aerial video of the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed wide swaths of destruction and officials warned the current death toll of 20 was likely to rise. 

"We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country's history," Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. "No effort or resources will be held back."

Bahamian Health Minister Duane Sands told The Associated Press on Wednesday evening that 17 victims are from the Abaco islands and three from Grand Bahama.

Dozens of people took to Facebook to search for missing loved ones, and aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people in the nation of about 400,000 people would need food and other support.

"Marsh Harbor has suffered, I would estimate, in excess of 60 per cent damage to their homes," Minnis said, referring to the port on Great Abaco.

An aerial view shows damage at the Freeport airport after Hurricane Dorian hit Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas on Wednesday. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

"The Mud, as we know, has been completely destroyed or decimated," he said referring to a shantytown known as the Mud and the Peas.

Aerial video of the Bahamas' Great Abaco Island revealed kilometres of flooded neighbourhoods, pulverized buildings, upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off after being battered by the storm for three days.

I've been through a lot of hurricanes, but I've never seen something just sit on us and just move at one mile an hour, and it just wouldn't give up.- Bahamian Tim Aylen

Tim Aylen, a Bahamian who lives inland, told CBC News on Wednesday that his family considered going up in their attic or onto the rooftop, but that seemed like "a trap," given how high the water was rising in the house.

"I mean, there was no point staying in the house and waiting for a rescue," he said.

Aylen, a photojournalist who has documented many news events, was still taken aback as he welcomed the passing of the storm.

A before-and-after look at flooding on Grand Bahama Island. (CBC News)

"I've been through a lot of hurricanes, but I've never seen something just sit on us and just move at one mile an hour, and it just wouldn't give up," he said. "So this is a huge relief and although we haven't washed or eaten or done anything in a couple of days, it's just good to be dry."

Watch as a woman offers a first-hand account of the storm from Freeport:

Kimberly Mullings tells CBC News about how people are trapped in their homes in Freeport, Bahamas. 1:20

Back to a Category 3

By late Wednesday, Dorian has crept back up to Category 3 force with 185 km/h winds and was pushing toward a brush with the Carolinas — with a direct hit on the outer banks possible. An estimated three million people in Florida, Georgia and both North and South Carolina had been warned to clear out, and highways leading inland were turned into one-way evacuation routes.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Dorian was centred about 170 kilometres south of Charleston, S.C., moving north at 11 km/h. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 100 kilometres from its centre.

Forecasters said there was the danger of life-threatening floods as storm surge moves inland from the coastline, as well as the potential for over a foot of rain in some spots.

"Hurricane Dorian has its sights set on North Carolina," Gov. Roy Cooper said. "We will be ready."

As the threat to Florida eased and the danger shifted farther up the coast, Orlando's airport reopened, along with Walt Disney World and Universal. To the north, ships at the big Norfolk, Va., naval base were ordered to head out to sea for safety, and warplanes at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia were sent inland.

The U.S. mainland recorded its first death in connection with the hurricane, that of an 85-year-old man in North Carolina who fell off a ladder while preparing his home for the storm.

Residents of coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were bracing for Dorian's approach, with the NHC warning the slow-moving storm could make landfall in South or North Carolina Thursday or Friday. Tropical-storm-force winds and rain squalls were already lashing parts of the Florida coast on Wednesday.

Officials in South Carolina said they were expecting storm surges of 1.2 to 2.4 metres and wind gusts of 140 km/h on Thursday.

 More than a million people were ordered to evacuate coastal counties in the three states.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp extended a state of emergency Wednesday. U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for South Carolina on Tuesday, freeing funds, other federal resources and manpower to assist during the storm and aftermath recovery.

A state of emergency has also been declared in Florida.

Long lists of missing

The exact toll in the Bahamas will not be clear until the storm passes and rescue crews can get to devastated areas, said Theo Neilly, the Bahamian consul general in Washington.

"We expect it to be very devastating and the damage to be extreme," Neilly said. Dorian has battered the Bahamas for the past three days.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, in the strongest storm ever to hit the Bahamas.

Food may be required for 14,500 people in the northern Bahamas' Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the UN World Food Programme said in a statement. The preliminary estimates were based on an assessment by representatives of Caribbean nations, the WFP and other groups.

Mister Bolter recovers dishes from his son's home on Wednesday, in Pine Bay, near Freeport, Bahamas. Rescuers trying to reach drenched and stunned victims in the Bahamas fanned out across a landscape of smashed and flooded homes. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

Ottawa said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to Minnis by phone to express his sympathies and offer Canada's support.

The Canadian government announced it would give up to $500,000 in emergency assistance to support experienced humanitarian organizations, while a handful of officials, including an engineering specialist, were in the Bahamas to provide expertise and help assess needs.

"We continue to work closely with [the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency] and the Government of the Bahamas to identify how Canada can best support the provision of emergency assistance," a statement released by Global Affairs Canada.

With telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones across social media.

An aerial view on Wednesday shows a destroyed home on Grand Bahama Island. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 1,600 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday morning.

Dorian, which killed one person in Puerto Rico before striking the Bahamas on Sunday, is tied for the second-strongest Atlantic storm to make landfall with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labour Day hurricane.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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