FREEPORT, Bahamas - Sobering images emerged Wednesday of flooded streets, badly damaged homes and rescuers helping victims after the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas in recorded history finally began to moving into open waters toward the U.S.
Hurricane Dorian parked over Abaco and Grand Bahama islands this week, pounding them with winds up to 185 mph and torrential rain. Bahamians rescued victims with jet skis and a bulldozer as the U.S. Coast Guard, Britain's Royal Navy and a handful of aid groups tried to get food and medicine to survivors and take the most desperate people to safety.
At least seven deaths were reported in the Bahamas, with the full scope of the disaster still unknown.
The storm's punishing winds and muddy brown floodwaters destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes, crippled hospitals and trapped people in attics.
Flooded, impassable streets could be seen in photos, as well as toppled boats strewn about a marina.
"It's total devastation. It's decimated. Apocalyptic," said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief group and flew over the Bahamas' hard-hit Abaco Islands. "It's not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again."
She said her representative on Abaco told her there were "a lot more dead," though she had no numbers as bodies being gathered. The Bahamas' prime minister also expected more deaths and predicted that rebuilding would require "a massive, coordinated effort."
"We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country's history," Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at a news conference. "No effort or resources will be held back."
Five Coast Guard helicopters ran near-hourly flights to the stricken Abaco, flying more than 20 injured people to the capital's main hospital. British sailors were also rushing in aid. A few private aid groups also tried to reach the battered islands in the northern Bahamas.
Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes on Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to be severely damaged or destroyed. U.N. officials said more than 60,000 people on the hard-hit islands will need food, and the Red Cross said some 62,000 will need clean drinking water.
"What we are hearing lends credence to the fact that this has been a catastrophic storm and a catastrophic impact," Cochrane said.
Lawson Bates, a staffer for Arkansas-based MedicCorps, flew over Abaco and said: "It looks completely flattened. There's boats way inland that are flipped over. It's total devastation."
The Red Cross authorized $500,000 for the first wave of disaster relief, Cochrane said. U.N. humanitarian teams stood ready to go into the stricken areas to help assess damage and the country's needs, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said. The U.S. government also sent a disaster response team.
Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, with a combined population of about 70,000, are known for their marinas, golf courses and all-inclusive resorts. To the south, the Bahamas' most populous island, New Providence, which includes the capital city of Nassau and has over a quarter-million people, had little damage.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.