Lake Worth, Florida (CNN)Nearly 5,000 residents have fled the Bahamas after a violent Category 5 storm ripped through their neighborhoods and left the islands in shambles.
“I want to assure evacuees that as we start rebuilding their communities they will be returned home,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said Monday. Hundreds more remain trapped on the islands, following confusion about what documents Bahamians need to travel to the US. Over the weekend, some 119 passengers hoping to evacuate Grand Bahama — one of the hardest hit islands — were told to get off a Balearia Caribbean ferry boat heading to Florida if they didn’t have visas, according to the ferry operator. The operator has since apologized for the “hardship and inconvenience” the passengers experienced but added, “We boarded these passengers with the understanding that they could travel to the United States without their visas, only to later having been advised that in order to travel to Ft. Lauderdale they required prior in-person authorization from the immigration authorities in Nassau.”Read MoreUS Customs and Border Protection (CBP) earlier said the operator did not properly coordinate the evacuation ahead of time.What the ferry operator should have done Stephen Silvestri, acting port director for the CBP at Port Everglades, said 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 United States, “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.CBP spokesman Michael Silva said CBP informed the ferry operator that they would have to stop in Nassau — where the agency’s Preclearance facilities are located — to obtain visas to enter the US, as is required for any Bahamian entering the country by boat. Bahamas residents are fleeing Dorian's devastation. Here's how the US has treated migrants escaping past disastersHowever, Silva noted there is a visa exception during a humanitarian crisis, such as Dorian. The Department of Homeland Security states Bahamians can apply to enter the US without a visa at CBP Preclearance facilities in Nassau or Freeport.But Silva also said if passengers without visas had stayed on board the Balearia ferry and arrived to the US, they would have been processed appropriately, although it would have taken time to do so because passenger information provided to the US government by the ferry was incomplete. CNN has reached out to CBP for further clarification on whether passengers should have been taken to Nassau for visa waivers or brought to the US for processing. Over the weekend, nearly 1,500 evacuees arrived in Palm Beach, Florida, on board the Grand Celebration humanitarian cruise ship.Those passengers were properly documented to enter the country, and that process was coordinated with CBP ahead of time, Silva said. And there were extra CBP officers on hand at the port to process the evacuees and issue visa waivers for those who did not possess one, he added.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.Death toll expected to riseIn the Bahamas, social media is a vital tool in the search for missing loved onesBy Monday, the death toll had risen to 50, the Royal Bahamas Commissioner of Police said. Authorities have recovered 42 bodies from the island of Abaco and eight from Grand Bahama. “We anticipate the discovery of more deceased persons, as the process of search and recovery progresses,” the commissioner’s statement said. USAID Administrator Mark Green said Sunday some areas in the Bahamas looked “almost as though nuclear bombs were dropped on them.””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.”Marsh Harbour, the biggest town in the Abacos, suffered some of the worst destruction. 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.