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43 dead in Bahamas as Hurricane Dorian toll expected to rise 'significantly'

"Just waiting hurts us deeply because we don't know what to do, we feel helpless and scared at the same time," said a woman looking for missing relatives.
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The number of confirmed dead after Hurricane Dorian rose to 43 Friday, and the figure was expected to grow "significantly" as recovery efforts continued in the devastated Bahamas, the prime minister's office said.

Some 70,000 people are in need of aid on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, and thousands are desperately trying to find loved ones, with many gathering on social media and one main website in hopes of finding any news.

"Forty-three is the official count, many missing and this number is expected to grow significantly," said Erica Wells Cox, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Hubert Minnis.

More than 6,660 people were listed on the website Dorian People Search Bahamas as of Friday morning, as thousands were seeking information about their missing loved ones following the hurricane, site founder Vanessa Pritchard-Ansell, told NBC News.

She said there were still many people desperate to hear from their loved ones with communication down and thousands of people displaced from their homes.

“It started because I realized very quickly that there needed to be a central location for people to ask has anyone seen or has anyone heard from my loved one,” she said.

Despite the growing number of casualties, President Donald Trump said Saturday that Minnis had told him aid provided by the United States helped mitigate the destruction and loss of life.

"Thank you to Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis for your very gracious and kind words in saying that without the help of the United States and me, their would have been many more casualties," Trump said on Twitter.

"Give all credit to FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, & the brave people of the Bahamas."

The missing persons website, launched earlier this week, grew out of the Facebook group Pritchard-Ansell created Sunday night as the storm hit the islands.

Pritchard-Ansell, a real estate agent and native of Nassau, said she initially created the Facebook group because she has colleagues who were displaced by the storm. As a mother to a 10-month old baby, she was also moved by harrowing accounts of parents having to escape from the hurricane with their children and of families separated during the storm.

“None of us can know what these people are going through,” she said.

The group now has about 11,000 members on the Facebook page. As a next phase in the search for the missing, a woman from Marsh Harbour in the Abaco Islands created a Google document which grew to almost 50 pages long, she said.

Pritchard-Ansell said she was then approached by a man named Maros Pristas who had created a similar website to Dorian People Search for the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“He said this is the next step, this is what you need to do and I can help you do this,” she said, adding they assembled a small team of volunteers to help launch the website.

Image: Dorian Bahamas
Homes flattened by Hurricane Dorian are seen in Abaco, Bahamas, on Sept. 5.Gonzalo Gaudenzi / AP

Pritchard-Ansell said she and the team running the website were currently working with another local group, called HeadKnowles, which was going to the airport in Nassau and registering evacuees coming to combine efforts to update the list of the missing.

“This is changing every second,” she said.

“Today a lot of people are going to get some good news. I think a lot of people got some good news yesterday,” she said, adding that HeadKnowles had listed about 260 evacuees on Thursday that landed in Nassau.

The site asks people to list the full name, sex, date of birth, age, place of birth and last known location of missing individuals and it can be updated when a listed person went goes from missing to “status known.”

Pritchard-Ansell said even that could mean very different outcomes for people searching for loved ones — people could be found safe, safe but with injuries or it could mean someone was found deceased.

“We were very careful not to have the ability for anyone to mark someone deceased because no one needs to find out that a loved one is no longer in this world through a website,” she said.

Pritchard-Ansell said even after loved ones are found safe, the storm would leave lasting impacts on everyone effected.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of Hurricane Dorian

“The evacuees that come out of this are going to come out very different people,” she said. “We’re coming out of this on the other side different than we were going into it.”

She said the experience has left her hoping government agencies around the world would create a database where people can go to mark if a love done was missing, if their status was known or if they needed a critical evacuation following natural disasters.

“There’s such a need for this,” she said.

Image: Dorian Bahamas
A man walks through the rubble in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian on the Great Abaco island town of Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on Sept. 2.Dante Carrer / Reuters

Dudmire Morris, of New York, told NBC News in a Facebook message that she and her mother had not heard from her cousin and aunt, Cathlene Fenelus and Solanje Jameau, since the day before the hurricane hit the Abaco Islands. She listed their names on the Dorian People Search website and the Facebook group.

"I didn't expect for it to be this horrifying. I know the lines would be down, but now it's Friday and watching the news and seeing the death toll rising, I'm beginning to worry," Morris, 27, wrote. "We still can't reach them and I was hoping someone seen them via social media and would let us know. We have no means of contact and don't know where to start to help them."

She said her aunt told her mother they would be safe in their two-story home in Marsh Harbour, so she does not believe the two tried to evacuate.

"Honestly, we are scared and preparing for the worse," she said."Just waiting hurts us deeply because we don't know what to do, we feel helpless and scared at the same time."

Morris said seeing all of the other posts about the missing was "an eye opener that this tragedy is real and it also makes me feel like I am not alone."

"I can see that everyone is trying to find a way to help loved ones know that their family is okay," she said. "I'm just hoping a word of miracle comes my way."

Alicia Malone, a resident of Nassau, told NBC News on Thursday she turned to social media while frantically searching for her cousins who were missing after the storm. Malone, 24, said her family “prayed they would be coming out alive.”

“Dealing with social media, since the hurricane has started, thousands of people on my timeline who are sharing photos of people who are in crisis mood,” she said.

Malone was able to track down her family, but her cousins’ homes were swept away in the storm and she was still mourning the devastation that hit the islands.

“I have never cried so much,” she said. “My childhood is underwater. Abaco is gone and underwater.”