HMCS St. John’s returns after critical relief work

Rosemary and Howard Shillingford, left, are greeted by GAC personnel and members of HMCS St. John’s Sea King detachment in Dominica to be airlifted to Douglas-Charles Airport on Sept. 24. Photo by HMCS St.John’s Air Detachment

Rosemary and Howard Shillingford, left, are greeted by GAC personnel and members of HMCS St. John’s Sea King detachment in Dominica to be airlifted to Douglas-Charles Airport on Sept. 24. Photo by HMCS St.John’s Air Detachment

Ryan Melanson, Trident Newspaper ~

The Commanding Officer of HMCS St. John’s says his ship’s company was able to provide much-needed help, including the rescue of Canadians, while deployed to the Caribbean Islands ravaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The ship returned to Halifax Oct. 1 after about three weeks in the region on Operation Renaissance, which saw St. John’s sail first to South Caicos and then to the island nation of Dominica.

“When we got to the island of Dominica, it was obvious we were in a life-saving situation. We needed to get in there and rescue people who had been trapped because of the storm in outlying communities, so that was an immediate task for us when we arrived,” says Cdr Gordon Noseworthy.

He described the damage to the Island as catastrophic, with once vibrant communities littered with overturned cars, heavily damaged structures and blocked or flooded roadways, and rural areas stripped of their greenery and buried in downed trees, branches and other debris.

Work parties from the ship quickly got to shore to assist with debris cleanup and clearing roads. Technicians were able to help restore power to numerous generators and running water in some areas, and on board St. John’s, the ship’s reverse osmosis machines were used to make more than 27,000 litres of clean water that was brought to shore via Sea King helicopter.

“The water was very much needed in that area, and we had locals waiting on land to immediately get those big bottles and start distributing it to people who needed it,” Cdr Noseworthy says.

A highlight of the mission involved the evacuation of two Canadians who became stranded at their badly damaged home in a mountainous region that was inaccessible by vehicle. The couple were elderly and running low on food, water and medication. The Sea King detachment was able to extract them from an open field near their home, where they were airlifted to a CC-130J Hercules aircraft that was in the area delivering supplies, and then flown to Barbados to catch a flight to Canada.

The couple who were evacuated, Howard and Rosemary Shillingford, also have a home in the Halifax area, and their daughter, CWO Marlene Shillingford, is a member of 12 Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at 12 Wing Shearwater. All three came to the jetty to greet the ship as it returned and to express gratitude for the help the Shillingfords’ received.

CWO Shillingford contacted Global Affairs soon after Hurricane Irma hit Dominica in early September, after which four days went by where she was unable to communicate with her parents.

“We wanted to make sure the government knew there were Canadians on Dominica,” she said. 

Her parents described a feeling of immense relief when they finally spotted the Sea King approaching on Sept. 24, and said they didn’t know how long they would have been stuck if not for Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) support. All that remained of their solidly built 2,000 square foot home was the exterior walls, and the couple rode out the worst five hours of Hurricane Irma sheltered in their washroom as winds blew at more than 275 km/h outside.

“It was hell, the noise sounded like machine guns going off. It was just terrible,” Howard Shillingford said.

Through radio broadcasts and by working with Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Disaster Assessment Team, crews were also able to help evacuate other locals who were stranded, including some with medical complications who required transport to a hospital. The ship also served as a platform for the coordination of relief efforts and aid distribution on the ground.

While the recovery process for the region will be long and difficult, the decision to have St. John’s return to Canada was based on the assessment of professionals on the ground and was not taken lightly, said Cdr Noseworthy.

With power restored to Dominica’s main airport and a steadily improving situation in the capital city of Roseau, along with non-governmental organizations and other sources of aid joining relief efforts, the CAF and the Government of Canada are confident the island will have the needed support to begin rebuilding.  

In addition to St. John’s and its Sea King detachment, CAF contributions to relief efforts through Op Renaissance included two CC-130J Hercules aircraft and a CP-140 Aurora based out of Barbados, a CC-177 Globemaster providing airlift support to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a Land Task Force consisting of a liaison and reconnaissance team in Barbados.

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