Hurricane Dorian did not leave much behind after hitting the Bahamas. Photos courtesy Empact NW

Local first responders donate their time and skill when disaster strikes.

Lakebay resident Siu-May “Sil” Wong-Underwood, 42, traveled with a team of volunteers to the Bahamas to conduct search and rescues after the island nation was hit by Hurricane Dorian from September 1 to 3.

Wong-Underwood spoke to KP News from Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco September 7, saying, “I’ve been to over a dozen disasters around the world and domestically and this looks like what I saw in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. None of the trees have branches, houses are completely destroyed, there’s destruction everywhere.”

Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippine Islands on November 7 and 8, 2013, with winds of 196 mph, causing 6,300 deaths.

Dorian struck the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane with winds peaking at 185 mph, leaving 70,000 people homeless, killing at least 50 and injuring a number still unknown at press time. Approximately 1,300 people were missing.

It made landfall on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, as a Category 1 hurricane September 6 and gradually weakened as it climbed the Eastern Seaboard up to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island the next three days.

Wong-Underwood is a logistics coordinator and president of the board of directors of Empact NW, the only nonprofit, all-volunteer urban search and rescue team in the United States. “We have ER docs, medics, EMTs; a lot of our team are first responders in their own departments, some do technical rescue; we’re all highly trained,” she said.

“The government is just trying to get everybody out at this point.”

“Today we did a door-to-door search in a large area of Treasure Cay that had not been searched whatsoever. We have two dogs here on the ground who are doing great work, Asher and Packer, and their handlers, LaFawn and Keith Davis. We also have a structural engineer,” she said.

“The government is just trying to get everybody out at this point because there really is not much of an infrastructure left,” Wong-Underwood said. “People haven’t had much food or water at this point, but there’s more aid coming through now. But they don’t have shelter, and fuel is a big issue.

“There are definitely people missing but it’s hard to gauge,” she said.

“Sil had just started with Empact NW when I met her,” said her husband, KP fire department Lieutenant Jeremy Underwood, 42. “We went through training and I was a team member but when it came down to a choice between Sil or I going it was something that she really feels strongly about, and we have a farm and a son, so I’m more than happy to let her do that and take care of the stuff at home.” 

The couple have been together eight years and married four. Wong-Underwood also works fulltime as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines.

“I think every year she’s gone on a deployment since we’ve been together,” Underwood said. “She’s gone to some places I wasn’t thrilled with. I was in the military and I imagine it’s something like what a military spouse goes through.

“I’m really proud of her for all the work,” he said. “I went to the Oso landslide with Empact (in 2014, where 43 people died). That was a lot of recovery rather than rescue and that’s unfortunately part of the nature of the work. Sometimes you find live people and that’s a happy time, and sometimes you’re just giving closure.” 

Empact NW was formed after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 160,000 people. When local first responders could not find a way to donate their services, they decided to create one.

“Most organizations wanted a doctor or a nurse, they didn’t want EMTs or medics,” said Tamara Glasgow, a former Lake Minterwood resident and ER nurse now at Tacoma General Hospital. “So, we started with the intention of allowing anyone to join that wanted to help, hence the name ‘empathy-impact’ — Empact. If you want to help, we will train you on how to properly do urban search and rescue.”

Glasgow has since been to Haiti multiple times and deployed to Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as a medical specialist. She also does logistics, assisting others on deployment.

“When you are on the ground in a disaster environment, your main concern is helping those in need, so the last thing on your mind is ‘Where am I going to sleep, how am I getting from point A to point B, how am I getting home?’ That’s where I come in,” she said.

Wong-Underwood and her team returned to the U.S. September 11.

For more information, go to empactnorthwest.org or contact Empact NW at 206-453-0353.

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