The ferry boat operator that ordered dozens of hurricane evacuees off its boat did so because it did not properly coordinate the evacuation ahead of time, US Customs and Border Protection said Monday.
Late Sunday night, CNN affiliate WSVN reporter Brian Entin posted video from a Balearia ferry boat in which a person announced over a loudspeaker that anyone traveling to the US without a visa must disembark. The ferry was set to travel from hurricane-ravaged Freeport, in the Bahamas, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when the announcement was made, Entin told CNN.
His video shows families with children getting off the vessel. One woman told Entin that as many as 130 people left the ferry after the announcement.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke called the incident "the height of cruelty" and was one of a number of people who blamed the Trump administration's strict immigration policies.
But Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Silva told WSVN that Balearia, the ferry operator, did not properly coordinate the evacuation efforts with the American Embassy, the Bahamian government and the US Agency for International Development.
"We're there to facilitate and accommodate that process in an orderly fashion, according to regulation and protocol. However, Balearia did not do that," Silva said. "We asked them to coordinate ahead of time. They did not that do that."
Over the weekend, nearly 1,500 evacuees arrived in Palm Beach, Florida, on board the Grand Celebration humanitarian cruise ship. All of them were properly documented to enter the country, and that process was coordinated with CBP ahead of time, Silva said.
Stephen Silvestri, acting port director for the CBP at Port Everglades, noted that the evacuees were ordered off the boat by the ferry operator and not by any US government entity.
If they had remained on the boat and arrived in the US, "we would have processed them, we would have done vetting and, you know, we would have done everything we needed to do within the US laws and regulations to determine their admissibility and process them accordingly," Silvestri said.
On its website, CBP says visas are not required for Bahamian residents flying into the US from the Bahamas if they also meet other criteria, including possessing a valid passport or other travel documents, having no criminal record and carrying a police certificate issued within the past six months.
Bahamians who travel to the US by ship are required to have a visa, CBP said. However, in humanitarian circumstances, the port director generally waives those requirements.
The ferry incident was the latest snag in a hellish week for residents of the Bahamas, who are dealing with the grim aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
Less than a week since the Category 5 storm hit, 45 people have been confirmed dead -- and that number is expected to rise drastically, officials say. Hundreds are still missing, nearly 70,000 have been left homeless and hundreds more are desperately looking for a way out.
Bahamas' National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is asking the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to investigate the ferry incident, NEMA spokesman Carl Smith said Monday.
"We are aware of an incident reported on a large passenger vessel headed to the United States," Smith said.
"I wish to reiterate there are no new arrangements in place for movement to foreign countries, to the United States and Canada in particular," Smith said.
He explained that the plan is not to move everyone out; instead, he said, temporary housing will be built in Abaco and Grand Bahama. About 4,800 people have been evacuated from those two islands already, Smith said.
Bahamas destruction like 'nuclear bombs were dropped,' USAID says
Those who lived through the storm bring with them horrific tales of survival: breaking through rooftops or swimming onto boats to try to ride out the violent waters. Some reported they had family members still missing and others recalled watching friends and neighbors drown in the storm surge.
"I have no words to say how bad," said Marilyn Laing, a resident of High Rock on Grand Bahama. "Maybe one in 10 houses is standing."
By Friday, the Coast Guard had rescued more than 230 people off the islands.
USAID Administrator Mark Green told reporters on Sunday his agency is leading humanitarian relief efforts of the US government in the Bahamas by providing "lifesaving and life-sustaining assistance: food, water, sanitation, emergency shelter, and medical care needed to facilitate the Bahamian government's response."
On Saturday, USAID announced $1 million in additional humanitarian assistance to help people affected in the Bahamas. That brings the agency's total funding to more than $2.8 million.
Green said he toured Abaco and other parts of the Bahamas after the hurricane and said some areas looked "almost as though nuclear bombs were dropped on them."
Search and rescue operations continue
Local authorities believe there are people buried under the rubble, but they have no way of knowing how many or when they will be able to get to them.
Search and rescue personnel who arrived with cadaver dogs on the Abaco Islands brought body bags and coolers to store human remains, said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the country's tourism and aviation ministry.
Marsh Harbour, the biggest town in the Abacos, was one of the hardest hit. A truck delivered at least two bodies to a makeshift mortuary Saturday. The morticians told CNN the difficulty in reaching the dead was slowing their work. Dive teams were needed to recover many submerged bodies, they said.
Authorities have said the current death toll may rise as search and rescue operations begin and they start sifting through the wreckage. In the hardest hit areas of Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, entire neighborhoods had been cleared out, trees and utility poles were down and boats were scattered.
The public should prepare for "unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering," Health Minister Duane Sands told Guardian Radio 96.9 FM.