As soldiers from the Barbados Defence Force prepare to resume their humanitarian mission to hurricane-ravaged Dominica, some have been reliving their experiences of rendering assistance to their Caribbean neighbours who suffered extensive damage from this year’s storms.
The 2017 hurricane season has so far been uncharacteristically intense, with two category five hurricanes wreaking havoc across the region.
Hurricane Irma made landfall in Barbuda on September 6, as a category five storm, completely damaging infrastructure, and prompting prime minister Gaston Browne to order a mandatory evacuation to its sister island Antigua. Irma also left a trail of destruction in other countries in the northern Caribbean.
Lieutenant Commander Graham Rocheford was part of the CARICOM Disaster Relief Unit (CDRU) team deployed to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands following the passage of the storm.
Although he is trained in disaster management, Rocheford admitted he was shocked on arrival, as he had never seen such a large scale of devastation.
“From an aerial view all you could see the island was like a pack of cards, more or less. That’s how I could describe it. When we arrived there, the hangars in which the airplanes were located were mangled; basically they looked like paper clips. Some of the night towers were bent right over, and it was dangerous for commercial aircraft to come into Tortola, so we basically had the small aircraft landing and military aircraft landing in Tortola,” he told reporters at BDF headquarters, St Ann’s Fort, this afternoon, adding there were several challenges initially as there was no electricity or running water.
“Up to the point when we left they still had not fully restored electricity and running water to the whole island and the adjoining islands.
“There was widespread devastation. The first thing that they worked on was opening back the roads, but we saw yachts on top of yachts, we saw 40-foot containers on top of cars, ferries far into the shore. It was not a pleasant experience, it was not a pleasant sight,” he said, pointing out that the disaster emergency management office was also totally destroyed.
“They are basically the persons who are really supposed to assist with getting the country back on [its] feet once the hurricanes and tropical storms have passed, but they themselves had to be assisted,” Rocheford said.
According to him, the majority of government services were therefore moved to the hospital, where the disaster management office was also set up.
In addition to the infrastructural damage and the loss of essential services, Rocheford recalled that many people, including Barbadians living on that island, suffered psychological trauma as result of their experiences with the storm.
“I remember there was a gentleman who was living in BVI he said for approximately seven years. However when the hurricane passed his home was totally destroyed. He said what he did was during the passage of the eye [he went] by a neighbour. While at the neighbour, the neighbour’s house was destroyed by the latter half of the hurricane. He was practically in tears. He was under severe psychological trauma, and he was just trying his best to get anything possible.
“When I was leaving BVI, he wanted to . . . get back out. And there were many such persons who suffered the same fate. They had nothing left,” Rocheford said.
He also commended the team for their work in the British Virgin Islands.
“Many nights we worked from morning till night to assist the people of the BVI because a lot of the essential services had not reported back to work as yet, because a lot of them were still in shock from what transpired.
“I think they still have several months before they get back to any form of normalcy. Because a lot of their pumping stations are still offline, and essential services at the hospital are still running on generator power. And this is three weeks after the passage of the hurricane.”
For Lieutenant Shawn Brome, who was part of the Regional Security System (RSS) task force, there were similar tales of despair in Dominica.
That island was levelled by category five Hurricane Maria on September 18. Disaster struck while the island was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika which caused widespread damage in August 2015.
“Some of the Dominicans that we interacted with down there, they were basically walking the streets, don’t know where to go, they had no homes to go to, they had no water, no food and there are three basic things people need for survival: food, water and shelter. They had none.
“Some of the Dominicans said yes they prepared, but they never expected the widespread devastation they would have from a category five system. And some of them even said while they stocked up on food and water and stuff, when the system struck, it took it all. So they have nothing,” he said.
With memories of Maria’s devastation still fresh, Brome appealed to Barbadians to take storm warnings seriously, even though the island has so far been fortunate to escape a direct hit.
“From what we’ve seen in Dominica I don’t think Barbados can survive anything of that magnitude. These people experienced it more than once and they were prepared, but they weren’t prepared enough. So we need to be cognizant of what it is, and we need to recognize and appreciate and to some extent give respect to the approaching systems,” he warned.
The BDF will begin another round of deployments to Dominica from tomorrow, as part of its continued assistance to the island.
Public Relations Officer Captain Maria Moore said she anticipates the mission to Roseau will last until February next year, given the extent of damage caused by the storm.
“Once the country begins to get back on its feet, return to a state of normalcy, we’re going to be refocusing our efforts to the rebuilding, so the majority of the persons who will be going down will be artisans.
“So we envisage that we will be in Dominica maybe as far down as February next year because there is quite a lot of infrastructural damage. They will be part of a CARICOM [Caribbean Community] force that will put its efforts into assisting the rebuilding of Dominica,” Captain Moore explained.