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On Sept. 3, just a day after Hurricane Dorian caused catastrophic damage to the Bahamas as a record-breaking 185-mph Category 5 storm, Ali Dowell’s Sikorsky MH-60 Jayhawk lifted off from the largest of the archipelago’s islands to begin the search for survivors.
She and the crews of at least five other U.S. Coast Guard rotorcraft that were pre-staged on Andros – south of the storm’s rampaging path – found plenty of Bahamians in need. As of Sept. 9, the U.S. Coast Guard alone had rescued and relocated nearly 400 people from the Abaco chain of islands and Grand Bahama.
When the storm hit, it pushed the ocean in and over the islands in its path, with the storm surge reaching up to the second floor of many buildings.
“We saw everything from amputations to pregnant women very far along who needed to get out to [the Bahamian capital] Nassau,” Dowell, a Coast Guard avionics electrical technician and flight mechanic, told Vertical. “There were a lot of fracture injuries. In Marsh Harbour, everything is just gone.”
Dowell was speaking in the back of a Coast Guard C-130, which had been sent to swap out fatigued helicopter crews so the incoming personnel can continue the work of rescuing Dorian-effected Bahamians from islands without room for airplanes to land or where the tarmacs are wrecked.
She had been flying as an MH-60 crew chief and hoist operator six to eight hours a day for nearly a week when the C-130 picked her and a dozen other helicopter crews up.
Grand Bahama International Airport (MGYF), Treasure Cay Airport (MYAT), and Leonard M. Thompson International Airport (MYAM) at Marsh Harbour have become overwhelmed with military and civilian air traffic and still are operating with limited or no air traffic control. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is assisting and put a temporary flight restriction over Grand Bahama.
With 700 islands spread throughout 180,000 square miles of bright blue ocean, it’s difficult to imagine the airspace over the Bahamas becoming crowded, but so many U.S. military, government, private and other aircraft have flown to the rescue in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian that the skies are filling up.
The C-130H, packed with food and medical supplies and crews for several MH-60 helicopters stationed on Andros island, was delayed more than an hour in Nassau on the return leg to Florida Sept. 7.
“Probably our biggest problem was airspace deconfliction,” Dowell said. “At first there were a lot of folks with private aircraft coming in to help and planes just trying to get footage.”
Commander Keith Blair had been chief of Coast Guard air operations for five days when he spoke with Vertical on Sept. 7. The Coast Guard said it had five MH-60s operating from Andros. Blair said another two joined from Mobile, Alabama. Two Customs and Border Patrol helicopters made for nine total operating from the island, he said.
Those forces are operating in concert with the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.
“It was pretty impressive because we were sending out two waves a day taking off at about 6:30 [a.m.] or so and our folks were going out and they were doing fantastic,” Blair said. “Most of our business the first day was going up to find the edge of the storm and then figuring out where we could go and then from there, they started to find concentrations of people.”
As vast as the Bahamas territory is, the ongoing rescue operations are swirling around just two main islands – Great Abaco and Grand Bahama. Freeport on Grand Bahama apparently suffered mainly flooding damage while Abaco was devastated by both wind and waves.
“We were very surprised to see how intact Freeport was,” Blair said. “One of our pilots described it as St. Pete[rsburg, Florida,] after Irma. A lot of it was dry – there was definitely flooding – but the hospital over there wasn’t too busy. Overall they were in pretty good shape. The farther east you got is where there was a lot more damage in remote areas.”
Marsh Harbour’s medical clinic provided a lot of “business” for the search-and-rescue (SAR) crews as they continuously flew a triangular pattern in the hurricane’s wake. From Andros, crews would fly to Freeport then to Abaco, which aside from its main island has dozens of remote communities on out islands like Man O’ War Cay, Elbow Cay, Treasure Cay, and Great Guana Cay.
Thousands of Bahamian residents are still seeking flights out to islands with power and fresh water. Abaco, a chain of dozens of islands, uses rainwater cisterns for drinking water. All of them were inundated or at best compromised by saltwater.
Flying that triangle quickly became difficult due to the packed skies.
“The airspace can get very busy … a lot of people, obviously all good intentioned, are flying around,” Coast Guard Lt. Commander Dan Deangelo said. “You’re working with a finite airspace there, so … obviously everyone wants to do the right thing and help out, but it can get very tight. You run out of space pretty quick. Aviation safety is still a big factor, of course, even for the rescuers.”
Aside from the Coast Guard, the Bahamian government has aircraft flying between the stricken islands and Nassau. There also are U.S. State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft using the relatively small Nassau airport. Non-governmental organizations like celebrity chef Jose Andres’ mobile food preparation operation have shown up with chartered helicopters from Florida. Many private operators have also flown out to provide supplies and offer their services, and there dozens of news organizations flying around.
The Coast Guard Jayhawks are operating out of the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) on Andros, a remote test range where the U.S. Navy measures the acoustic signatures of submarines, among other experiments. The Coast Guard is cooperating with the Navy in using the airfield at AUTEC, but the larger service is not actively involved in rescue operations.