“There’s chaos everywhere, you just have to pick a spot and move out from there, said Chad Belger, a lieutenant in Gainesville, Florida’s fire department and part of the aid crew that responded to the northern Bahamas in the wake of the worst hurricane in its history.
The official death toll on the islands stands at 45, but evacuees, rescue workers and officials say they expect it to climb substantially as searchers find more bodies. That task is underway in the Marsh Harbour shanty towns the Mudd and the Peas.
Government workers, wearing disposable hazmat suits, rubber boots and masks, yesterday removed one body from a rubble-filled teal building. Nearby, nearly a dozen workers creeping across the surrounding hellscape found and marked three more corpses that need to be removed before heavy machinery, slated to arrive from Nassau, begins clearing out the wobbly mountains of plywood riddled with rusted nails that once housed thousands.
Some 70,000 people on the Bahamas need food and shelter a week after Dorian hit the islands as a top-of-scale Category 5 hurricane with wind gusts topping 320kmph, according to a UN World Food Programme estimate.
For Belger, a muscular 38-year-old retired US Army specialist who helped lead search, rescue and recovery efforts after a Category 5 Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle last year, the scope of the damage has been startling.
Despite the sense of urgency that brought Belger and his team of six here with little more than their recovery gear, sleeping bags and ready-to-eat meals, searching the rubble proved to be a slow task.
Many in the group carried tools that resembled heavy, hooked fireplace pokers, which they poke into tall piles of matted down grass and dead palm fronds and lift up cracked metal boards. They have little to follow other than their noses in the slow hunt for human remains.
Years of training have given Belger and his crew an eye for where to look.
“When you find a collapsed house and there’s a bathtub with a wall over it or a closet that was damaged those are spaces that you want to get into because those are the places that people hide,” Belger said through a lip packed with chewing tobacco.