Searching and rescuing with Karina Petroni in the path of Hurricane Dorian's destruction

September 20, 2019 | Surfing
Bahamas: Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco Islands as a Category 5 hurricane on September 1, 2019 | Photo: Hunter M/US Air Force

Just moments before I spoke with pro surfer and former Championship Tour (CT) campaigner Karina Petroni, she received a phone call that gave her some terrific news.

Karina had spent the past day and a half working every angle at her disposal to expedite the shipment of an airplane part from Arizona to Elbow Cay, on Great Abaco Island, in the northern region of the Bahamas.

It was one of the regions hardest hit by Hurricane Dorian and the place where her husband, David Mitchell, was stranded after a cylinder in his plane's engine cracked.

David had been flying in and out of Abaco bringing relief supplies and running search and rescue operations since the storm hit earlier this month.

The cracked cylinder had essentially turned the relief pilot into an evacuee, in a place made exceedingly difficult to access due to Dorian's near-total obliteration of the island's infrastructure.

"I can't even begin to describe all the loopholes and the rigmarole and the logistical nightmare that it took," she told me with a sigh of relief.

"Miraculously, they called to tell me that the part had arrived."

Bahamas: David Mitchell's seaplane was stranded after a cylinder in the engine cracked | Photo: Petroni

To Help and To Heal

While the scope and scale of the destruction wrought by Dorian are unprecedented, Karina and David are no strangers to extreme, life, and death conditions.

Nor are they novices when it comes to search and rescue missions.

Based in the Bahamas' Central Exumas, David runs a marine salvage company that his family started in 1983.

Since they first met in 2009, he and Karina have worked as a team in many rescue efforts.

"We have done everything from jump out of a helicopter in the Wayward passage to board an abandoned vessel and sail it back on bare-bones back to the Bahamas," she recounted.

When Hurricane Joaquín struck the southern Bahamas back in 2015, they conducted relief flights together, unloading supplies and distributing them to neighborhoods and churches in some of the most heavily damaged areas.

Bahamas: on September 12, around 1,300 people were still missing | Photo: Samaritan's Purse

A Full-Time Mission

In the wake of Dorian, their lives have been consumed by search and rescue work on an entirely new level.

"It's taking up about 90 percent of my brain capacity right now," Karina says.

While David runs the planes, she has been handling much of the logistics for their operation.

Beyond coordinating the delivery of the part David needed to repair his aircraft, she has been mobilizing her community and leveraging social media to locate missing persons and to connect survivors with rescuers.

"Right before I got on the phone with you," she relayed, "I got a message about a man who had had a stroke, and that his grandson was trying to wave helicopters down to rescue his grandfather."

"I immediately got on the horns through WhatsApp and a group of people."

Within minutes, she was able to confirm that the man had been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Bahamas: damage was estimated at over US$7 billion | Photo: Samaritan's Purse

Love Amid Destruction

Along with the devastation wrought by the hurricane, one of the things that strike Karina most about the current situation are the expressions of unhesitating generosity and love shown by the Bahamian people.

With the country's population totaling less than 400,000, she notes, "everyone is connected."

In such trying circumstances as the present, that connectivity has translated into some of the most powerful examples of "people helping people."

In the case of her husband's grounded aircraft, she has seen relief recipients turn into relief providers.

"It's the people that are stranded, that have nothing, that have lost everything [that] are like, yeah we have a place to stay... Here's a generator, here's a fan, here's some food."

"And the main reason that people band together so hard," she emphasizes, "is because people in the Bahamas know... it could have been us. It could have been any one of us that could have gotten hit, could have had everything wiped away from us. Everyone realizes that."

Ways to Help

For those living outside the Bahamas, the ways to help are many. Karina has started a fundraiser for an affected family, the Jean family.

She has also been raising awareness about trusted grassroots organizations that would benefit from donations, such as HeadKnowles, Lend a Hand Bahamas and Samaritan's Purse.

She also stresses the value of ethically-minded travel that would channel much-needed resources to the Bahamas and other countries impacted by natural disasters.

Despite the state of affairs in Grand Bahama and Abaco, she highlights, "We have 698 other islands that are fantastic and that are completely open for business."

In short, she affirms, "It takes more than a village," and every action can make a difference.


Words by Elizabeth Sine | Surfer and Historian of Social Movements (Ph.D., UCSD)

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