It is two months now since Doug Smith, a structural engineer with the city of Vancouver and a founding member of the Vancouver-based Urban Search and Rescue Team, returned from Louisiana. During the f...
It is two months now since Doug Smith, a structural engineer with the city of Vancouver and a founding member of the Vancouver-based Urban Search and Rescue Team, returned from Louisiana. During the five days in early September they were there, the team rescued 117 people caught in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although the 46-member organization was formed in 1995 and is the only one in Canada, the New Orleans operation was their first international mission.
“The teamwork was seamless all the time. I’m really happy because so many guys have been waiting for this for so long,” Smith says with obvious pride.
The Urban Search and Rescue Team includes three structural engineers — Smith, Scott Edwards and David Boyko. They work alongside heavy-rigging, logistics and rescue specialists, communications technicians, physicians and paramedics.
Their usual 25,000 pound load of equipment had to be lightened to 6,500 pounds on the Louisiana trip as the team was travelling on a commercial flight. In the first of several lessons learned, they discovered that they could travel relatively lightly in an urban search and rescue environment, while still taking generators, inflatable boats, tents, tables, medical equipment and a week’s supply of food and water.
The team was sent to St. Bernard Parish about 20 miles east of New Orleans. A dozen members made a memorable reconnaissance trip on two military patrol boats. It was a surreal scene: “The guys who went on the trip said it felt like you were in a Vietnam movie; you’ve got fires burning on either side of the river, you can hear gunfire in the distance, there are helicopters flying overhead,” said Smith. Arriving at the command centre, set up on a ferry, they found the police and fire chiefs in tears, gratefully embracing and thanking the rescuers.
The Vancouver rescue group based themselves at an oil refinery office in a dry part of town. They organized themselves into squads working 12 hour shifts. Driving a backhoe they found in a refinery parking lot and accompanied by a state trooper, they systematically searched the scarcely populated streets. “It was kind of eerie; it was actually unnerving when you did see somebody,” recalls Smith, adding that he was also nervous about the large dogs roaming the area.
Some people were happy to see the rescuers, but others refused to leave their homes. Smith says that many of them had no idea what was going on. “We found that a lot of people could probably have got out on their own but just didn’t know they needed to,” says Smith. They had to convince an older couple who were sitting on a porch, insisting that power would soon return, to leave. The man was in poor health and dependent on an oxygen unit with only a day’s supply left. Another couple did not want to leave the valuables in their house, but the man, with a serious medical condition, was beginning to suffer with gangrene in his legs. He had to be carried in a kitchen chair from the top floor, through three feet of murky water on the main floor, to the waiting backhoe.
The water, almost black from an added 250,000 gallons of oil, deteriorated: “Every day we could smell it getting stronger and stronger,” says Smith.
The importance of being flexible was one lesson they learned. “You came across adversity continuously and had to figure things out as you went along,” says Smith. The majority of our thinking was out-of-the-box.”
Smith was also struck by the willingness of the people he saw in Louisiana to help each other out. While the experience reinforced his belief that Canadians should prepare to be self-sufficient for up to six days following a natural disaster, ultimately, he says, “human nature will probably be our best asset.”
Heather Kent is a freelance writer in Vancouver.