NASSAU, BAHAMAS >> The roof had blown clean off. Outside, the ocean surged, swallowing the land. Brent Lowe knew he had to escape — and take his 24-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy and can’t walk, with him.
But Lowe had another problem. He’s blind.
So he put his grown son on his shoulders, then stepped off his porch, he said. The swirling current outside came up to his chin.
“It was scary, so scary,” said Brent Lowe, 49.
Clutching neighbors, he said he felt his way to the closest home still standing. It was five minutes — an eternity — away.
Stories of unlikely survival have slowly emerged in the days since Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, pummeling the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco for days before moving toward the Atlantic Seaboard.
While the damage has been visible from above, the full human toll is still far from certain, with 23 deaths confirmed so far and authorities warning that the real number may be much higher.
The death count “could be staggering,” Dr. Duane Sands, the minister of health, said Thursday.
Some neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble, almost entirely flattened by the storm. In others, 95% of homes have been damaged or destroyed.
Thousands of people are now homeless, taking refuge in gymnasiums or churches, and authorities are bracing for an influx of bodies as the extent of the destruction becomes clear.
“We are embalming bodies so that we have more capacity as new bodies are brought in,” Sands said. “We need to get coolers into Abaco and Grand Bahama, because we believe that we may not have the capacity to store the bodies.”
Sandra Cooke, a resident of Nassau, the capital, said her sister-in-law had been trapped under a collapsed roof in the Abaco Islands.
At first, her brother couldn’t find his wife — then the family dog detected her in the rubble. When there was a break in the storm, neighbors helped free her.
“She was trapped under the roof for 17 hours,” Cooke said. She hired a private helicopter service to bring the rescued woman to Nassau, she said.
When Hurricane Dorian first made landfall Sunday, Lowe recalled, all of its fury seemed to bear down on him.
The storm raging outside was one of the most powerful ever to sweep through the Atlantic. Its eye was approaching, and the group of eight people inside Lowe’s cement house was particularly vulnerable.
In addition to Lowe and his disabled son, neighbors whose homes had already been destroyed were also sheltering there. Among them were two children.
As the storm howled around them, Lowe said, the roof began to lift off, then slap back down. Abaco withstood sustained winds of up to 185 mph that day, with gusts that reached 220 mph. The group sought safety in the bathroom, where they huddled together and prayed, hoping for relief. Lowe’s son was nestled inside the bathtub, he said.
That’s when the roof flew away.
Exposed to the elements, each person had to step out into the storm. They clung to each other and set out to find refuge.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” said Lowe, who is no stranger to hurricanes but said he could never have imagined the terror of that day.
The group reached a neighbor’s home. Lowe and his son hunkered down there for a day until a rescue bus was able to pick them up Monday and take them to a shelter.
On Tuesday night, he was evacuated to Nassau, where Brent Lowe can get the dialysis treatment he needs three times a week. His son had to stay in Abaco, in the care of Lowe’s sister-in-law, he said.
“I came here with the clothes that I had on from Saturday,” he said.
Although Lowe and his son are now safe, his ordeal is, in some ways, only beginning.
He didn’t know if his eldest daughter made it through the storm, he said. The phone lines have been down for days, and communication with Abaco is very difficult.
“Right before we had the wind, I spoke with her,” he said. “I wish I could have been able to call and ask somebody, you know, because I really was worried about them. I was worried about everybody.”
Lowe is now homeless. After a lifetime on the outskirts of Marsh Harbour, the main town in Abaco — where he raised a family and worked as a butcher in a fish house until he lost his eyesight to diabetes — his home, his community and everything he built has been obliterated.
Still, Lowe wants to return to Abaco.
“I have to go,” he said. “That’s where my family is. My kids are there; my brothers, my sisters, they’re all there.”
But he is unsure of its future. The damage is catastrophic.
In the area where he lived, “90% of the houses are compromised,” he said. “I’m talking about roofs gone, houses totally collapsed everywhere.”
He added, “I’m just wondering where we’re going to live when I go back home, what I’m going to do.”