After roughly a week in the Bahamas, scouring the wreckage left behind Hurricane Dorian in 40 degree heat, Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson and his adorable sidekick, Sam the disaster dog, are back in Canada.
Watkinson joined a team of firefighters from Burnaby, as part of an urban search and rescue team, deployment to Great Abaco, part of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, from Sept. 7 to 15. The region was hit by the Category 5 hurricane a week prior, and Watkinson said the destruction left in Dorian’s wake was unimaginable.
“It’s like imagining a dishwasher with a lawn mower on top, and when the water washes away it just leaves all the debris in there,” said Watkinson.
He said it took about 24 hours for the team to reach their assignment, flying commercially from Vancouver to New York to Nassau. From there, they took a private charter to the island where they needed another day to get themselves settled.
“It took us a day to get established logistically — where do we sleep, where do we eat, how do we get water. And transportation, because we didn’t have any and all of the vehicles are wrecked there,” said Watkinson. “So we had to find vehicles with keys in them and (commandeer) them so we can move around the island.”
Watkinson said he and Sam are self-sufficient in that they just take two cases of supplies with them on deployment and do not need to deplete resources. He said because of the destruction, there were very little places to find shade on the island, so the team would use whatever they could to get the search dogs out of the intense tropical heat.
As part of the search and rescue team, Watkinson and Sam were deployed to the Mudd, “a shanti town comprised of thousands of people that basically lived in shacks” near the core of Great Abaco. Sam was tasked with locating cadavers in the wreckage as Watkinson and others would grid search the entire area to ensure they didn’t miss anything.
“The hurricane sat over this area for about two days at Category 5. So total destruction, massive debris piles of boats, seacans, cars and construction debris just basically mashed together,” said Watkinson. “We pride ourselves on getting to scenes of disaster as quickly as we can, because Sam is very good at finding a live scent. He loves the work and he gets excited about it.
“But in a lot of cases, just purely because of distance, it takes a while to get to these locations and under those conditions it’s hard to find live victims.”
Watkinson did note that the team did manage to locate three Canadians who had not checked in with the Canadian Consulate, so they were able to provide them with supplies and communication back home. He said the work “can be dark” but he chose to focus on the positives of the work he was doing.
“It can be dark work but the thing about it is that as a team, we rely on each other and have great camaraderie, and Sam and I go on these deployments to bring closure to those that have missing victims,” said Watkinson. “But we feel great about what we do. Sometimes you can feel the weight of the work, but the successes are great accomplishments too. Sometimes even the smallest success can be very rewarding.”
Watkinson said he wasn’t sure who was more tired after they returned, he or his furry companion, but said he will never forget the feeling of returning home to Penticton and seeing the beauty of the community.
“We both crawled into bed and slept for a half a day when we got home. We traveled right from the Vancouver Airport to Penticton and I remember just the moment of coming down the stretch from Trout Creek into Penticton and watching the lights of the city and the first-class community that we live in,” said Watkinson. “Reflecting back on where I was for a week, it’s almost surreal to be in this kind of environment where buildings are upright, cars aren’t destroyed and powerlines aren’t snapped.
“We have to recognize that we live in a great place and a beautiful city and to remember to look after each other. That’s something I’ve come home with and have been reflecting on every day.”
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