Cayman’s RCIPS air crew returned from their week-long humanitarian mission to hurricane-hit Bahamas Thursday with harrowing first-hand accounts of the devastation in Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Captain Nigel Pitt, a former military pilot, said the destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas was the worst he had ever seen.
“We took the old helicopter across to Turks and Caicos after Irma. That was bad. This was 50 times worse,” he said.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Helicopter, X-ray One, flew 42 missions from Nassau to the affected islands, carrying 125 passengers, including eight young children and 20 adult evacuees. They shipped personnel and desperately needed supplies including tarpaulins and communications equipment to many inaccessible locations.
Pitt said the crew had been proud to be able to assist, though some of the scenes were hard to witness.
“Some of it was very emotional,” he said. “When we first went to the point of the disaster at Marsh Harbour and you see the devastation, you have a lump in your throat, tear in your eye, you can’t even talk about it among yourselves because you knew or could imagine what the people had been through.”
The Cayman team, involving three pilots and four tactical officers, worked with the Bahamas Defence Force, UN agencies, the British military and the British High Commissioner and her team to deliver vital aid, conduct reconnaissance, deliver specialist personnel and evacuate vulnerable people from the worst affected areas.
They were relieved Wednesday by a Dutch crew and arrived back in Cayman Thursday lunchtime.
Pitt said the crew from the British Royal Navy vessel RFA Mounts Bay had delivered emergency supplies to areas that had been levelled by the storm in the immediate aftermath. But part of the Cayman crew’s job was to evacuate displaced people living in makeshift camps to the safety of Nassau.
“They couldn’t stay there; there was nothing there for them,” Pitt said. “It is such a big operation to make the place safe, there are going to be teams there for weeks, if not months, sorting through the rubble ….”
For fellow pilot Elaine Hunter, it was a dramatic introduction to life in the Caribbean. The former Yorkshire Air Ambulance pilot started work with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service last week.
“I had one flight round the island with the boss and then the guys got deployed to Nassau,” she said.
Initially on standby in Cayman, she flew in to join the aid effort earlier this week.
“The guys had been out there for a week and working really hard in really tough conditions. They had done all the work really. I joined them for the last few days.”
She said she returned to Cayman with “total sympathy” for the people of the Bahamas and what they had been through.
“You see it on the telly, but when you get out there and you see it is real people, real lives. It’s quite harrowing.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin paid tribute to the police team and said it was an honour for Cayman to be able to join the multinational relief effort.
“We know better than most what it is like in the aftermath of a hurricane. Everyone I spoke to is very passionate and thankful that we got the opportunity to help our brothers and sisters in the Bahamas,” he said.
Governor Martyn Roper joined McLaughlin on the tarmac at Owen Roberts International Airport to welcome the crews home.
Both men later released a joint statement reaffirming the commitment to bring in a second fully-equipped helicopter to bolster Cayman’s local and regional search and rescue capability.
“The decision to purchase a second H145 helicopter to provide resilience and further enhance this capacity has been announced previously, but we are delighted to confirm that the purchase arrangements are now in place with Airbus Helicopters and the new helicopter will be delivered in December this year,” the statement read.
British High Commissioner to the Bahamas Sarah Dickson said, “Within hours of Hurricane Dorian passing, the Cayman Islands government offered the RCIPS helicopter to the people of the Bahamas, and they have been such a valuable resource.
“The devastation is extensive and truly shocking. But the crew of X-ray One, as I’ve now come to know them, are old hands from Hurricanes Maria and Irma and approached the job with professionalism and a quiet calm that has been invaluable.”
Cayman’s air crew included pilots Hunter, Pitt and Richard Morcombe and four tactical flight officers – Neil Mohammed, Ronnie Pollard, Greg Banks Jr. and Daniel McIlhagga.