Amid rescues in devastated areas, officials in the Bahamas raised the death toll from Hurricane Dorian, brought in body bags and coolers and said hundreds of residents remain missing.
Officials gave the sobering outlook Thursday as the official toll climbed to 23. But they are expecting many more than that as the extent of the damage becomes clear.
"Literally hundreds, up to thousands, of people are still missing," Joy Jibrilu, director general of the country's tourism and aviation ministry, told CNN's Michael Holmes.
Body bags, additional morticians and refrigerated coolers to properly store bodies are being transported to Abaco and other affected areas, Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands said during a radio interview on Guardian Radio 96.9 FM. Four morticians in Abaco are embalming remains because officials have run out of coolers, he said.
"The public needs to prepare for unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering," Sands said.
"Make no bones about it, the numbers will be far higher than 23," he said. "It is going to be significantly higher than that. And it's just a matter of retrieving those bodies, making sure we understand how they died. It seems like we are splitting hairs, but not everyone who died, died in the storm."
"It's going to be huge," he said.
There was some good news amid the desperate search for survivors.
The US Coast Guard said it had rescued 201 residents as of Thursday. Rescues have concentrated on Bahamas' northern islands, as international teams sent small planes and helicopters to reach those stranded and feed the displaced.
"Our emergent priority is to get the critically wounded out and help the government of the Bahamas get the infrastructure back up so it's safe, sanitary and livable -- at least on a temporary basis -- for those folks," Capt. James Passarelli, chief of staff of the Coast Guard's 7th District, told CNN.
Teams from Los Angeles and Fairfax, Virginia, are also helping survivors on the hard-hit Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, the US Agency for International Development said.
A British naval vessel has joined the effort, distributing food and water, and clearing streets of debris, Bahamian Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said Wednesday. About 60,000 people may be in dire need of food relief, the World Food Programme has said.
Dorian, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas, wiped out whole neighborhoods, then lingered for days, pounding the same battered places again and again.
Though the storm targeted only a small section the Bahamas -- a nation of more than 700 islands -- it still inflicted "generational devastation," Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.
Service members rush to help
At least 80 people had been rescued and evacuated Thursday morning from the Abacos, a government official told CNN. Many were flown to the Odyssey Aviation center outside Nassau Airport, where a CNN team saw rescue and relief aid helicopters and small planes landing and taking off.
"Most of the operations to date have been relocating and transporting the critically injured to a higher level of medical care," Passarelli, the Coast Guard official, said.
Many of those rescued were taken to Nassau, he said.
The Coast Guard now has 10 fixed-wing aircraft, 14 rescue helicopters and at least three different cutters -- a term used to identify vessels -- in the Bahamas to assist, spokesman Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane said.
More help is on the way.
At least 8 metric tons of food were on their way from Miami to the Bahamas, Herve Verhoosel, a spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) said in a statement.
Another 85 metric tons of "ready to eat" meals would be brought in the next three months, and the WFP was organizing an airlift of storage units and generators that will be brought to the Bahamas from Panama, the spokesman said.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies planned to receive relief supplies in Nassau on Thursday afternoon, the organization said in a statement.
"Getting relief to people in need is our number one priority," it said. "We are doing everything we can to get aid to hard-to-reach places in the wake of Hurricane Dorian."
The Red Cross efforts were hampered by damaged roads and telecommunications infrastructure, the statement added.
Resources have been cut off
As authorities rushed to respond to the damage, they have come up against limited access to important resources.
The only international airport on the island of Grand Bahama was devastated and cannot serve as a staging ground for medical evacuations or emergency aid deliveries.
"After two days of trying, we're finally able to get into the Freeport airport," CNN's Patrick Oppmann said from the scene Wednesday.
"It's gone. ... The level of devastation is actually breathtaking. There are no walls left at the airport. The ceiling has come crashing."
The runway was littered with debris. Inside the domestic terminal, the wreckage of a small passenger plane lay among the detritus.
"You think of the force required to throw a plane from the runway into a terminal," Oppmann said. "If anybody was in here, I don't know how they would have survived."
The international terminal was still standing but had suffered obvious damage from flooding, according to CNN's crew.
By Thursday morning, debris had been removed from the runway, residents told Oppmann, but it was unclear whether the airport was back in use.
Flooding has also limited access to health care, blocking for a time the path to one hospital with submerged cars.