Commodore Bethel: “We were not ready for Dorian”

Commodore Tellis Bethel Commander of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force

The safety of residents, the protection of property and self-preservation remained top priority for law enforcement officers throughout the country, despite the challenges they faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

The Category 5 storm made landfall in The Bahamas September 1, hitting Abaco and Grand Bahama with wind speeds up to185-200 mph and historical storm surge that covered most of the islands’ landscape in water.

Many uniformed officers in Abaco and Grand Bahama were among those affected by the devastating and deadly storm; however, they were required to fulfill their duty, said Commodore Tellis Bethel, Commander of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF).

“We were not ready for the storm. Nobody could’ve really been ready for a Category 5 of this magnitude, but we are trying to get people back to some degree of normalcy within a period of time,” added Bethel, during an interview September 21 on the Independence Park, where NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency) held a mass distribution initiative.

“The men and women of the Force were those that worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of Bahamians in Abaco, Grand Bahama and New Providence were high priority. 

“The Defence Force and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) operations were very proactive prior to the storm where we had three-to-four personnel in Grand Bahama, Abaco and New Providence,” he noted.

“We knew the island was impacted, and our men and women were fully engaged with NEMA and other local authorities helping people to engage in hurricane preparedness, as well as the evacuating areas that they knew would’ve been threatened by hurricane surges. Additionally, during the storm, people who were redeployed, rescuing and saving lives, putting themselves in harm’s way.

“Immediately following the storm, those persons who would’ve been deployed here were also engaged in continuing the search efforts, assisting with the security of island assessments as well as shelter management. But on all fronts, members of the Defence Force were engaged in saving, rescuing, helping and of course, you have to appreciate the magnitude of this storm. The widespread devastation is nothing that has ever been experienced in the history of The Bahamas or the region and so, certainly it would’ve been a work load that we had to really confront.

“So, not only the level of troops on the ground here before the storm, but immediately the day following the all clear signal, we had members of the Defence Force embark a ship with the supplies and brought them here to Grand Bahama as well as Abaco. All together it is not a single entity effort,” said Bethel.

He added that while the Defence Force played the leading role, it was a collective effort. “The non-governmental organizations, as well as the government agencies and those on the scene giving assistance. All together and even through the storm, in its passing, we were able to respond.

“The men and the women have done a tremendous job and continue to do so,” he added.

Bethel said that the next phase for the Force is to continue to provide security at key sites like water depots, fuel depots, protecting anything that needs guard, in addition to helping with the damage assessments and contributing to the rebuilding and repairs of government infrastructure.

Questioned about the negative comments from residents regarding the Defence Force’s assistance or lack thereof, Bethel encouraged those who spend their time criticizing to get involved in community work.

“I think overall, culturally and internationally, there have been much cynicism about anyone doing anything that is good. So, how do we respond? Those of us who know that we have a job, we hear, but we stay focused on the job at hand and that is the reason why we were able to accomplish much of what has been accomplished.

“I encourage those persons who spend their time criticizing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in areas they can help. That is the way moving forward, especially in a national crisis,” said the Commodore. “Everyone has a role to play and if we do so, we could speed up this recovery process. 

“One of the things that really struck me in the whole episode of criticism and finding fault. I noticed earlier this year, there was a major earthquake in Mexico and I was so impressed with all the citizens that got together and contributed to rescuing and saving lives. I think that is a motto that we ought to follow.

“In addition, I would like to extend condolences to those who would’ve lost family, friends and loved ones and have experienced tremendous hurt in this whole process. I pray God’s blessings not only in the efforts of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, but over all of those that will continue to contribute to The Bahamas.”

RBDF Commander Henry Daxon, who was redeployed to manage operations for Grand Bahama’s recovery said, although the negative comments were disheartening, it’s important to remain focused.

“Since the magnitude of Hurricane Dorian, my role in Grand Bahama is to lead the Royal Bahamas Defence Force recovery process and support for the communities of Grand Bahama in their restoration stage.

“Aiming to produce a safer community for the residents to live and work in, the men and women of the Defence Force who were deployed prior to Hurricane Dorian, based on the stories being told, they would’ve been horrific relative to the work they would’ve done from the EOC as well as the efforts they have made in helping to rescue persons who would’ve been trapped in the various communities and homes who would’ve called for assistance. “When I hear the negative comments sometimes it is disheartening, but we know that the men and women of the Defence Force are committed, always, to doing their part to help their communities wherever they are placed and doing their job the best at all times,” said Daxon.

Commanding Officer for the Northern Command, Lieutenant Commander Clinton Johnson told this daily that officers remained in rescue mode and ready to save lives.

Johnson said the officers may have not been 100 percent ready for the storm but prepared the best way possible to be a big assistance.

“For the most part, we thought we were ready for this Hurricane, but it became very evident, very quickly that we were not ready for this storm because nobody could really calculate what kind of damage and what extensive power and ferocity the storm brought. But during the storm, there were a number of areas where we expressed to persons that they needed to evacuate, because of flood warnings.

“Some persons evacuated, some did not,” he said.

“Those persons who did not evacuate the areas that we were convinced were going to flood, made up a number of those persons who were calling in for search and rescue operations. We went into certain areas that they did not expect to flood and they were subject to extensive flooding, anywhere from three-to-six-feet.

“The areas that we anticipated flooding, some of the flooding was as deep as 20 ft., all the way to the ceiling. During the storm we thought that we would’ve had time and opportunity to recover and get ready for recovery efforts, but every single day persons were called out from the Emergency Operating Center (EOC), rescuing persons out of homes and out of shelters. Many of the shelters were compromised, and we had to move all of the persons out of shelters to an alternative shelter. 

“Certain shelters were only designed to hold 150 persons and they were housing over 400 persons. In conjunction with getting persons out, we had persons embedded in the shelters trying to assist the shelter managers with managing occupants, distribution of food, maintaining the generator systems and everything attached to the shelter,” Johnson explained.

“At some point we had marines that had to actually evacuate persons on their own into abandoned structures, because the shelters they were in took in over six feet of water. Then you had high tide, which raised that six feet flooding to approximately eight-to-nine feet,” he added.

Bethel, in concluding the interview, said that the entire time officers who were on duty, including himself got very little sleep. 

He added that many times officers went to bed without eating, drenched in water and woke up putting on the same damp clothes to start the work again.

“It was no protective gear you could’ve worn. We were wearing rubber boots, but as soon as you stepped out of the building there was water. Even the EOC got compromised, we had three feet of water and we had to evacuate to the top floor. So, even though, we were going out to assist persons, we found ourselves in the same situation as the persons we rescued.

“It was taxing a lot of persons and still is taxing now, because you move from one phase which was originally preparation and mitigation, then we move straight into search and rescue. And now we move in to recover and trying to supply the basic necessities for the persons that need it. 

“We have been feverishly working to try and establish warehouses and moving through communities on the back of the truck giving out food, distributing water, trying to do all that we can to assist the different agencies even when it comes down to transporting a person. 

“We have been trying to, basically, fill in the gaps because we realize The Bahamas has limited supplies.”

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