On Sept. 6, the Caribbean Islands suffered a devastating direct hit by Category 5 Hurricane Irma. Following Hurricane Harvey, which tore through Texas a few weeks earlier, Irma blew sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, with gusts of 225 mph. Although Irma did not leave as much water, the winds damaged or destroyed up to 90% of livable structures and businesses. It also brought logistical response and recovery problems for the small islands that include the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix.
Further south, the British Virgin Island of Tortola suffered major damage before the storm continued northwest, hitting Florida and other parts of the U.S. With recovery services and supplies already stretched thin from Hurricane Harvey, many were left scrambling for basic supplies and aid in the wake of Irma.
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management and have served with the American Red Cross in Health and Safety and Disaster Services for more than a decade. In December 2016 I founded a nonprofit, Emergency Response Drones, using emerging technology with small unmanned aerial systems, or drones, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping for disaster response. After Hurricane Irma, and learning of the need for support in some of the remote islands, I knew my skills and resources could be useful for the rescue and recovery of those affected by the massive disaster.
Having been a Scripps Ranch resident for more than 10 years, I have always been impressed and influenced by the lessons learned after the Cedar Fire and the resiliency of our community. As my children have grown I tried to find ways to give back and help locally. I used my drone to search for missing StoneBridge Estates resident Taiheng “Tai” Sun in June. I, and many others in Scripps Ranch, take special pride in the way we care for each other and the place we call home. These bonds can make all the difference when disaster strikes.
In humanitarian aid and disaster response in developing countries or remote areas, resources or support may not come from the government or the system. It requires small communities to form close bonds and depend on help from their neighbors or those close to them. If these bonds are not preexisting, it can be a major obstacle to recovery.
After the Hurricane Irma disaster, I decided to deploy to one of the islands in the Caribbean where I could have the greatest impact on the rescue and recovery effort. I started a GoFundMe campaign to cover the expenses of the trip and started packing to leave. I knew that if the support came in, it would be a good sign that I was making the right choice. By the time my bags were packed, my goal was met and I bought a ticket to San Juan, Puerto Rico, hoping to find a place to go once I arrived at the airport.
On the flight to San Juan I was seated behind a search and rescue team from the New England area. After landing I asked where they were headed. It turned out that one of their team members couldn’t make the trip, and they had an extra seat on a charter to the British Virgin Island of Tortola, just east of St. John. We ended up missing the charter but we were able to connect with a private charter from the U.S. State Department flying American citizens off the island. We caught a ride on their empty return flight.
Tortola is a small island, about 21 square miles, with a majority of the infrastructure, commerce, and development on the south side near the main harbor area of Road Town. The island consists of a small local population and a larger seasonal or part-time population that has the ability to return to a permanent residence elsewhere.
The island is known for its lush green forests, white sandy beaches, and clear blue water. After Irma, that was all gone. The 10,000 residents witnessed the worst disaster in the island’s history. Every leaf on almost every tree was gone, most trees were snapped in half, boats were thrown inland and hundreds more piled up on shore, docks were destroyed, powerlines were out, roads were blocked, and there was no communication. Little aid was getting through, and there were security issues with nearly 200 escaped prisoners.
As we arrived and checked in with the British military, now mostly in charge and coordinating a majority of the efforts, we were assigned to Virgin Island search and rescue to help cover the north side of the island. Our goals were to gain specific awareness of the conditions, conduct search and rescue and welfare checks, and distribute supplies when possible.
Due to the large amount of the population leaving the island knowing they may not return, many vehicles were left at the airport with the keys in them. They were immediately used for rescue and aid purposes. We began reaching out to remote communities on the island. We deployed the drones to perform an initial assessment and map the marinas, infrastructure, and road damage. We also provided medical and material aid to locals when possible.
The thing that struck me the most was the attitude of the people I met. They were not waiting for help nor did they expect or want more than the basic necessities. They had come together as a community and started to share resources and set up distribution points and used local leadership to coordinate efforts.
Their attitude was that the islands were going to be okay, so let’s rebuild together. These communities have been together in small fishing villages for generations. The bonds they have with each other were inspirational, and they knew they could depend on their neighbors.
The many locals I spoke with were amazed that I came all the way from San Diego, by myself, to help. We discussed where I lived and if we had ever experienced something like Hurricane Irma. We talked about the fires and how, although we have a different system, it was the community and our neighbors that made the difference, and that years later we are stronger and closer because of it.
One of the first people I met and was able to help was an elderly priest. Every morning I would stop by his house to check on him and say a prayer that God would lead me to help just one more person. During a news interview before I left San Diego, the reporter asked how many people I hoped to help on my trip. My reply, “Just one.” You never know the effect assisting just one person can have, and each day I was guided to the right place at the right time to be of use to someone in need.
After the first three days our efforts took us by boat to some of the more remote islands that had received little to no aid. In some cases we were able to deploy the drone to look over areas that were not accessible because the docks had been too badly damage to get onto the island. With drone support we were able to determine where and how best to deliver supplies and direct rescue efforts if necessary.
We delivered thousands of pounds of aid and provided support to several of the outlying islands such as Jost Van Dyke, which had been completely decimated and had very little infrastructure and resources to begin with. As the island started to slowly recover and resume some normal services, we had to switch our efforts to prepare for another Category 5 hurricane, Maria, which was arriving in just days.
Many of the places we visited had no idea a second hurricane was approaching. My return flight was due to leave the island the day before the storm was expected to hit, but it was cancelled so the airline could redirect its planes to safer areas outside the storm’s path. I needed to get back to my family, and if I didn’t leave then, it would another week before I could get home. A San Diegan I happened to meet—probably the only one for a thousand miles—and I found a 10-foot inflatable dingy, a motor, and 15 gallons of gas. We used the items to cross the sea to San Juan to take connecting flights home the day before Maria struck Puerto Rico.
To summarize my story and the lessons learned, my goal was not only to help people in need and reduce suffering but to confirm that one person can make a difference. So much energy lately is put into our differences and arguing over things that separate us. It’s easy to criticize, and it’s easy to help when it is convenient and doesn’t require much sacrifice.
I believe in helping when helping is hard, when it takes time you don’t have and costs more than you are comfortable giving. I believe that if we took the people yelling at each other and put them to work helping others and depending on each other, many of the problems would go away. They would be replaced by a different respect, bond, and sense of community that may open a door for a better way to communicate.
I’m reviewing the lessons I learned and making adjustments to equipment and processes, with the idea of expanding our response capacity to have a greater effect in future deployments. I can’t say enough that this was not a one-man show. Many people from our community helped, no questions asked. My family, who always stands behind me, gave the most. Thank you to everyone for the support. I look forward to seeing how we can help more people when the need arises.
Drew Goodwin, SR Resident