By Nick Brown and Andrew Hay
NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) - As a humanitarian crisis unfolded in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, a flotilla of ships and boats was preparing on Wednesday to begin ferrying relief supplies to areas of the island-nation hardest hit by the Category 5 storm.
Tens of thousands of people on the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco need food, water and medical supplies after Dorian pulverized their homes and sent storm waves crashing through communities.
The official death toll was eight, but the number was expected to rise "significantly higher," United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters.
Not enough helicopters were available to get the aid to where it was needed, with the main airport on Grand Bahama not yet operating, according to a Reuters photographer, making it impossible to get fixed-wing aircraft in and out.
The 225-foot-long (69-meter) "Fiesta Mail," which normally transports cargo, post and packages from the capital city of Nassau, was among small ships that answered a call from Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis for volunteer rescuers. It was set to sail to Freeport at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
"We’re taking everything and anything, as much as we can carry, whatever people bring,” said Elvin Taylor, managing director of Mailboat Company Ltd, which has put two of its vessels at the service of relief efforts.
Getting aid to cities like Freeport, Grand Bahama and Marsh Harbor, Abaco is urgent as local hospital workers try to care for injured, and deal with the impact on their own families, Judy Terrell, communications director at the Bahamas Public Hospitals Authority, told local television station ZNS.
Freeport's harbor was set to open around midday on Thursday and the Fiesta Mail could be the first ship to enter since Dorian hammered the island for 24 hours, Taylor said.
A British Royal Navy vessel as well as U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopters have provided food and evacuated dozens of critically injured residents.
But aid workers at Odyssey Aviation, a small airport in Nassau, were exasperated by their inability to get to the islands on the limited number of private helicopters flying. As frustration grew, some opted to travel by sea instead.
A local group called Restoration Abaco, which is partnering with the international aid group Project Hope in the Bahamas, had a supply barge slated to depart for Abaco Wednesday night.
"We just want to bring some relief to frustrated people who’ve been in wet clothes for four days,” said the group's founder Sandra Cooke, 57, whose brother's house was destroyed, his wife pinned under a roof for 17 hours before being rescued.
The inoperability of airports was causing relief delays, with volunteers like Cooke questioning why aid packages had not been dropped by air.
"The only way supplies can get in is via helicopter, so planes have to stop here, unload supplies, and then copters have to do runs back and forth," said Craig Pinder, a local real estate agent and member of the East Nassau Rotary Club, which is helping organize relief trips.
Taylor plans to next get a ship into Abaco's Marsh Harbor and has organized a team of divers, some U.S. volunteers, to first search its waters for hazards like sunken boats.
He says it is the least his company can do to for island communities his company has earned a living from for 60 years.
"We owe it to them," said Taylor, 58, who expected to transport up to 250 people, including medics and aid workers, to Freeport.
(Reporting Nick Brown in Nassau, Bahamas and Andrew Hay in Taos New Mexico; additional reporting by Joe Skipper in Grand Bahama; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)