Maria! Maria! Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane: Second Quarter, 2018

APRIL, 2018: Reggae on the Beach

Reggae on the Beach comes and goes at the beginning of April. It is sparsely attended—no Nelly—plus six months after Maria, it’s still difficult to organize fun things in Dominica or get folks to spend money on anything but rum to make them forget their worries. Mashed up roads, businesses, houses, and beaches are in the majority. There is trash strewn everywhere and dogs and people are begging on the street. In the course of six hours, I sell two books: one to an old friend of mine, a Rasta tour guide/ lawyer who is flying higher than a kite, and the other to a handsome Brazilian couple who are the generous international sailors that sponsored the event. It was a lot of work for $100, but at least I was on TV.

When I get home, I discover two of my dogs have been poisoned: Rosie, the local mongrel, and Homer, the homebred Rottweiler. Although I have a fair idea of what to do, there’s no antidote for Gramoxone poisoning, which is the flavor of the month according to my ruthless, ignorant neighbors. Most of the dogs that ingest bait laced with the organophosphate don’t survive; it’s a long drawn out death—the poison burns out the lining of the esophagus before it migrates to the stomach, lungs, liver, and kidneys. The only defense is activated charcoal, which I always keep on hand, or dirt mixed with milk, assuming the dog will take it by syringe. Fortunately, both of these dogs are co-operative. After two weeks of their suffering and my crawling around on my hands and knees in the kennel, they’ve both lost a lot of weight, but are almost back to normal.

I wish I could say the same for John. He has decided to put his daughter, who lives in Martinique, in charge of his medical attention. Great. I’d like to think that I’m off the hook.  The fact that I begged doctors there to respond to my emails concerning his health problem makes no difference. He has an appointment for May 15, and I wish him luck.

At fifty-seven years of age, he has never been off the island, so this will be quite the adventure. If it was me, I’d simply buy a ferry ticket and go, but for Dominicans, everything as to be “pull strings,” meaning that there has to be some kind of inside deal negotiated to get the job done. The entire process takes weeks of back and forth up and down the road to save a couple of bucks. Never mind the wear and tear on the transport or the gas money involved. Well, at least he finally has his passport and a savings account with a debit card, so the rest is up to him.  

Out of the blue, my oldest son Zach and my 13-year-old grandson Jake offer to come down and help in July. Help what? Neither of them has any manual labor skills nor is Dominica a place to take a Caribbean vacation during hurricane season. Still, I hate to say no. I have so little contact with my children and grandchildren as it is. Yet where would they sleep? Certainly not in the garage, which is the only space available. Without a freezer full of junk food and a grocery store around the corner, what would they eat? Can they drink river water? Can they stand a cold shower? With no TV or Net Flex or lights, what would they do for entertainment at night? (John and I usually go to bed by 8 o’clock.) What if the weather turns vile and they cannot leave? I worry about it constantly until Zach wisely decides that they’d just as soon go fishing at a “rustic” lake in Tennessee.  

In the meantime, my neighbor Mercy visits me accompanied by people from an organization called CREED, whatever that means. I fill out a form and they take pictures of my ruined house. After I estimate the number of 2x4s, 2x6s, sheets of ceiling plywood, and galvanized it will take to fix my roof and have it signed by a local contractor, they assure me they will provide the materials and labor necessary since I’m old, John is disabled, and I have no insurance. (Why would anyone have insurance when the value of the roof is always the amount of the depreciation and the victim is always over or underinsured according to the agency?) When I ask them when they intend to perform this act of charity, they cannot tell me. Let’s just hope its sooner rather than later. As it turns out, everybody in Layou Park gets materials but me. Mercy says it’s because she requested materials AND labor for me. We’ll see.

MAY, 2018 : Stress

John goes to Martinique a couple of days ahead of time and comes back the same afternoon as his doctor’s appointment loaded with new clothes and jewelry. He can’t tell me the name of the doctor who ordered a new round of tests, nor can any lab or clinic here in Dominica figure out what the doctor wants because it is scribbled in French. After hours of running around town, I finally am able to get the secretary of his Cuban gastroenterologist to translate and order the tests. The effort takes its toll. By the time I reach home, I am practically comatose.

Should I blame the lousy way I feel on stress? I figure my blood pressure must be sky high considering John’s on going situation and the lack of progress at home after the hurricane. Yet my pressure and my heart checks out okay, so it must be something else. Actually, I feel the same way I did a year ago before a transfusion due to low blood hemoglobin, so I go to a lab and have my blood tested. OMG. A lot of very low numbers cause the technician to call me off the street and send me straight to a doctor that very same day. We do have an internal medicine guy in Dominica, but he wouldn’t be in his office until Tuesday and this was Friday. I make an appointment, get a set of iron and B-12 supplements at the drug store, and drag myself back home.

This all started with a dog bite in December 2016. No ordinary dog bite, mind you. I was attacked by one of my own Rotweilers in a fit of misdirected rage. A branch of the femoral artery was punctured, and by the time I reached a medical clinic 45 minutes later, I was in danger of bleeding to death. Bloob sprayed on the walls and the ceiling of the operating room in a steady stream. I was wide awake as the doctor stitched me upwith no anesthesia. At one point, I went into shock, vomited and soiled my underpants. Yet they sent me home the same day with no pain pills and no mention of blood suplementation. “Blood builds back fast,” the Nigerian doctor said.

Of course the wound didn’t heal properly. Four months later, I was back in surgery, and still no one bothered to monitor my blood. I went to the States in a wheelchair to try to recuperate, but didn’t get much TLC there either. Back in Dominica, tests revealed my blood hemoglobin was 4.9. (Normal is 12.0 -15.) No wonder I felt like shit. The doctor ordered me straight to the hospital for a transfusion, but I waited for three miserable days in a ward with twenty-two other sick and dying women before I got it because it was apparently up to me to track down my own donors! (From my hospital bed?) Meanwhile, the overhead florescent lights were on all night long, there was barely any food, and three women died and got carted away. At one point, I had to pound on the door after nurses locked me out on the veranda to get back into the ward! I felt better immediately after the transfusion and couldn’t wait to go home. But wait a minute. Now they had discovered occult blood in my stool (which I later found out was a false test result) and wanted to do a colonoscopy! No, man. Enough was enough. I practically got down on my knees and begged to be released.

I went home and ate steak and lamb chops and liver and red beans and beets. I took supplements for another couple of months and then I had a follow up blood test. Everything was okay. I felt fine and went about my business as usual—that is until Maria rocked my world. Now I’m back in the same situation. The internal medicine doctor orders a set of expensive tests and I wait a week for the results. The good news is that there’s no sign of internal bleeding, cancer or leukemia. He suspects it’s a chronic iron deficiency and says I should have another transfusion. The bad news is the only place to do that is at the hospital, and I’m NEVER going back there; Post Hurricane Maria, the situation is even more desperate than before. Nor, he agrees, would he ever send a patient there unless it was a dire emergency. The other bad news is he going back to Cuba for three months. He prescribes super-duper iron pills and orders another blood test for a week before he returns. Meanwhile, it’s back to toxic liver and onions while I wait. I should be used to waiting by now, but as we say in Dominica, ‘Weight (wait) is a heavy load.’ Ha. Ha.

I am surprised when I’m informed that I’ve been selected as one of seventy-nine people to receive EC $400 per month for four months as part of the “Rapid Response” aid to elderly victims of Hurricane Maria. (Rapid response? It’s been eight months since the hurricane, and I’m still roofless.) Not that I think the government owes me anything, but $1600 should be enough to buy me a plane ticket out of this confusion if necessary.

Truth be told, the whole idea of climate resilience, as touted by PM Skerrit and his housing revolution makes me shiver. One of the reasons I moved to Dominica was to be closer to the natural world, the really real world, as I like to call it in my books. Now the government wants to move people from traditional village cottages into prefabricated concrete houses manufactured by Petro Casa of Venezuela—or, better yet, into multifamily apartment buildings designed by architects who have never set foot on Dominica. Single mothers are especially worthy in the eyes of the government, as are the elderly like me, but let me tell them something. Even though I currently reside in a one-room shack with a corrugated metal roof and two chickens and five dogs in the yard, I’d rather be dead than to move into something designed by robots that deserves to be plunked down in the suburbs of Miami complete with drug dealers and prostitutes.

I mean come on. What happened to the ethic of maintaining the health of a traditional community from the inside out?  When local culture expects foreigners to fix things instead of addressing their problems communally, ordinary people become dependent. This so-called generosity of inappropriate gifts, which often translates into a ploy to win votes and other special favors, results in internal violence that paralyses the citizenry. And trust me; paybacks are hell. So watch it Dominicans, or you just might end up with even more trouble on your hands.

JUNE, 2018 : Too Soon

So here we are in the next hurricane season. Nine months after Maria, I still have no lights, phone, or internet at home. Nothing has been done to the big hutch or the ruined road, and John hasn’t had his operation. Wait is indeed a heavy load, especially when it comes to technology, infrastructure, and medical attention.

As far as the restoring of Eden according to Nature, progress has been mixed. The river is still an embarrassment, devoid of fish, crabs or crayfish. Otherwise, the landscape has returned to mostly green—vegetation appears to be almost normal—that is if you don’t look up to the heights. Hummingbirds and bees attend the flowers in the yard, and the vegetable garden is thriving. Along with stands of intrepid bamboo, African tulip trees overrun the middle part of the Morne Couronne. They are so hardy that every fallen branch has taken root, sprouted, and is happily blooming its invasive head off. The effect is lovely—fresh greenery accented by scarlet blossoms. In the absence of more endemic hardwood species, these beautiful but rather useless trees appear to run things.

Five hundred feet above the African tulips, the endemic trees on the top of the ridge remain barren and disfigured. Hurricane force winds were even stronger up there and the scant topsoil, never exactly stable, combined with excessive rainfall has taken its toll. Still (like me) they struggle on, but the effect is more reminiscent of scrubland than the former home of the giants of the tropical rainforest.

While waiting for something positive to happen, like a set of angels to show up with free materials and labor to fix my roof, or the surgeon in Martinique to miraculously fix John, I decide to take the bull by the horns. I have a bit of extra bit of mad money to spend since I got my second payment from the government sustenance allowance for old folks, and my friend’s dog is in the kennel for six weeks. So, let’s see. What do I really, really need? I order new reading glasses and attend to my teeth. I pay to have the thousands of e-mails that have been clogging up my computer since December deleted and a new version of Microsoft Word installed. Beyond that, there’s nothing else I can fix for the time.

While wave after tropical wave pummels the island with torrential rain like a power washer gone mad, I am stuck inside watching the weather. The already treacherous roads become ever more dangerous as rivers flood, and temporary bridges wash away. Duh. Maybe government should have started repairing Maria’s mischief BEFORE the advent of another hurricane season. (Actually, some of the damage remains from Tropical Storm Erika two and a half years ago.) Meanwhile, my bones are aching, there’s no hot water in the shower, it’s too cold to bathe in the pool, and the sea is exceptionally rough. Since I slipped and hurt my knee while working in the garden, hiking, even in the rain, is out of the question. Élas. By the end of June, I feel paralyzed and impotent, at odds with the cosmos and myself.


(Publication date: September 8th, 2018)