MOLOA’A — Among the search-and-rescue professionals charged with the task of trying to find seven Kauaians among tons of debris, brown water and mud around Kilauea as a result of the Ka Loko Dam breach, was a dedicated group of Kaua’i volunteers who spent seven grueling days on the hunt for survivors.
In the end, three bodies were found, four are missing and presumed dead, and of the one body found by search dogs, it was a Kaua’i dog, “Tigger,” with his volunteer owner and handler, who first caught a scent of the body, said Gerald Shinn, a member of the Kauai Search and Rescue Canine Team.
Though he didn’t handle a dog or actually take part in the physical search efforts, he still played an important role, manning the staging area and base station, setting up tents, coordinating delivery of food and water to the human searchers, and performing other chores as necessary.
Shinn and other volunteers were at the search site from 7 a.m. on March 14, the day of the flood, until the search was officially called off seven days later.
Shinn and the other volunteers worked eight-to-12-hour days along-side members of the Kaua’i Fire Department, Kaua’i Police Department, state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the state Urban Search and Rescue team of the state Civil Defense Agency.
“Everybody was exhausted. It was really an exhausting experience,” said Shinn. “It was really an educational experience,” with volunteers and paid professionals working side by side, learning of the capabilities of those with other agencies.
The decision to end the search was not warmly welcomed by all the volunteer searchers, he said. “We were ready to go on as long as it took.”
That was despite cuts and other injuries to the dogs that were attended to by Dr. Scott Sims, a North Shore veterinarian. Dr. Kenneth Pierce of Wilcox Health (Wilcox Memorial Hospital and Kauai Medical Clinic) checked out the two-legged volunteers, Shinn said.
Although the Kaua’i-based group prefers to be low key, Chad Pacheco, another of the group’s members, said, “It was gratifying to see people from all parts of the island step forward in a time of crisis.”
Pacheco was on hand as dogs and their handlers were in the process of being certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue Wednesday in a field owned by Larry Bowman.
Pacheco noted that people came forward with towels when they needed them, and people like Simms, Dr. Michael Woltmon, the Kapa’a Animal Clinic, the Princeville Corporation, Back Country Adventures, and the police and firemen made sure their needs were met.
The veterinarians were on stand-by to check the dogs and Back Country Adventures gave them an all-terrain vehicle to aid in their efforts while Pacheco added that the firemen and police officers even helped carry the dogs when it appeared the animals were exhausted.
Pacheco said he had an opportunity to speak with some of the off-island firefighters who told him that their experience was like “working in a dream because the Kaua’i people were so prepared to respond to the disaster by uniting and getting together and forgetting their differences.”
The volunteers spent “seven days slogging through mud,” said Shinn, calling the Kauai Search and Rescue Canine Team “another great Kaua’i asset. I just enjoyed working with them.
“These are wonderful people. They’re the most dedicated search-and-rescue people I’ve ever met,” said Shinn, who has around two decades of search-and-rescue experience.
While nobody could blame them for wanting to get back to their regular jobs, or relax at home with dry, warm clothes, in a dry, warm house, the volunteers and their dogs were out again starting last Sunday at Moloa’a, undergoing some certification training with Mainland and other-island trainers, Shinn continued.
Kuma Davis, juggling between his regular job and making sure each member and canine was certified according to the NASAR standards, said that the commitment made by the group’s members goes beyond personal.
Teresa Gajate, a recent Big Island resident who relocated to Hawai’i, was on hand to get her dog certified for the wilderness level. Gajate was one of the off-island Search and Rescue personnel who worked alongside the Kaua’i group following the flood, and explained that each of the members also finance their own items for inclusion in their search cache.
During the certification process, Davis pointed out that each handler was donning a 24-Pack, a rucksack that contained supplies and necessities that would be able to sustain a human and dog for at least 24 hours. This pack adds an additional 40 pounds to whatever else they are carrying, Davis said.
Davis noted Gajate is certified for FEMA Type I disaster, the highest rating offered by NA-SAR. He is currently seeking to get the Kaua’i handlers certified for SAR Tech II, the minimum rating a handler can have before getting involved in any kind of operation.
Janet Yatchak of Columbia Falls, Mont., represented the NA-SAR examiners, working with individuals and potential search dogs in the certification process.
Davis explained that each handler has to take a written test and seven field exercises. If any portion of this bundle does not pass, the candidate can retake it immediately to try and pass.
Volunteer training happens every weekend, at various places around the island where they might be called to search for missing persons, Shinn said.
At Moloa’a, Larry Bowman of Falko Partners offered use of his property for the training, Shinn explained.
Shinn also lined up one training session with a pilot from Inter-Island Helicopters, the county-contracted, aerial search-and-rescue contractor, to train the volunteers on how to load into and unload out of the helicopter, dogs and equipment when the search is in a remote, hard-to-reach area.
The Kauai Search and Rescue Canine Team recently became a registered nonprofit organization whose volunteers would gladly accept donations from members of the families they were searching for at Kilauea, said Shinn.
They are in “dire need” of new boots and uniforms, because the ones they were using were all contaminated during the Kilauea search.
Help might be on the way from donors to the Kaua’i Island Fund established through the Hawai’i Community Foundation, as funds may be available to them through that fund established to help families of flood victims, explained Deborah Rice, HCF Kaua’i foundation officer.