B.C. firefighter describes challenging search for hurricane survivors in Bahamas

A team of B.C. firefighters witnessed “total destruction” in parts of the Bahamas as it helped rescue crews there deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson has returned home with a crew of 12 Burnaby firefighters and four search dogs a week after leaving for the Abaco Islands, after the Category 5 hurricane devastated the islands at the start of the month.

The death toll from the storm now stands at 50, but 1,300 people are listed as missing.

Officials have cautioned that this is a preliminary list and there are many people still trying to connect with family.

The B.C. team were sent to the island of Great Abaco, where Watkinson worked closely with his search dog Sam, who is specially trained to sniff out live and dead scents.

“There were not any live scents, unfortunately, and so the disaster dog, Sam, he did find cadaver scents. But there is so much of it, it was hard to actually pinpoint,” said Watkinson.

Getting to Great Abaco wasn’t easy for the team, and once they arrived in the town of Marsh Harbour, the devastation they saw appeared to be endless.

“It was very clear that the hurricane basically parked itself over top of that small island and there’s total destruction in that poor community there,” Watkinson told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

“Basically, everything is destroyed. The area that the hurricane hit was basically levelled.”

One of the hardest hit areas he saw is a neighbourhood called The Mudd, which was home to many Haitian immigrants. Watkinson describes it as a shantytown where people lived on small, square concrete slabs with four walls and “a light roof.” All of them have been levelled.

“The debris piles that were caused by this destruction are now just basically a level field of building materials that are intertwined with those big sea cans, or shipping containers, vehicles, boats, you name it,” he said.

“It was like a big dishwasher and a lawnmower [were] put together and basically just levelled everything, and then, once the water receded, it’s just left these big huge piles.”

Giant piles of rubble

Watkinson spent most of his time working through piles of rubble with Sam. Whenever Sam indicated a scent, Watkinson would mark the spot and then a team would come in and dig to see if they could find any remains.

But he said it was tough work for what he calls their “light urban search rescue team” due to the complexity and size of the rubble.

“It was very difficult … to get to a lot of the victims, but we managed in some cases,” he said.

He thinks officials will need to start using heavy equipment for recovery work instead.

Survivors ‘just trying to recover’

There are few people left on Great Abaco Island, said Watkinson, most having left due to a lack of power or running water. Those who did stay are trying to rebuild.

“They’re just trying to recover. They’re very resilient people. They had little in the beginning in a lot of cases, so they’re just trying to rebuild themselves,” he said.

They include refugees from other countries.

“So they’re coming in from other areas [and] are trying to find a safe place to live and unfortunately, they were affected by this tragic event,” he said.

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