WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As rescue crews continue to look for and evacuate people from the devastated islands of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, relatives and friends are trying desperately to find loved ones in the Bahamas amid the chaos of recovery after Hurricane Dorian.
Access to the battered northern islands, where the storm caused catastrophic damage, has been limited. Search and rescue teams, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the British Royal Navy, were on the islands Wednesday trying to find survivors.
But amid communication lapses and widespread decimation, news about individuals is slow to arrive and difficult to find, so thousands of people have taken to social media to track down their kin.
One site — dorianpeoplesearch.com — started trying to help on Sunday night, in the middle of the storm, when a Realtor in Nassau said she saw a growing need even while the hurricane was still hitting the islands. Vanessa Pritchard-Ansell said Facebook groups of worried people had grown so numerous and unwieldy that it made finding names of those missing difficult. A Google Docs spreadsheet had grown to 40 pages and was difficult to navigate, she said.
“Each of those Facebook pages had a purpose, people asking for information about their loved ones,” Pritchard-Ansell said. “My concern was that the purpose would get lost.”
By Wednesday, friends and family members of more than 5,500 people still missing had posted on Pritchard-Ansell’s site. She said she is working with the U.S. and Canadian embassies to cross-check names with citizens of those countries.
She has an international team of volunteers helping.
“I know this kind of thing has been done before,” she said. “A guy from Spain reached out to me, and he had done something like this for a different hurricane, so it all came together.”
The Bahamian government created a form for people to complete that asks detailed questions. Dorianpeoplesearch is stripped down and basic: the name of the missing person, the town where they were believed to be before the storm, and their status — known or, in the vast majority of the 5,557 names, unknown. The names are listed in alphabetical order.
If there’s a critical need for evacuation, that is noted as well by whoever is posting the name. And some names are linked to Facebook groups.
One woman was listed as “last seen — Murphy Town by Change Ministries Church — needs insulin.”
“There have been people on dialysis, there was a woman in labor,” Pritchard-Ansell said. “Another woman who had a 5-week-old baby.”
Just a few missing people on the website are in the “status: known” category.
“When you see that somebody has been found and their family knows where they are, you feel a moment of elation,” she said. “But you also know that there are so many thousands of others who have not been accounted for.”
It might be small comfort to frantic loved ones, but the number of people reported missing in the initial hours after a hurricane typically goes down dramatically in the ensuing days, when power and communications are restored and people can more easily find one another and use cellphones and the Internet to reconnect. The Bahamian government has thus far listed 20 recorded deaths as a result of Hurricane Dorian, but they caution that number likely will rise as authorities reach decimated areas of the islands.
There are approximately 70,000 people who live on the Abaco islands and Grand Bahama combined. It is unclear how many were able to evacuate particularly vulnerable areas, such as the Mudd, a low-lying shantytown in Marsh Harbour that authorities said was completely decimated.
U.S. and U.K. rescuers are assisting the Bahamian government in searching for survivors, many of whom will be brought to safer spots on the southern islands. Pritchard-Ansell is also working with Trans Island Airways to get names of people they are evacuating.
TIA operations manager James Ingraham said search and rescue operations have been difficult because of the devastation — Freeport’s airport was destroyed. Getting information about where people are — and if they are stranded — is a challenge.
“Our priority is getting people to safety,” Ingraham said. “But it’s nice to let family members know that their loved one survived, to give them some reassurance. That’s important.”
Pritchard-Ansell said her family was safe in Nassau: “We barely got a surface scratch here.” But she said she knew even before Dorian left the islands — and it took 48 hours for it to finally pass — there would be a great need for information about those in hard-hit areas.
She said a simple, easy-to-use website seemed liked the best, just listing names and hometowns.
“On the islands, the degree of separation is really quite small,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone, or is a friend of a friend.”
Concerned people in the United States are using the site as well. Jeff Williams, 26, lives in Broward County, Florida, and has been looking for news about his fiancee, Deneze Bootle, 20, for days.
“I’ve been on Instagram, I tried to join Facebook groups, but it’s been so long since I’ve used it that I forgot my password,” Williams said. “I’m just looking up every little database and Google Doc and whatever I can find to get news about her. I’m checking every hour, and trying to call the embassy. I haven’t heard a thing yet.”
Bootle is listed on dorianpeoplesearch as being in Murphy Town on Abaco, where her family lives. Abaco was among the areas hardest hit by Dorian.
“I talked to her on Saturday. We were talking about just regular stuff, making each other laugh,” Williams said. “She told me she would charge her phone before the hurricane. The next thing you know, the hurricane hits and just sits on top of the island. Then the images started coming in, and I started to cry.”
He said Bootle had recently graduated from Bahamas University in Nassau and was home visiting family. Williams said he bought an engagement ring, but had not yet officially proposed.
“Deneze is my soul mate.” Williams said. “And now I don’t know what to do. I just keep checking and hoping that I’ll find her. And I keep praying, and crying, and hoping those tears will lead her back.”
Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida.