Death toll climbs in Bahamas as Hurricane Dorian cleanup begins

Crews are combing through flattened communities left behind in Hurricane Dorian's wake in search of those killed.

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By Linda Givetash

The number of people confirmed dead after Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas rose to 30 late on Thursday, but was expected to rise dramatically as the country assessed the devastation.

Crews assembled to survey the damage have a daunting task of inspecting each home and collapsed structure scattered around the 50-mile range of islands to locate the dead, the country's health minister, Duane Sands, told NBC News.

"It is a horrendous challenge right now and the process of certification and confirmation certainly does not in any way relate to the findings in the field," he said, adding that the findings suggest the death toll "will rise dramatically."

The final toll is likely to be "staggering," Sands told Britain's BBC News.

An aerial view of damage caused by Hurricane Dorian on Great Abaco Island on Wednesday.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Video taken by NBC News partner Telemundo in the town of Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco Island — one of the worst-hit areas — showed workers in white protective suits and wearing face masks and rubber globes picked through the rubble looking for victims. They loaded body bags onto a flat-bed truck.

"The prime minister has attempted to prepare the public for the ultimate confirmation and the expectation that this has been a devastating storm and loss of life and property," Sands told NBC News.

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The slow-moving Category 5 hurricane hit the archipelago nation of nearly 400,000 people on Sunday, destroying as many as 13,000 homes, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hundreds of volunteers have been distributing food aid and relief supplies such as hygiene items, jerrycans and hand-crank cell phone charges in the aftermath.

Children are among the thousands still listed as missing since Dorian blasted the islands and then headed toward the United States' coast. Richard Johnson told Reuters that his six-year-old brother Adrian was too small to withstand the storm's powerful winds.

"I guess within seconds the gusts of the wind blew the little boy off the roof into the water," Johnson said of his brother. "Given the circumstances, I'm not that hopeful."

Communities have been left unrecognizable, with some structures completely flattened while others still standing having endured its siding or roof torn off.

"You can't live here," said Diane Thompson, 64, as she waited outside the packed airport at Marsh Harbor with her family. She hoped to be evacuated to safer territory.

Swaths of Grand Bahama Island was also decimated by the storm. Fernley Cooper, 43, said he slept in the ceiling of his home for two days waiting for the floods to recede.

"We got eight feet of water in my house," he said as he made his way to the city of Freeport seeking refuge. "Keep us in prayers."

The Red Cross said more help will be needed in the form of shelter and health supplies, along with short-term economic support.

On the Abaco Islands, the storm not only decimated structures but raised concerns that extensive flooding has contaminated wells with seawater, creating an urgent need for clean water for survivors, the Red Cross has said.

The United Nations said that at least 76,000 people are in need of urgent aid. A $5.4 million fund has been made available through the World Food Program to begin providing emergency meals and other supports.

But the distribution will be a challenge in light of the destruction, and the scale of the need remains daunting for rescuers.

"It’s very unusual for 20 percent of the population of a country to be very severely impacted by a single event like this," said United Nation relief chief Mark Lowcock in a statement, comparing destruction to the near wipe-out of the island of Dominica by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

"A disaster of such epic proportions on a single country in a single incident is very, very unusual."

Colin Sheeley, Reuters and Associated Press contributed.