Overnight, Hurricane Dorian has barely moved as it continues its assault on the Bahamas. Today the U.S. Coast Guard announced it will begin search-and-rescue missions in the Abacos. After confirming at least five dead so far, Bahamian officials report there are "a number of people in serious distress."
"Our focus is search, rescue, and recovery," Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at a news conference last night.
In the meantime, Bahamian residents have created their own search teams on social media, WhatsApp, and even Google Docs. Facebook groups that formed years ago to share local happenings are now being used to locate missing loved ones. A WhatsApp group chat with almost 300 members searching for relatives is at capacity. And locals are accounting for those who have been found safe through a crowdsourced spreadsheet.
On Abaconians Reunite, a Facebook group formed in 2015, members formerly used the page to post information about birthday celebrations, funeral services, and academic opportunities for schoolchildren. Now the page is filled with smiling faces of families whose whereabouts are unknown.
"Need help finding and rescuing my sister and my brother in law... along with their kids," one woman wrote, attaching a collage of photos. "Last communication was Sunday around 4:30 p.m. and they were scared."
Another woman pleaded for help finding a friend: "Am worried about my best friend I haven't heard from him since Saturday," she wrote in the caption beside his photo. "Please if anyone has [seen] him please ask him to call or message me and his sister."
Man-O-War, Bahamas Bulletin, a Facebook page described as a "local virtual bulletin," is being used in a similar fashion, although group members are also sharing information about where to find supplies, when to expect disaster relief, and which radio channels offer updates.
As has become common in modern natural disasters, WhatsApp continues to be a vital source of communication for those on the ground. Already, group chats are filling up: Team Abaco, with 257 members, is at capacity.
Bahamians are also sharing information via Google Docs and Google Sheets. A Google Doc titled "Bahamas Persons SEARCH | Hurricane Dorian" contains a list of hundreds of names of residents, only a fraction of whom have been marked as safe. A separate Google Sheet, "Abaco Family," is attempting to crowdsource the whereabouts of those in the Abaco Islands.
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The Bahamas Consulate in Miami is referring Bahamians to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) of the Bahamas, which has created an online form to track missing persons:
In the Bahamas, locals are urged to call NEMA for assistance. The emergency number is 242-322-6731, or 242-557-5202 on WhatsApp.