At long last, I was back on Dominican soil. I had been in Canada for one and a half years and I had missed the Nature Island every day. When I disembarked from the Express Des Iles at the Roseau ferry terminal at about noon on Wednesday January 24th, I did not have to wait more than a few moments before two familiar faces came towards me out of the huge crowd on the Bayfront.
First came Tina Alexander, with whom I would soon have lunch- and then appeared my longtime neighbour and host Vernon Gordon, who would take me to my apartment to drop off my luggage and return me to the Fort Young Hotel, my rendez-vous point with Tina.
While travelling south from Roseau to my old neighbourhood and rental apartment, I was stunned in to silence,even though I had many questions to ask Vernon. What initially rendered me speechless was my quick glance at the Roseau
Public Library. I already knew that it had been destroyed and yes, I had looked at photos, but to actually see one of my favourite and frequented places in Dominica in such a demolished state instantly brought tears to my eyes. And the sad sights only increased through the areas called Newtown and Citronnier, where some seaside homes and hotels were either no longer there or in a state seemingly beyond repair. In their places, debris and post-hurricane refuse such as ubiquitous galvanized roofing sheets were scattered everywhere – most of the metal badly mangled and unusable.
Meanwhile, Vernon was on the speaker phone with his uncle in England; along with arranging extensive repairs to his own home, he was helping him to obtain information about products and goods that would be needed to fix his relative’s house in another suburban area north of Roseau.
By the time we drove up the once-familiar roads in the Castle Comfort and
Wallhouse subdivisions, I could not speak at all. Blue tarps covered most of the roofs in this densely populated area, and the pothole-filled, broken-up lanes and roadways were practically impassable.
When we arrived at the Gordon residence a few minutes later, I gazed around me in complete shock. It was the strangest feeling: everything looked at once familiar and oddly different at the same time. That included the houses, landscape and roadways. Nevertheless, I was, as always, entranced by the verdant shades of green that Vernon immediately told me weren’t there for a month or so after the hurricane.
As Tina was waiting and Vernon had to get back to work, I did not linger after the bags had been dropped in the rear apartment, which had previously been occupied by a student at the All Saints University School of Medicine. They had to evacuate immediately after the storm and were sent to St. Vincent, an island further south in the Eastern Caribbean . I already knew that the Gordons were occupying the larger apartment at the front of their property. With the loss of their roof, they could not live in their spacious home upstairs until the extensive repairs had been done.
At that point, the completion date was unknown as Vernon had to go off-island to purchase his roofing supplies and then wait for a qualified and familiar building team, already in great demand, to do the required work. Meanwhile, some of the furniture that they had been able to salvage was neatly stored in the corners of my roomy apartment, and the student’s belongings were carefully tucked at the back of the closet and underneath the bed in anticipation of her return. These were extraordinary times, and I was so thankful to have a place to stay in close proximity to my longtime good neighbours and to be the recipient of their generosity and hospitality.
Back in town, I tentatively walked in the front entrance of the Fort Young Hotel. It was filled with a lunchtime crowd, comprised of aid workers, residents in search of WiFi due to scanty wireless services and limited electricity around the island, and a few intrepid tourists. As I scanned the busy scene, I caught Tina’s eye across the room and then turned around to see a group of familiar faces sporting huge smiles. I am certain my grin stretched from ear to ear as I quickly strode over to greet several friends who just happened to be there too!
Even though I was hot and sweaty in my boat travelling outfit of long pants and long-sleeved blouse, I rejoiced in chatting face to face with this assembly of friends in Dominica. I had intended to shop for groceries, but fatigue, afternoon heat and engaging conversations prevented me from going any farther than the washroom that afternoon.
When we collectively parted later that day with assurances to meet throughout my stay, I waited outside the hotel for Vernon to pick me up on his way home from work. When he stopped, he remarked that I had not purchased any groceries. I explained that I was now on island time and that I could do it tomorrow, but he insisted on taking me to a nearby store (ACS 7/11 Mini-Mart) to pick up some essentials. There, I purchased heavier items and enough supplies to tide me over for a day or two. Once back at my self-catering apartment, I unpacked my groceries and part of my luggage while waiting for the rest of the Gordon family to appear after their workday.
Now extremely tired from my very long travel day, I wanted nothing better than to
sit on the porch and stare at the beauty all around me. With a kitchen chair to support me and a cup of tea to soothe me, I
also acquainted myself with Brownie the puppy, a recent addition to the Gordon family who became one of my walking companions. While I could not directly see the sunset from my perch, I enjoyed the shades of pale colours in the western sky and relaxed to the early night sounds of a few insects and some birds who were slowly reappearing four months after Maria.
As I had lived across the street and later just down the road from the Gordons for about 15 years, I certainly felt ‘at home’. I could not think of anywhere else I would rather be, despite the devastation all around me.
I had only begun to settle in when I got a taste of what the Gordons and everyone on Dominica had experienced during Hurricane Maria. On my first Sunday morning on island, I watched the German cruise ship, Mein Schiff anchor at the Roseau Pier in torrential rain. It was rather chilly, relatively speaking, and I did wonder how the visitors would enjoy this dreary day. I started to shiver on the porch, and went into the bedroom to get a jacket.
On my way to the closet, I looked down and was shocked to see a puddle of water next to the bed. “How did that get there?” I wondered to myself as the wet area was not close to a window and they were all shut anyway. Then I looked up and gasped as I grasped the situation. Drops of water steadily fell from a growing stain on the ceiling.
I took another deep breath and went next door to tell the Gordons. I tentatively knocked and entered. Vernon and his wife Geramise were in the midst of their Sunday breakfast. “Um…it looks like we’ve got a little flood going on.” I really hated to tell them this. “Where?” Geramise asked. “In-in the bedroom,” I stammered.
In a flash, Vernon surveyed the scene while Geramise and I gathered containers to catch the drops. “I guess the tarpaulin has ripped or come off and water is seeping down through the floor above,” he surmised.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he and his son Kevin climbed up a ladder and readjusted the temporary cover during a break in the pounding rain. The tarpaulin, which had been in place for about four months had ripped apart. As it was only a short-term solution while the Gordons were preparing to rebuild their permanent roof, I contacted my friend Tina Alexander of Lifeline Ministries to see if she knew where to source a new tarpaulin. Sure enough, she secured one for the Gordons (thanks Tina!), and the next weekend father and son went back up on the roof to replace the torn one with a stronger version which would hopefully hold on until the real thing could be built anew.
During my first few weeks in Dominica, even up to Carnival in mid-February, the rain persisted, along with heavy winds. Tarpaulins all around detached and flapped vigorously in the night, but it was too dangerous for people to go up on their roofs to secure their temporary measure. So most people in my neighbourhood did whatever they could to contain the relentless rainwater, while hoping that help would soon be on the way. For many, awaiting a reimbursement from an insurance company was a lengthy process, due to the overwhelming volume of claims, coupled with the challenge of locating highly sought-after building supplies on-island. Companies struggled to meet with the excessive demands but sold-out very quickly so the purchase and reorder process crawled along.
While the Gordons chose to obtain supplies on other islands, there was still a lengthy wait for qualified roofers to do the job that included sufficient improvements to make it more climate-resilient. As the next hurricane season approached, concerns were mounting all over Dominica about lack of preparedness, but most of the people that I met were optimistically holding onto the hope that all would be well before the rainy season began in earnest again!
Before I even arrived at the Gordons apartments, I was aware that electricity service was non-existent, as in most other parts of Dominica. That meant going without any current during the daytime. However, my hosts, like many other neighbours, invested in a small generator so that power was available for about 4 hours every evening. Most days, I frequently found myself at the Fort Young Hotel, where I enjoyed breakfast or lunch along with WiFi service. Therefore, I was not adversely affected in terms of writing and other online communications.
Back at the Gordons, with generator power, we shared the refrigerator and the semi-automatic washing machine, which were both located in my apartment. With infrequent opening of the fridge and freezer, food stuffs were kept cool and/or frozen for a day or two. At first I was wary of the more labour-intensive, generator- compatible washer, but after Geramise walked me through the process, I was completely amazed with the results. The spin component practically dried the clothing before it was out of the machine!
Meanwhile, DOMLEC crews and partners from other Caribbean countries appeared
all over Wallhouse as they feverishly worked to replace downed power lines, ruined transformers and reconnected source wires to houses. I occasionally watched them work. I was amazed by their stamina and cheerful demeanor, as their hours were long, sometimes well into the evening and there was much to be done all over the island.
When the workers were next to the Gordons some evenings, I observed on more than one occasion their neighbourly offer of coffee and tea, which was received by the weary, but hard-working team with profound thanks. I stood by, took photos, chatted amiably with the group and carried the cups back to my hosts.
Then, one Saturday in early March, the power was switched back on at the Gordon’s apartments. After more than five months without electricity, the generator could be retired, and both apartments were fully operational after passing their safety certification check. Of course, the main house could only be ‘hooked up’ once the roof was replaced and all electrical circuits verified intact. That was yet to come!
Although a ‘tenant’, I was the grateful recipient of Gordon hospitality and assistance on countless occasions. I enjoyed substantial and delicious Sunday dinners for my entire stay, along with portions of fresh fruits and vegetables from their relatives in the countryside. Sometimes there were seasoning peppers or herbs such as basilic from their own backyard garden. I even got to savor the occasional fresh jelly
coconut and its sweet ‘water’, right off the tree in the yard. I kept quiet about that treat, as this once-common refreshment had become very scarce on island due to crop and tree destruction caused bHurricane Maria.
‘Down time’ on the porch was an added bonus.
I overlooked the Gordons’
flourishing flower garden that they tended with care.I situated myself there most early mornings and evenings to meditate on the beautiful flowers and trees, listen to melodious bird song, watch the changing colours of the evening sky, observe early morning moon-sets over the sea, and study the stars in the heavens with great clarity in this unpolluted environment. Sometimes Geramise joined me after work, and we watched the celestial bodies appear and disappear as night fell on the Nature Island.
The fun and challenge of walking ‘Brownie’, the newest addition to the Gordon family gave me experience in managing a puppy. While it was not easy to attach the leash in his excitable state, Brownie usually settled down after about 5 minutes on the road. The neighbours’ dogs always announced our presence and everyone seemed to succumb to Brownie’s good-natured charms. The likable small-breed local dog grew to about twice his size while I was there. I think he helped me increase strength in my arms!
All of the people in Wallhouse, Leopoldville and Loubiere warmly welcomed me and I listened attentively to their stories of Maria. In some ways, I felt as if I had never
left the place and there were moments that life in the Nature Isle seemed just like old times. But in other ways, the obvious damage to roofs from the sustained winds of 175 mph was less horrific than the devastation caused by abnormally swollen rivers filled with rocks and uprooted trees, as well as a violent sea on that terrifying night. In Loubiere, several lives were lost, while many others barely escaped death. Even six months after the destructive event, people were trying to carry on with a positive outlook and an abiding faith in God. More about this
part of my post-Maria story in a subsequent post.
The time in Dominica passed far too quickly and I guess my feelings about leaving ‘home’ showed on my face during my last few days on-island. “Look Geramise, Gwen is crying,” teased Vernon more than once when he opened his apartment door in the early morning to see me on the porch, staring at the blue sky or gazing at that hardy coconut palm tree.
“You don’t want to leave, do you!?” he taunted. “No,” I readily admitted, “But I’ll be back!”