Stories from the Field: Disaster Arborist Response Team Clears Way for Recovery in the Bahamas

Stories from the Field: Disaster Arborist Response Team Clears Way for Recovery in the Bahamas

UK-based nonprofit Disaster Arborist Response Team International (DART) is an all-volunteer humanitarian response team that deploys worldwide to assist disaster affected communities. With support from donors and partner British Airways, Airlink facilitated travel for their responders assisting communities in The Bahamas recovering from Hurricane Dorian. 

Below, DART volunteer Sam Oldham recounts his experience during the mission.  

Stories from the Field

Sam Oldham | Volunteer
DART International

The Phone Rang
I received a call late one evening from the Disaster Arborist Response Team (DART) operations officer to say they were planning to deploy a team to the Bahamas within a few days for debris management and training after Hurricane Dorian. I was in France when I received the call, so I had to get back to the UK asap to start packing. After a frantic few days of organizing our kit, we deployed a four-man team on the 19th September. 

Total Destruction
DART reached out to Airlink, which worked with their partner British Airways to secure passenger flights from London to Nassau for our team. From there, we hopped a flight to Freeport (Grand Bahama) and hit the ground running on the east side of the island, which was completely devastated by Dorian. On arrival, we were greeted by our scout, a DART representative who secured an official invitation from the Grand Bahama authorities. He briefed us on what he had seen, which was simply “total destruction.” 

We drove east and the damage was quickly evident. The trees had largely been snapped and stripped of their bark; the force it takes to do that is unimaginable. Most power poles were grounded with their bare electrical lines bordering the roadside. Fortunately, as we arrived two weeks after Dorian hit, the main supply routes had been cleared of tree debris, which allowed us to move freely from Freeport to Mclean’s Town Cay. We started working on a couple of badly blocked side roads that provided access to beachfront properties. Everyone in the area was told to evacuate their homes as emergency access would likely be impossible due to the storm, and unfortunately looting occurred. The locals were very grateful once we cleared the roads enabling them to survey damage to their properties and improve their home security. 

Specialized Skills Put to Use
While the condition of many main roads was good and locally organized transportation allowed some to move freely to Freeport to purchase supplies or access services, other communities remained cutoff.  A small community living on Sweetings Cay was stranded on the island as all their boats were destroyed. This was a major barrier for disaster survivors who were relying on NGOs such as Airlink’s partner Team Rubicon to deliver supplies via boat daily.  

The DART team spent most of the first week clearing dangerous trees blocking routes to communities around Freetown, High rock, Bishops, Mclean’s Town Cay and Sweetings Cay, which were the worst hit. Some of our work required highly specialized skills and the extensive experience within our team. For example, the removal of two trees that had fallen and become lodged on the roof of a home involved climbing a neighboring tree to attach a pulley and rigging line so the tree could be lowered safely once it was cut.

Building Local Resilience 
Our second week focused on training a team at the Rand Nature Centre, which is affiliated with the National Trust in the UK. We trained three personnel in safe chainsaw use, maintenance, crosscutting and felling techniques. All of the personal protective equipment provided by Stein and Makita chainsaws were donated for future resilience against storm damage. We taught the recruits emergency first aid and donated personal first aid kits for them to carry whenever they use a chainsaw. 

The professional training provided by DART ensures locals are the best equipped when a disaster strikes. It empowers them to be more self-sufficient in managing tree debris during both rescue and recovery phases of a natural disaster. After celebrating with the recruits and awarding them certification, we parted ways and journeyed back to the UK on the 3rd October.

Long Road Ahead

The situation had developed positively after our two-week deployment, with more and more people returning to their homes and clearing up the destruction. However, there were still many basic issues that needed addressing. With no main power running to the east side of the island, most people were relying on generators and fuel had to be brought all the way from Freeport. The damage to the power lines was catastrophic and I believe it will take some time before it is back in working order. 

Most of the communities were relying on bottled drinking water, which was being delivered daily. Fresh food was also scarce with many eating dehydrated food in packs called “Meals, Ready to Eat” (MREs). Sanitation and disease prevention remained a major issue with limited water supply and pressure for the systems. Communication services were operating via one network but measures were being put in place to improve the islands network coverage. Most community members were living in damaged houses with a vast majority using tarpaulin to cover their roofs. Some were living in tents if the damage was major or the building rendered unsafe. 

Thank You
I’d like to add a huge thank you to Airlink who provided us with seamless flights throughout the Bahamas. Without this amazing partnership DART wouldn’t be able to operate as effectively as we do, and respond to disasters so promptly. I would also like to thank all of our sponsors, especially Stein and Makita, for their ongoing support. Enabling a professional group of volunteers to manage tree-related destruction, makes a huge difference to the people who have been affected. It promotes a quicker recovery and improves resilience for their future. 

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