RCIPS helicopter returns from Turks and Caicos aid mission

Royal Cayman Islands Police Service officers described resilience in the face of devastation in Cayman’s fellow overseas territory, the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Four RCIPS helicopter crew deployed to the northern Caribbean islands on Sept. 8, as the tail end of Hurricane Irma passed over the territory. The RCIPS aircraft was one of the first foreign aid missions to reach the islands.

The Cayman officers indicated that for 36 hours, their helicopter was the only visible outside aid in the territory and provided one of the few functional means of communication between the islands.

Advanced planning through the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Crisis Management Department in London allowed the RCIPS crew to deploy just hours after the storm hit, said chief pilot Captain Nigel Pitt. The team hunkered down at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba that Friday night and then flew out at first light to the island of Providenciales, more commonly called Provo, in Turks and Caicos, where recovery work began.

“We come over the land and think, OK, this is where all of the junk yards are. Then as we’re coming towards the airport, we realize very soon, that wasn’t the junk yards,” Mr. Pitt said. “These are the people who are all out and removed from buildings. It was very colorful. Everyone is out. All of the clothes are out. They are trying to dry all of their clothes.”

Officers spent six days on the ground, assisting with security measures and reestablishing communications networks. The storm took out all local communications systems on the islands and emergency satellite phones proved difficult to operate. Mr. Pitt said local telecommunications and electricity providers were busy restoring systems, but much work remained to be done.

“Communications was the biggest thing they don’t have. In the Cayman Islands, we have HF [high frequency] radios in all of these containers for the Red Cross that have been tested. They were relying on satellite phones and they handed them out the day before. People didn’t know how to use them. They weren’t reliable to communicate,” Mr. Pitt said.

Police Commissioner Derek Bryne, fourth from left, poses with RCIPS staff who returned Friday following the force’s first overseas mission in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and other police personnel. – Photos: Alvaro Serey

Officers flew to every island in the territory, completing 44 flights and 26 hours in the air to assist in welfare checks, transportation of personnel, food and water delivery, and two medical evacuations. They reported no deaths.

Crew also accepted personal messages from residents, to contact outside friends and family. Sergeant Neil Mohammed said the helicopter was the fastest and only way to transport aid workers and government personnel in the days after the storm.

“It was the first overseas deployment for us. We were very concerned about our brothers and sisters in the overseas territories. Some of us knew some of the police officers over there, so we were quite eager to get out there and see what was happening there,” Mr. Mohammed said.

“We were welcomed and the entire population, from the governor to the person working on the [airport] ramp, were very appreciative. They were also kind and helpful. It just made our job so much easier.”

Pilot Nigel Pitt said one of the top priorities in Turks and Caicos was re-establishing communications systems. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

He described the destruction as being similar to Ivan, with most structures damaged and many homes left without roofs.

“Fortunately in Turks, I didn’t see any of the widespread looting or general unrest that is seen on the streets of some of the other islands. We were very fortunate that all we encountered was a lot of damage and people who are presently homeless and living under the elements at this time,” he said.

Mr. Pitt agreed that the impact in Grand Turk and South Caicos, two of the hardest hit islands in the territory, did not appear to be as severe as in Barbuda, Anguilla or the British Virgin Islands.

He hoped the mission would better inform officers on disaster relief and provide insight for future events in the Cayman Islands.

“It could have been us. It could have been another Ivan and we’d expect the same sort of help,” Mr. Pitt said.

The Royal Canadian Navy Frigate HMCS St. John’s was deployed to take over helicopter operations Thursday. The RCIPS crew briefed its Canadian counterpart before flying back to Grand Cayman, where the team landed safely Friday afternoon.

The RCIPS helicopter returns with four crew members from the force’s first foreign aid mission to Turks and Caicos.
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