Airlift mission to Grenada

Grenada post Hurricane Ivan in 2004. -
Grenada post Hurricane Ivan in 2004. -

The aftermath of Hurricane Beryl brought back memories of Hurricane Ivan, which ravaged the island of Grenada on September 7, 2004, as a strong Category 3 storm.

Ivan was the ninth named storm, the sixth hurricane and the fourth major hurricane of the active 2004 Atlantic hurricane season.

Ivan’s path became catastrophic when it struck Grenada. Power and communication were cut off owing to fallen lines. Some 90 per cent of homes in Grenada were damaged.

An unknown number of convicts briefly escaped from the 17th-century Richmond Hill stone prison, which was destroyed.

A UN spokesman said every major building in St George's, the capital, had suffered structural damage.

The Point Salines International Airport (PSIA) was closed because of strewn debris and damage to the navigational aids, runway lighting systems and the control tower and equipment.

Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, whose own home was flattened, relocated his office to the British naval ship HMS Richmond, which commissioned an on-ship transmitter for the Grenada Broadcasting Network to allow the prime minister to communicate with the people.

This photo of Hurricane Ivan is taken from the International Space Station as it passed over the eye of the storm on September 11, 2004. -

HMS Richmond also provided medical supplies to the general hospital and restored its power.

"We are terribly devastated...It is beyond imagination," Mitchell said.

He also confirmed that the prison escapees included 17 people who were jailed for killings carried out during the 1983 Marxist coup against the government of Maurice Bishop, which sparked a US invasion.

The Associated Press reported that medical students from the US attending St George’s University (SGU) were fearful of marauders and armed themselves with knives and sticks.

Nicole Organ, a 21-year-old veterinary student from Toronto, said she saw bands of men carrying machetes looting a hardware store.

Sonya Lazarevic, 36, from New York, said, "We don't feel safe."

Commissioner Bedaau said every Grenadian police station had been damaged, hindering efforts to control looting. Police were trying to set up a temporary post at St George's fish market.

TT and other Caribbean countries pledged troops to assist with search and rescue and peacekeeping operations.

The day after the hurricane, I was summoned to a meeting at the office of the Prime Minister. In attendance were Minister Lenny Saith and the Prime Minister’s permanent secretary.

PM Mitchell said the US Ambassador had contacted him and requested TT government’s urgent assistance in evacuating the hundreds of stranded American students attending SGU. I was designated to carry out the evacuation.

I had recently completed a course with the University of Southern California in disaster management and felt prepared for the task.

A baseline audit of PSIA was required to determine the minimum requirements for safe landings and takeoffs by BWIA 50-seater Bombardier Dash8-300 turboprop aircraft. This required using a helicopter from the National Helicopter Services Ltd (NHSL) to fly to Grenada to do the audit and two BWIA Dash8-300 aircraft for airlifting purposes.

The following morning, a team comprising a BWIA security officer, a Dash 8-300 training captain, a TTCAA runway specialist and myself departed for PSIA by NHSL helicopter.

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Before landing at PSIA, we did an aerial survey of the island and were astounded by the massive devastation of homes and infrastructure caused by Ivan.

On the ground, a lot of debris was observed on the 9,000-foot runway and its shoulder. The runway surface was not damaged. However, all the navigational aids and the runway lighting systems were inoperative. The fuel storage system showed signs of water contamination, making the fuel unusable.

After consultation with the BWIA training captain, it was determined that once all the debris and obstructions were removed, the Dash 8-300 aircraft could safely make daylight-only, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) operations into and out of PSIA, using the Runway 10 approach. Fuel would have to be tankered from TT for the return trip.

The ATC tower would use a portable light gun with red and green lights to signal landing clearances to the aircraft.

We then announced that airlift operations would commence the following morning from 9 am.

Word spread rapidly in TT about the airlift mission and dozens of people came to the airport representing companies doing business in Grenada. They brought relief supplies to take for their employees in Grenada. We decided to take the people and supplies to Grenada free of charge, but could only facilitate a return trip on a space-available basis, as the students had priority.

Over the next two days, BWIA Dash 8-300 aircraft flew 20 relief flights and airlifted over 900 people, mainly students, from Grenada to TT for onward travel to their country of residence.

The majority of the students were from the US. Others were from TT, Canada and other Caribbean countries.

The following week, I received a phone call from the TT Prime Minister, who expressed his appreciation for my efforts.

In October 2004, mere weeks after the airlift operation, I received two hand-delivered letters from the US Embassy in Port of Spain. One was from the US ambassador and the other from Roger R Noreiga, assistant secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, US Department of State.

Noreiga’s letter said, "The US Department of State and the US Embassy in TT, on behalf of the government and the citizens of the United States, would like to express our deep gratitude and appreciation for your invaluable assistance and co-operation in making possible the successful evacuation to Trinidad of over 600 American citizens stranded in Grenada following the devastation left behind by Hurricane Ivan in September, 2004."

My response to the US officials was similar to that to the TT Prime Minister: “I was only doing my duty."

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"Airlift mission to Grenada"

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