An aerial view Tuesday shows damaged and destroyed houses in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian departed. Photo by PO2 Adam Stanton/U.S. Coast Guard/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 5 (UPI) -- As rescue crews search the hardest hit Bahamas' islands for missing persons in the wake of Hurricane Dorian earlier this week, the death toll continues to rise. According to multiple reports, 30 people have been reported dead.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis confirmed to CNN that 30 people died in the storm that stalled over the island nation as a Category 5 and battered the commonwealth for 36 hours Sunday and Monday.
However, the number of dead is expected to rise as hundreds, possibly thousands, are still unaccounted for.
Dr. Duane Sands, the Bahamas' health minister, said Thursday that the number of dead "could be staggering," The New York Times reported.
"We are embalming bodies so that we have more capacity as new bodies are brought in," he 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," he said, referring to the two island's worst affected by Dorian.
Sands earlier told a Bahamas radio station that the issue now is retrieving the bodies and having enough qualified people to discern the cause of death, The Nassau Guardian reported.
The final death toll, he said, "will be staggering."
The U.S. Coast Guard said that as of 4 p.m. Thursday it had rescued 201 residents, mainly from Bahamas' northern storm-ravaged islands, using 11 helicopters to conduct search and rescue operations.
"Our emergency priority is to get the critically wounded out and help the government of the Bahamas get the infrastructure back up so it's safe, sanitary and livable -- at least on a temporary basis -- for those folks," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. James Passarelli told CNN.
An estimated 60,000 people could be in dire need of food and other aid in the coming days, the World Food Program said.
The Miami Herald reported the first large relief ship with food and other supplies arrived in northwest Bahamas on Thursday. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship brought the supplies, which were then sent onshore by tugboats.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it had rescued a total of 135 people by early Thursday. Officials said most transports involved taking the injured to a place they could receive high levels of care.
Thousands remain stranded without shelter, clean water or food throughout the Bahamas. On Abaco Island, survivors huddled at what's left of the airport waiting for rescue. Nearly half the homes on Abaco and Grand Bahama were damaged or destroyed, the Red Cross said.
"[My] house had broken up around us," resident Nancy Albury said. "And we cracked the door open and there was nothing left."
In one area known as The Mudd, where many undocumented Haitian immigrants live, The Miami Herald reported bodies were lying among the wreckage.
The Bahamas' only international airport, in Freeport on Grand Bahama, sustained heavy damage from the storm, making it harder to get relief supplies into the island. The main terminal was still standing but many of the walls had collapsed.
Freeport resident Harold Williams and his son rescued stranded relatives by jet ski.
"I don't think we've seen anything like this in our lifetime," he said. "Total destruction."
The Bahamas had tightened its building codes for new home construction, but some residents said Hurricane Dorian destroyed them just the same.
"You can't tell that there are any homes there," rescuer Brandon Clement said as he shot footage from a helicopter. "It looks like a bunch of building materials were put in a big grinder and thrown on the ground."