Blessings and Losses: ‘Maria’ and the Human Factor*

Imagine the darkest of nights, a world completely blacked-out, rain pounding like an incessant hammer, winds  shrieking like a screaming demon, cowering in a closet with little children, scrunching down in a bathtub, sandwiched in  a mattress, perching on counters or tables to escape rapidly rising waters , holding children overhead, straining to resist the force of shuddering doors and windows, dodging boulders that smashed through walls, hearing roofs rip off like torn paper, praying for mercy and protection, thinking about the possibility of death over several very long and eerie hours…with no way to communicate to the outside world.

Although I was not on-island to endure the horror that was Hurricane Maria, the true stories told by thousands of Dominican residents are definitely stranger, and more terrifying than the most  frightening work of fiction, in my estimation.

It is not my intention to recount anyone’s personal experience of those agonizing hours on the night of September 18th, 2017. I believe there is documentation, or at least plans-in-progress by others to record some of the ‘Maria’ stories.  In fact, some individual chronicles are available in  The Sun Dominica newspaper, a weekly publication with an online archives. As well, hundreds of photos of the immediate aftermath  of that devastating night can be found via the internet, along with other accounts from survivors.

Photos of the Loubiere area six months after Hurricane Maria. Several people (including children) lost their lives in or near this village. A detailed chronicle of one family’s tragic loss in this village can be found in The Sun Dominica:

 

Admittedly, time does fly and life goes on, but it is important to note that on the eve of the upcoming hurricane season, which commences on June 1st, 2018, the overall  recovery from last year’s cyclonic assault is still a work in progress. Aid relief continues as well, as noted in this report from the Canadian Red Cross, six months after Maria.

Photos of the Pointe Michel area six months after Hurricane Maria.  Eighteen   people (including children) lost their lives in the vicinity of this village. A detailed report on the tragic situation that transpired in this seaside village can be found in  The Sun Dominica:

Hurricane Maria has been called the worst natural disaster in Dominica’s history.  According to a local Police Report, which was published on November 13, 2017, 31 people died, and 34 more are missing as their bodies could not be located.  Some have suggested that this tragic loss of life could have been even worse, if the storm had passed over Dominica in the daytime, instead of the nighttime. As people were hunkered down, and could not see what was happening around them, there was little temptation to go outside. Sadly, most of the people who lost their lives had homes close to ravines or by rivers, where raging waters and debris from the mountains crashed down on them and in some cases, an extraordinarily fierce sea surf swept them away.

Gordons Roses
Sincere condolences to everyone who lost family and friends on Dominica as a result of Hurricane Maria.

However, it was a storm that in some respects caught citizens off-guard from the get-go. Hurricane Irma, the other Category 5 storm that devastated parts of the Caribbean had passed by Dominica about a week before Maria appeared on the scene.  While people had prepared for the first storm, there was some hope that the second one a week later might not be as bad, if it did hit Dominica at all.  Forecasters had initially predicted that Maria would be a weak Category 3.  Certainly, that strength of such a cyclone would cause damage, but not complete destruction.  But as it approached Dominica, it intensified very rapidly and caught many people unaware.  This I know for certain, as there was initially internet communication and some of my Dominican friends were posting: “What’s going on?  This wind is a complete fury.  It seems to be stronger than a Category 3.” I frantically wrote back: “It’s a Category 5 now! Take precautions!”

Those of us who were not there can only empathize with the trauma that all citizens experienced when they first glimpsed the destruction on the morning of September 19th.  The storm had ended just before daybreak and people could venture outside. But the shock of what they saw around them is forever imprinted on their memories. I have heard stories of individuals looking outside and observing that their

Wallhouse roof losses
I used to live in the house on the far right. It suffered very little damage, with no roof loss. However, my two neighbours on the left both suffered major losses, as did about 90 % of the homes on-island.

neighbour’s home had somehow moved to a different area.  Once they actually went out-of-doors, they realized that it was their own dwelling that had been blown to an entirely different location – with the occupants inside!

As well, more losses were incurred by business proprietors, various agencies, and home-owners immediately following the hurricane. Some stores and offices, particularly in Roseau and environs were looted and further damaged by frantic individuals.  During this desperate time, until order was restored by local and regional security services with an enforced curfew, the devastation continued. This unfortunate action, described as “the second hurricane,” resulted in prolonged closure of the affected enterprises, exorbitant replacement costs, and loss of employment. An overview of this occurrence in Dominica and suggestions for how to prevent this crime following any future hurricane in the eastern Caribbean can be found here.

Countless Dominicans thanked God for sparing their lives while coming to terms with significant property damage caused by the storm.  But for many, in the days immediately following ‘Maria’, there was no alternative but to leave the island. At this writing, there is no confirmed figure of the mass exodus, but the number of departures reported by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network) one month after the hurricane estimated that between 15,000 – 20,000 had departed during that time. However, it was noted that some evacuees had purchased return tickets. Meanwhile, it is unclear as to how many people have returned by now (nine months later), as compared to how many remain off-island “for a while longer” or “for good.”

Following this catastrophic event, I am aware of people who have gone overseas for various reasons: awaiting the repair/restoration/replacement of their homes; immediate placement of their children in schools; obtaining supplies and equipment to complete repairs; taking a break from the stressful environment; staying with family or friends for an indefinite period while reorganizing and prioritizing personal objectives; watching and waiting from afar for the outcome of the upcoming hurricane season.

When I interacted with residents with whom I am familiar, I did wonder if they might be suffering from PTSD as a result of their trying experiences related to ‘Maria’ and its aftermath.  I imagine that it would have been  virtually impossible to have avoided some form of major stress, given the severity of the storm, followed by the almost-total devastation of personal property, infrastructure and businesses, among other concerns. A recent on-island survey (April 2018) completed by reliefweb.int noted that Dominicans feel that there are “deep psychological scars that are not yet healed” and many citizens feel “ill-prepared to face another hurricane.” Their latest report (May 21, 2018) disclosed that even after six months “many houses still had inadequate roofing” and “a sizeable portion of the population is highly vulnerable due to the loss of their main source of livelihoods.” You can read the complete assessment here.

On the other hand, I noticed that everyone with whom I interacted on-island was carrying on, remaining as positive as possible despite frustrating circumstances, and placing their trust in God. I really admire the tremendous strength and determined resilience of Nature Islanders as they pick up the pieces under considerable duress, while still affirming that they are “blessed.” The recovery from the losses incurred due to Hurricane Maria still has a long way to go. Work is ongoing to restore shelters and personal properties at the eleventh hour, as June 1st quickly approaches.

It is my fervent hope that Dominica will be spared the wrath of any potential storm this hurricane season.  My prayers for the protection of the beautiful Nature Island and its lovely people are steadfast. As I monitor developments in my adopted country from afar, I keep the faith that it will indeed “be blessed.”

*If you would like to assist Dominica in its continuing recovery from Hurricane Maria, then please click this link to the HOW YOU CAN HELP DOMINICA page in this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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