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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The Neighbourly Way: ‘At Home’ In Dominica

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

Roseau Public Library3
Roseau Public Library, which dates back to 1906, was severely damaged and most of its collection destroyed.

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 roof losses
Tarpaulins covered many roofs, and roadways deteriorated following Hurricane Maria.

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

Gordons Roses
Spectacular blooms in the Gordons’ post-Maria garden.

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

Gordons Brownie Dog in Repose
Brownie the playful puppy.

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.

Gordons Garden Dove
Soothing sounds of doves serenaded me early mornings and evenings.

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.

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Gordon father and son secure a torn tarpaulin during a break in torrential rains in January 2018.
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Catching the drops to prevent water damage!

 

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Water marks on the ceiling of my bedroom!

 

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

A Domlec lineman hard at work in Wallhouse.

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.

DOMLEC and friends in Wallhouse
The Domlec crew enjoys a cuppa,compliments of the Gordons.

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

Jelly Coconut in Wallhouse
I savored the occasional jelly coconut from the Gordons’ tree that survived Hurricane Maria.

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’

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The phenomenal coconut tree in the Gordons’ yard.

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.

Full moon in February over Caribbean Sea
Early morning  February full moon-set over the Caribbean Sea (after weeks of rain!)

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

Leopoldville Loubiere Under Tarpaulin
Under tarpaulin near the river in Leopoldville.
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Spider was a popular, longstanding eatery in Loubiere.
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The interior of the Catholic Church In Loubiere was completely destroyed by the unknown force of the river beside it.
Leopoldville Loubiere Galvanized metal debris
Galvanized roofing metal was no match for Maria.

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

Post-Maria riverbed below Wallhouse at Leopoldville, Loubiere.

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.

Gordons’ Brownie waits for a new roof amidst the building supplies

“You don’t want to leave, do you!?” he taunted.  “No,” I readily admitted, “But I’ll be back!”

 

 

Rainbow over Wallhouse, my neighbourhood in Dominica!