At least five people have died and 21 have been injured as slow-moving Hurricane Dorian pummels the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said Monday, grimly telling the world, "We are in the midst of a historic tragedy."
Dorian has slowed to a crawl but maximum sustained winds still reached 140 mph, forcing people including first responders to continue taking cover.
Minnis said the deaths were on the hard-hit Abaco Islands, and helicopter crews were evacuating the injured. He also said some people in nearby Great Bahama island were in serious distress, and rescue crews will respond to calls for help as soon as weather conditions allow.
Crews hoping to get a better assessment of the “catastrophic damage” reported in regions like the Abacos were still waiting for conditions to clear up, Foreign Minister Darren Henfield told state broadcaster ZNS.
“We have reports of casualties. We have reports of bodies being seen,” he said. “We cannot confirm those reports until we go out and have a look for ourselves.”
“We want to say to the citizens here in Abaco, in the impacted area, it is not safe to go outdoors,” Henfield added. “Power lines are down, lamp posts are down, trees are across the street – it is very dangerous to be outdoors if you don’t have to be outdoors. As soon as the weather permits, first responders will go to those areas where we have reports from individuals who were in distress.”
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) downgraded the storm to a Category 4 late Monday morning. As of 8 p.m. ET, its eye was located about 25 miles northeast of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island and 105 miles east of West Palm Beach, Fla.
The NHC said wind gusts of up to 190 mph were reported Monday in Grand Bahama Island, where storm surge was expected to bring water "18 to 23 feet above normal tide levels".
"These hazards will continue over Grand Bahama Island during most of the day, causing extreme destruction on the island" it added.
Minister of State Kwasi Thompson told the ZNS Bahamas radio station that officials are continuing to get a tremendous number of calls from people in distress -- including some witnesses who are reporting seeing others stuck on the rooftops of buildings.
But Police Chief Samuel Butler is urging people to remain calm -- and noted that until the storm passes over, there's not much that rescuers can do.
"We simply cannot get to you," he said.
Over the next day or so, Dorian is expected to make a "slow westward to west-northwestward motion" followed by a "gradual turn toward the northwest and north”, the NHC says.
"The hurricane will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast tonight through Wednesday evening,” it added, where a number of hurricane warnings and watches remain in effect.
On Sunday, Dorian’s wind gusts in the Bahamas reached speeds of 220 mph – tying the record as the most powerful Atlantic hurricane to ever make landfall.
Residents there desperate to find out about the status of their loved ones were calling into a ZNS live television broadcast Monday, asking the anchors for any information they have heard.
The Eyewitness News station in the Bahamas interviewed a grandmother late Sunday who told them her 8-year-old grandson had died in the Abacos, possibly from drowning.
Videos posted on social media showed cars in the Bahamas submerged in water, homes with roofs torn off and communities inundated with storm surge.
The Associated Press also cited a spokesperson from Bahamas Power and Light as saying that the entire island of New Providence – the country’s most populous and home to the tourist destination of Nassau – was without power and their office in the hard-hit Abacos was torn apart.
But, despite the damage, Henfield told ZNS that the citizens of the Bahamas and its government are “holding strong.
“We ask you to continue to pray for us,” he said.
Fox News' Mike Arroyo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.