Although I was thousands of kilometers away, my mind was very much fixated on Dominica throughout the middle of September 2017. Hurricane Irma had swept by the Nature Isle, but most certainly wreaked havoc on other places further north. By the time Sunday September 17 rolled around, Maria was making her presence known in the mid Atlantic, but her exact target was at that time unconfirmed.
However, most Dominicans felt that it might make landfall on their island, but with less intensity than Irma’s Category 5 force elsewhere. I followed Maria’s trajectory for the rest of the afternoon of Monday September 18th. Now it was closing in on Dominica, although Martinique, a little further south looked like a target too.
Around 6 pm, I received a call from my brother Edwin, who lives in another Canadian city. He was watching the Weather Channel and was not encouraged by very recent developments. He told me Maria had just intensified to Category 5 strength and her path would take her directly over Dominica!
Meanwhile, a Facebook friend had posted a concern about the incredibly strong winds for what he thought was a Category 3. In bold letters, I wrote: “IT IS A CATEGORY 5 NOW!” My brother, who had previously enjoyed visiting Dominica, stayed on the phone with me for about an hour. I sobbed and sobbed: “Dominica will be destroyed,” I wailed. My fears for the fate of Dominica were extreme. My adopted country had never fully recovered from the ravages of Tropical Storm Erika, which changed lives, livelihoods, terrain and infrastructure in August 2015. In this fragile state, the beautiful Nature Island was about to get walloped again. And what about all those wonderful people, many of whom had welcomed me with open arms 20+ years earlier and continued to befriend me for those two memorable decades that I lived among them?
After I rang off with brother Edwin , I focused on social media. My heart literally remained in my throat.With fingers trembling on the keyboard, I searched for news and conversation from those on island. As my online contacts decreased due to power outages and whatever else was happening, my anxiety level hit the roof. The last few posts that I read on Facebook put the fear of God in me.
Dominica’s Prime Minister, Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit wrote that he had lost his roof, and then declared that he was “at the complete mercy of the hurricane. ” Another friend wrote that she and her family were sheltering in the bathroom: “I am so frightened. We are all going to die!” I helplessly replied: “Please don’t give up. Please hang in there. You’ll get through it.” But what did I know?
For those endless hours of the night on September 18th and 19th, little was known after all communication was lost with Dominica. I attentively listened to Dominica-oriented TDN Radio, which was broadcasting from various parts of the world through the internet. By about 3 am on Tuesday September 19th, they shut down for the night as we fearfully waited out the void of information. At that pre-dawn hour, gun shots rang out in my gentrified Canadian neighbourhood, and I really pondered the meaning of life and possible hazards all over the world. But I was safe. What about the people of Dominica?
For the next two weeks, I devoted my energies to the remote electronic version of searching for expatriate friends, particularly Canadian, American and British on-island. Those of us with connections to Dominica formed groups on various social media platforms in a collective effort to share information about the status of people and immediate rescue and relief efforts through governments and aid organizations.
A few HAM radio operators initially broke the silence and shared sad stories of the massive destruction of the island with the world. Then a low flying plane from St. Lucia with photographer on board released the first photos of the shocking surreal scenes of near-total devastation. News of deaths and missing persons filtered out through radio and television journalists who somehow found their way to the island. I eventually made contact with friends there via text message. In the early days, that was the only method of communication, with the exception of a few satellite phones.
PM Skerrit was airlifted to Antigua within the next day or so, where he described the devastation on a local TV station while breaking down in tears. A few days later, he eloquently addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, announcing that “Eden is broken,” while making a plea for more global action to address climate change and its profound impact on small island states.
The weeks wore on, and the sobering reality of addressing the island’s myriad needs post-Maria became a seemingly endless and onerous task. Amidst sending donations and collecting goods for shipment to Dominica, I kept focused on my desire to return to my adopted country to spend some time, regardless of the changed circumstances.
And so it came to pass, that I did indeed realize this dream, and spent just over two months on my adopted island. I was delighted to be there, and did my best to help in small ways.
Forthcoming posts will describe some of my activities on Dominica during January, February and March 2018. I really enjoyed my brief time there, despite the unfortunate situation. Although I have since returned to Canada, I cannot wait to go back.
For now, I will hope and pray that hurricane season 2018 is a calm one, and that Dominica and her sister islands will be spared from any storm that crosses the Atlantic.