Maria! Maria! Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane

NOVEMBER 2017: The New Normal

Since there’s not much more I can do without money or materials, I am working on transferring this handwritten journal to the computer in the mornings. In the afternoons, I pick up glass from the solar water heater in the backyard. That’s about it. Giselle gets the corrections to Island Time from the proofreader and together we venture to Roseau to send the manuscript to the Burt Award. (I so need to WIN something, especially at this unstable junction of my literary career, but the book wasn’t even mentioned.) On the way to the Fort Young Hotel, we pass the ruined public free library, built a century ago by the Carnegie Foundation.

Élas. There is a big truck parked in front of it hauling the sodden books away to the dump, including my own well-worn titles. We beg our way into the mashed-up Fort Young and order an extra expensive lunch so we can have permission to use their Wi-Fi. After I check 267 unattended emails, some of which are from long lost friends who have heard of the hurricane and are concerned about me, we get the job done. I see Dr. Rick, the vet, in the meantime, and we make a date to have my 17-year-old mongrel Karma euthanized because of a serious nasal infection that’s gotten worse since Maria.

Giselle and I then proceed to Flow to buy a device with mobile data, but there are no phones or tablets left for sale. When I ask about getting back my landline restored, I am told it will take at least 6 months. “Six months!” After waiting in line for an hour, I buy a tablet with a sim card at Digicel that they say might work from Pond Cassé. It does not, so I make an appointment with Giselle for the day after tomorrow to help me get the dilemma sorted out. Maybe she can also help me replace my old computer, which has many idiosyncrasies, with the new one that has never been out of the box. I reach home exhausted. It’s almost dark when Dr. Rick arrives to put Karma down. She has had a long life for a little castaway dog I found her by the roadside, but it is past time for her to go. The good news is that I truly believe my dogs eventually come back to me via doggie reincarnation. (Karma, Karma, Karma Karmelion, you come and go, oh, oh.)

Still, it’s always sad lose them for a while.

Scores of fires burn bright across the valley after nightfall. Orange flames lick into the dark sky and illuminate the horrific scars on the mountainside; thick smoke obscures the usually brilliant moon and stars. Living in so-called paradise is nothing soft, and it would be so easy to give up. As I write, they say 30,000 Dominicans have left the island. My question is do I still wish to qualify as a Caribbean writer, or would I be better off as a refugee? My hope is that scribbling in this journal will help illuminate the answer. Six weeks after the hurricane, the catch phrase “new normal” begins to sink in. I try to accomplish something on my new devices, but the computer won’t take a charge and the tablet is faulty, so its off to town yet again. We walk right into the Fort Young intending to use the Wi-Fi using good ole Frankenputer, dragging its external devices along like excess baggage.

I order two of the mandatory overpriced lunches, and we chat with the UNICEF personnel for a while. Everything is cool until I knock the sugar bowl off the cramped table. When I apologize, the waitress gives me a weary look. Someone else comes to clean up the mess while I check my email and send a short story off to the Commonwealth Prize.

After lunch, I feel dizzy and feverish. I wonder if I haven’t contracted one of those mosquito borne viruses like Zika considering the amount of open sewers a person has to negotiate in Roseau. The Fort Young, with all its well-intentioned aid workers (UNICEF, Samaritan’s Purse, World Food Program, etc.) also distresses me. Although they are well intentioned, the task of restoring Dominican lives to their pre-Maria existence will not happen overnight. It will be years, if ever, before things get back to the “old normal.” Just when we’re ready to leave, Giselle’s mother calls and says there’s a rockslide under the Canefield cliffs. It takes two more hours for it to clear. While we wait, I confirm my latest novel, Nobody Owns the Rainbow, is on its way from the printer in the UK to Dominica by sea. It should arrive on either November 16 or the 31st.  Dealing with the port is a pain, but at least there’s the reward of holding my very own book in my hand.

Giselle and I stop at the grocery store on our way home. It’s a zoo filled with rude, seemingly desperate people. She has taken to pushing my cart and reading my list like I’m an invalid, which is fine with me. We face a similarly long line at the gas station before I drop her at home and drive to Cochrane to pick up another bag of dogfood a friend has nabbed for me. Eight hours after I left home, I reach River Ridge in the pouring rain.  

Sorry, but I can’t possibly go out again anytime soon. I’d rather pick up glass from the solar water heater than go through the humiliation of feeling like a wart at the mighty Fort Young. John and a new helper called Bully, who is rough and tough like his name, cover the big hutch roof with a blue tarpaulin we got from Samaritan’s Purse. It’s too small for the house, and when it rains it sends great gallons of water inside like a blast from a fire hose. I try to keep the flood mopped up, but after a while I realize it’s futile and give up. So I cook a nice supper of sweet potatoes, corn, chicken and spinach and call it a dayThe next day is a holiday in Dominica—Independence Day—although I bet quite a few folks wish they still had a mother country to depend on. It’s a beautiful morning with the sun lighting up the mountains across the valley like a strobe lamp. I want to do some yoga, but John is already pounding on the roof. I answer some emails and finish a short story, but I have no idea where or when I will be near Wi-Fi to send them out. Although I swore I’d never pick up a paint brush again, I decide to refresh the dirty front door and shutters of Bati Mamzelle. It looks a lot better when I’m done. In late afternoon, I have a long conversation with my son Josh, and then I take the dogs to the river to clear my head. I think back on my first years in Dominica when everything was so new. As described in my first novel, A Face in the River, Paradise was a puzzle I couldn’t wait to solve until rum, obeah, and betrayal cast their shadow on my dream romance.

The next morning promises a lovely day, but not for the two rabbits the dogs killed during the night. Isn’t there enough destruction already? I start picking up glass before the sun gets too hot. Not knowing it’s yet another holiday, John goes to town for PVC cement, but returns saying shops are closed. On Sunday, while charging the deep cell batteries left over from the solar electrical system so we can run DC lighting to Bati Mamzelle, he tears out the plywood partitions in the big hutch. My job is to repaint them so we can use them to seal the ceiling in the guesthouse rather than just let them rotten. Of course we’re short on white paint, so I get drunk instead.

On Monday, I buy more paint and pay for the next 100-pound cylinder of gas while Bully and John clean out the cistern. When I return, Bully has cut his finger rather badly, so I break out the iodine and bandages, and send him home with a bag of plasters. I had intended to paint when I got home, but it’s raining. I proofread my short story one more time, hoping to send it in on the morrow. It’s after dark when I make a pasta dish out of tinned corned beef for supper, which only the dogs will eat.

Tuesday is D-Day. I spend the entire morning standing in line with Giselle, God bless her. It is determined that the tablet that Digicel sold me 2 weeks ago will never work outside of Wi-Fi, so what good is it? I upgrade to a more expensive version, but I still can’t get it to function properly. We proceed to the Fort Young and manage to get the files from Frankenputer transferred to Asus, my new computer. I sort out my email and send off the short story, The World According to Mother, to Salomé, a new literary magazine for women. Then I download the material for the workshop at the Key West Literary Seminar, which I plan to attend via scholarship in January, God spare. Next, I try to figure out how to resend my signature to the Burt Award entry form, which they say is improperly done. I acknowledge a rejection slip for my short story “Go-Go,” submitted before the hurricane, from Interviewing the Caribbean. Boohoo. But as usual Opal, the editor, gives me a second chance. Finally, I send my request for a loan to fix my house to the US Bank via my oldest son, Zach, the financial wizard.

I leave my signature and new computer with Giselle so she can sort out the Burt Award issue. When I finally get home, the old computer balks, as if it’s upset that I transferred all its precious info to the new one! The next day, Giselle and I head to our favorite computer repair guy to fix Frankenputer and install Outlook Express on Asus. He says he doesn’t have any time for us, so I guess we’ll just have to figure out how to send the signature in on the tablet. We do, but when I check my e-mail I realize that Zach has failed to forward the loan request to my bank.

Trust me; there’s no way I can return to town the following day. Best I stick to painting plywood. At least it’s something I know I can do, and when I’m done (if I ever am) I’ll have something to show for it. As John is putting a small porch over the front door, gas starts leaking from the lamp next to it because of all the pounding.  It’s always something. A surprise visit from my friend Karen, who cries when she sees my destroyed house for the first time, gets me out of painting plywood for the afternoon.  The dogs, Gouti, D’Jango, and Babylon, are delighted to see her, and of course so am I. 

Now that the pump is fixed, Max returns and cleans out the swimming pool.  Hurray! Do you suppose there’s any way I can take a dip before I die? Someone should do a time-lapse film of the greening of Dominica. Everywhere you look things are sprouting and even blooming. Unfortunately, island technology isn’t able to keep pace with nature as there is no cell phone service again today. When it does work, it’s extravagantly expensive. I must try to figure out a better way. Maybe I should change my Digicel sim card to Flow. . . maybe tomorrow.

Giselle and I visit the bank, post office, the phone company, and the computer repair in the morning. We stand in line for hours to no avail, and then face the Fort Young again in the afternoon, where the restaurant is buzzing with flies. After lunch, I answer dozens of emails and start feeling sick again. It could be the swarms of insects, or maybe I’m just fed up with their attitude and their food. We stop for groceries, gas, to top up cell phones, and to buy some vitamin C—you know the routine.  On my way up the feeder road, I meet a woman taking a survey to find out which citizens in Dominica most need assistance after Maria. Me! Me! Me! Yes, I’m 70 years old. Yes, my partner John had a stroke. Yes, damage was severe to my house. No, I didn’t have insurance. She says she will get back to me, which I doubt. But then again you never know.

Next day, Max alternately cleans up the backyard and helps John put up the ceiling in Bati Mamzelle. It’s nice to have him back around. I personally am useless, feeling feverish and weak. I sleep for most of the day, eat an early supper, and then fall back into bed. Thankfully, I feel better in the morning. After breakfast, I tidy up the pool yard and then paint the eves under the front porch. I guess it’s not time to hang up my paintbrush and roller yet. The dogs and I head to the river in the afternoon. One thing I know for sure: A river always follows the course of least resistance. Good advice, don’t you think? Apparently, it’s a lesson I’m still need to learn.

Max digs a bed for me to plant green beans while I attempt to paint the outside front wall of Bati Mamzelle where the plastering is rough. It turns out okay, but by the time I’m finished, I’m worn out. I manage to give Babylon the Rottweiler a bath later in the afternoon, and then decide to rest up for a day in town tomorrow. John needs new tools, and I can always use help carrying groceries. We get the tools, but the shelves of the grocery store are semi-blank. I wrangle two bags of dogfood, which I feel like dumping on the streets of Roseau to feed the poor starving dogs hanging out there. I wish I could rescue them all. When I reach home, I bathe Homer, the Rott with bad skin, and Rosie, the mongrel fleabag—but I’m still feeling guilty about the homeless strays.

I was hoping to make some international calls today, but so far there’s no cell service. I should be painting more plywood as John has almost finished putting up the ceiling in the kitchen, but I decide to go to the beach instead. On the way up the west coast, I get my first view of the parade of solar lamp poles strewn down the bayside that have fallen like dominoes.

When I reach the Hillsboro Bridge that crosses the Layou River right before it reaches the sea, it is partially collapsed and down to one lane. The river itself is unrecognizable, shallow and clogged with sand.


I meet my friend Polly from Papillote Press, and we plan a book fair, “Books on the Beach,” for December 10. Theoretically, there will be readings by Waitukubuli Writers, new and used books for sale, and musical entertainment. Sounds like a plan. But the sea is rough and the beach is muddy and stinky—totally unsuitable for bathing. Caterpillars and a gang of men with axes and shovels are working on clearing washed-up logs and debris. I hope they are able to get it sorted out before the event. When I get home, my cell phone is working, so I make two long distance calls to the tune of $60.

The Sahara dust is back, making my point of view a bit hazy. On the other hand, maybe it’s because of all the wine I drank last night. Considering the appearance of mosquito larvae, I add bleach to the water standing downstairs and sweep it out again. Then I paint the last of the plywood (I hope), and help John start to put it up in the main room, which has a difficult, high ceiling. Of course it will have to be repainted, but not by me. I’m too short. We spend the rest of the week trying to get the DC current to the guesthouse. It just keeps on getting more confusing. I finally get in touch with Richard, the electrician who helped with the solar. He promises to come the next day. Then I call Imran, an architect who has bought a couple of dogs from me, to see if he can advise what to do with the big hutch. He too promises to come after work on Monday, but neither of them shows up.    

The scenario of no one showing up is one I’m getting used to. We continue to try to tune up the guesthouse while builder after builder breaks their promise to put a roof back on the big hutch. I know that everyone is busy, and besides there are still no materials, but there’s something in my American makeup that makes me want to FIX things, pronto! After 25 years of living in the Caribbean, I still haven’t gotten over it. Toward evening, I take a walk on the feeder road and notice that the 30-foot phone pole we had to cut in order to pass (one of the 12 that I purchased 18 years ago at a cost of EC $1,000 each), has disappeared. I can’t see any drag marks on the road, so I assume some one has helped themselves to some free building material using a pick up truck. I have a suspect in mind, the same person who sprays Gramoxone in the river where I have taken my drinking water for 20 years. Yet I don’t have the strength or courage to go behind him, which is exactly what he’s counting on.

(Publication date: August 15th, 2018)