Halifax warship returns from hurricane-scarred Caribbean islands
HMCS St. John's was deployed for a month in support of humanitarian efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria
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HALIFAX — Standing on the rear deck of the Canadian warship HMCS St. John's, Howard Shillingford shook his head as he recalled the sound hurricane Maria made when the Category 5 storm descended on his retirement home on the tiny island of Dominica.
"The hurricane was like the devil himself," Shillingford, a longtime resident of Newmarket, Ont., said Thursday after he and his wife Rosemary boarded the frigate in Halifax harbour to thank the crew for rescuing them last week from the devastated Caribbean island.
Shillingford, who was born in Dominica and is now a dual citizen, said he'll never forget the eerie howling of Maria as she tore the roof off the couple's house in the mountains near Giraudel.
"It talks to you. It teases you. Comes and goes. And the noise. When the roof was leaving it was like a machine gun," he said, describing the sound the rafters made as nails were pulled from the wood. "Dat! Dat! Dat! Dat! Dat!"
"It was so powerful that the leaves from the trees were stuck on the wall. And when you pulled them off, it took the paint off."
As the front door was blown open and the rain poured in through a gaping hole in the ceiling, the couple retreated to their bathroom with their cat.
"It was relentless," Rosemary Shillingford said. "The noise never stopped for nine hours."
Back in Canada, their daughter, Marlene, had reached out to federal government to determine if they could be airlifted to safety.
Almost a week later, on Sept. 24, a Sea King helicopter from the Halifax-based warship touched down in a nearby ball field and carried the couple to Dominica's airport, where a Royal Canadian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft carried them to a waiting airliner in Barbados.
"When the helicopter came, that was the best day ever," Howard Shillingford said.
The couple, who have been visiting Dominica for the past 25 years, eventually made their way to Halifax, where their daughter works as a chief warrant officer at nearby Canadian Forces Base Shearwater.
"We want to say thank you to the Canadian Armed Forces," Marlene Shillingford said. "Without them, they'd still be stuck on the island."
The three were among dozens of family and friends who greeted the ship when it pulled into port under bright sunshine after a month-long humanitarian and disaster-relief mission.
In early September, the ship sailed to South Caicos, where the 230-member crew helped clear debris, completed electrical repairs and delivered fresh water. The island was heavily damaged on Sept. 7 by hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that churned out winds clocked at 281 kilometres per hour.
However, the ship had to leave the island after almost a week when hurricane Maria arrived. The ship's captain, Cmdr. Gord Noseworthy, had planned to return to South Caicos but the vessel was diverted to Dominica because the need for immediate help was critical.
The ship's crew again helped clear debris, deliver water and repair generators. And its Sea King crews rescued a number of other Canadians and locals stranded in more remote parts of the island.
"It was obvious that we were in a life-saving situation," Noseworthy said. "The entire island is pretty much decimated ... It will be quite a while before they recover from this traumatic event."
As of Thursday, the island of 71,000 people remains largely paralyzed by a lack of water, electricity and communications. According to published reports, the hurricane left 27 people dead and damaged or destroyed 90 per cent of its buildings.
Noseworthy said the decision to leave the region was based on the fact that power had been restored to the island's airport and the capital, Roseau.
"It wasn't a decision that was taken lightly," he said, adding that Roseau was in a "self-sufficient state" now that various agencies and non-government organizations were on the ground providing key supplies.
"I'm confident that the locals are well looked after with the NGOs and the various other organizations in that area."
As for the Shillingford's, Howard said he plans to return after Christmas to sell the house.
"I don't want to live there anymore," he said. "No way."