“Looking down at the devastated landscape from the window of a small plane I felt those familiar senses of anticipation and responsibility”. Team Rubicon UK.
Anticipating the effects of a category 5 hurricane on the population of a small Caribbean Island, and the responsibility for another five teammates landing on a remote airstrip which had recently seen a plane emptied of its cargo at gun point.
Hurricane Dorian passed over Abaco Island in the Bahamas on the 1st September 2019 as a category 5 Hurricane with sustained windspeeds of 295 KPH, before passing over the island of Grand Bahama where it stalled, intensifying the magnitude of the devastation. Imagine being in a house by the sea, whilst being battered by winds, with the power to rip the roof of your home clean off, and within the eye of the hurricane, where mini tornadoes or twisters are picking up everything that isn’t bolted down and dispatching items as large as cars randomly across the landscape. If that isn’t enough to contend with, then there is the storm surge (in effect a mini tsunami), which in this instance was a 20-foot wall of water immediately inundating homes and forcing people to escape onto their roof, or be swept away – to either drown or cling for survival to the detritus within the flood waters (I spoke to a man who had clung onto a floating refrigerator for 14 hours).
The Team Rubicon UK team landed at Treasure Cay airstrip to a scene of utter chaos. The local population surrounded our small plane seeking a way off the island as we unloaded our personal equipment and sought some much-needed situational awareness from a Bahamian police officer.
In situations like this I’m often asked, ‘Where do you start?’ and I think back to a mantra I developed during the Nepal earthquake in 2015, when assisting the community at the epicentre of the quake that was that ‘you can’t help everybody but you can help somebody’. This has worked for me thus far and helped me come to terms with the enormity of some of the events I’ve witnessed. It also chimes with the idea of ‘shrink the change’ in that the way to solve a big problem is often a succession of smaller solutions. We were about to become one of those smaller solutions as in return for loading a truck with aid we had hitched a ride on the back and found ourselves driving towards a devastated resort, which had a small clinic where people had sheltered from the hurricane and was now being used as an aid distribution point. A detachment from the Royal Bahamian Defence Force were providing security and as we unloaded the first consignment the team headed back to the airstrip for another load to leave Lizzy (my second in command) and I to work out next steps. No sooner had they left than we rushed to the assistance of a man who had fallen into a diabetic coma. A less immediately apparent consequence of these events is that the affected population often lose everything, which includes medication and details of prescriptions. In this instance the casualty was evacuated by helicopter to Nassau and it was a successful outcome.
Having established a forward operating base our team pushed out on foot to identify affected communities and assess their needs. This information gathering is always the first phase of our operations and once fed into the coordination mechanism it leads to a more effective distribution network. One of our concerns here was for the Haitian population, who were reticent to engage with humanitarians owing to their legal status on the island. They had initially been invited over to work on a government farm in the 1950s but since then a number of shanty towns had developed, which were housing people either living on Abaco illegally or using it as a staging post to the USA. One has only to reflect on the current political situation in Haiti to appreciate why Haitians would flee from their home shores (post-disaster a fishing vessel packed with migrants ran aground off another Bahamian islands and the passengers fled into the relative safety of the expatriate community). We enter into the uncertainty of these events with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence as our guiding handrail and aid must be distributed to those most in need. In my experience people sometimes need a literal and metaphorical hand up and to realise they are not alone in confronting the task ahead. Humanity is critical and I have seen something as simple as a hug unlock an emotion that has been stored inside since the disaster struck. Lizzy had one of these moments with a man who had lost his wife and children and was contemplating taking his own life. I hope the humanity of her action averted that course and he has lived on trying to make sense of it all.
During our time in the Bahamas Team Rubicon UK distributed 142 tonnes of humanitarian aid to 68,224 beneficiaries. We have now returned back to the UK and are engaged in ways we can continue to support the people of the Bahamas as they both recover from this disaster and plan for the unfortunate occurrence of yet another.
Paul Taylor, Team Rubicon UK.
Interested in developing a medical career in Disaster & Humanitarian Medicine?
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