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Rescuers and aid workers continue to deal with the devastation from Hurricane Dorian in Abaco Islands in The Bahamas.
USA TODAY

NASSAU, Bahamas – Confusion over required travel documents is severely hindering some efforts to help Bahamian refugees anxiously fleeing Hurricane Dorian’s carnage for the U.S.

Thousands have been fleeing the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama since Dorian slammed into the island chain a week ago, a Category 5 monster that lingered for days. Entire communities were leveled, leaving thousands homeless and food and water scarce.

The official death toll stands at 44, but authorities warn it will rise much higher.

At the Treasure Cay airstrip, many private plane owners refused to fly anyone without a valid U.S. passport over fear the pilots would be detained for questioning, slowing return flights. And hundreds of refugees were ordered off a Florida-bound ferry in Freeport on Sunday because they did not have visas.

Normally, most Bahamians would need a visa to come to the U.S. Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, on Monday urged federal officials to waive visa requirements and grant temporary protection status to the refugees. 

“Those who have lost their documents in the storm, or cannot receive a response from an overwhelmed Bahamian government shouldn’t have to endure another tragedy of not being able to get to safety,” Rizzo said.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R- Fla., on Monday urged the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to clarify the rules while also asking President Trump to ease visa requirements.

“As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” Scott said.

Viral video posted from the ferry Balearia in Freeport on Sunday included an announcement that “all passengers who don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark” the ship, headed for Port Everglades.

The incident took place one day after the cruise ship Grand Celebration, with 1,500 refugees aboard, arrived at the Port of Palm Beach in an evacuation mission that had been coordinated with U.S. and Bahamian governments. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, however, said all of those evacuees possessed “valid travel documents” and urged  private vessel and aircraft operators to coordinate any evacuation missions with Bahamian authorities.

WSVN-TV in Miami reported that hundreds of disappointed passengers left the Balearia when the announcement was made. They may not have actually needed to.

Stephen Silvestri, acting port director in Port Everglades, told the station that authorities in his port would have processed the evacuees without visas. He blamed a “business decision” by the ferry operators, suggesting the ferry operators did not want the ship docked for hours while the refugees were processed one by one.

“We would have processed them, vetted them and worked within our laws and protocols and done what we had to do to facilitate them,” Silvestri said.

Not everyone wants to go to the U.S., however. Many Haitian nationals living on Abaco Island refused to leave, or wanted to fly only to Nassau – the Bahamian capital located on New Providence Island – over fears they might be sent back to Haiti by the U.S. government.

USAID Administrator Mark Green met with Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis on Sunday after briefly touring Abaco, pledging the U.S. government’s full support. The U.S. military is assisting with relief efforts being led by USAID, which has brought in 89 people and four search dogs to pick through the rubble while simultaneously preparing for a long road to recovery.

“A team is already on the ground in The Bahamas and has started to help with search and recovery and shelter assessments on Abaco,” Minnis said. “Thank you for your support!”

More: Dazed and weary, Hurricane Dorian refugees descend on Nassau

More: 500,000 lose power as unrelenting Dorian marches into Canada

The agency brought in 47 metric tons of relief supplies from the Miami warehouse to help an estimated 44,000 people, USAID officials said, and about $2.8 million has been allocated to support response efforts.

Green said some communities were unscathed while others were devastated “almost as if though nuclear bombs were dropped on them.”

“People are without homes, supplies are scarce, and they need help,” Rizzo said. “We must create a visa waiver and grant temporary protected status to the people of the Bahamas while the country rebuilds.”

Bacon reported from McLean, Va.

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