DISCOVER Magazine #7

Sailing to safety: the essence of disaster relief

Published in category: Editor’s choice

When a hurricane strikes, being prepared is key. And when bridges are down and roads are blocked, sometimes this means getting waterborne.

On 22nd September 2016, a tropical wave emerged off the coast of Africa. To begin with there was nothing unusual about this low pressure event. As it made its way across the Atlantic it behaved much like any other African Easterly and there was little to indicate that it was destined to court infamy on an international scale.

Gaining in intensity during its ocean crossing, the wave gained tropical storm status just off St. Lucia two days later. The next day, close to Curacao, it reached the force which qualified it for the name which was to become so renowned: Hurricane Matthew was born.


Just 24 hours later and Matthew had reached the heady heights of Category 5; the first Atlantic Hurricane to do so in nine years. As Matthew traversed the Caribbean, the damage left in its wake was significant and tragic. In Haiti the death toll was to exceed 800. The southern part of the island was most severely affected. Cut off from road access after the storm wiped out an important bridge, the people there were disconnected from badly needed food, water and medical supplies.

hurricane, disaster

By 6th October when Matthew made landfall in the Bahamas, the storm was still at peak power. Roaring winds bent trees to improbable angles, while roof tiles fell like rain, shattering on the battered earth. In the harbours boats swayed and rolled and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force was planning its disaster relief response.

The Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) works alongside the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) for the provision of disaster relief. NEMA has warehouses throughout the country stocked with food, fuels and equipment, ready for an event like this. But, when the storm hits, the capability to get these materials rapidly from standby and into action is critical.


Commander Warren Bain of the Defence Force explains:

When a storm likes this comes, one of the most fundamentally important things is logistics; as soon as a storm warning is given we need to be able to access pre-deployed emergency supplies and transport additional resources to the places that are going to need them. Later, once the storm is over we need to be at the ready to put a plan of assistance into immediate action.”

Such a plan requires a versatile and varied range of equipment, to cover any eventuality. This includes field kitchen facilities, emergency power generation, first-aid provisions, drinking water treatment facilities and the tools necessary to carry out repairs to infrastructure.

The Defence Force was prepared; they’ve quite a history of dealing with hurricanes, including Hurricane Joaquin in 2015. On that occasion, the Bahamas was severely hit. One of the most significant issues during that event was the storm surge; airfields were inundated with water, leading to difficulties in distributing relief even after the worst of the weather had passed. In such cases, it helps to be waterborne.

Being an island chain – spanning some 500 miles – it’s natural that the Bahamas seeks to disseminate relief via water. The Defence Force has recently upgraded and expanded its fleet under the Sandy Bottom Project. Amongst its tools is a Damen RoRo 5612, a multipurpose vessel which, amongst other things, has been designed with the capacity to deliver disaster relief. The vessel, like many others in the Damen portfolio, is a standardised design, built on series to ensure its ready availability for fast delivery.

Commander Bain:

When Hurricane Matthew struck we were already confident in the vessel’s ability, having put her to the test the year before with Hurricane Joachin. On both occasions, the vessel proved to be of enormous value, to us as a tool to provide relief, and to the people of the islands who were relying on us getting to them.”

The design of the RoRo 5612 includes the capacity to carry a full, modular, entirely self-supporting Disaster Relief Centre. The independent nature of the centre is critical – in order to deal with possible worse case scenarios, it is essential that any effective disaster relief operation be able to function without recourse to external infrastructure. Quite simple, even with the best possible planning, in circumstances such as this, there might not be any. The centre takes into account the intention for the vessel to carry standard cargo containers. The emergency relief rooms and equipment are all located 16 containers. This includes accommodation, sanitary, galley, medical, feed water, water treatment, generator, waste water, storage, workshop, reefer and storage containers. All of which can be loaded and unloaded by the vessel’s very own crane. What’s more, the vessel can be delivered with additional equipment aimed at transporting the disaster relief package to affected areas and at facilitating the cleanup operation later on, including crane trucks, excavators, and 4x4s for clearing roads, reinstalling electricity and fixing roofs.

Having access to a waterborne disaster relief package offers additional peace of mind in unpredictable situations when inland infrastructure can be temporarily damaged beyond use.

“It gives us confidence to know that we have access to a multipurpose vessel such as the 5612 when we know a storm is approaching. There’s nothing we can do to stop the weather, but we can be prepared. When a hurricane strikes there is always going to be damages, but, with something like this we can minimise the risks by getting to stricken areas as quickly as we can and having everything on hand that can help us to assist our fellow citizens. This is the essence of Disaster relief,” concludes Commander Bain.

back to top