Maria, Maria: Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane, Third Quarter

JULY: Stand By

I don’t know what Roseau has got, but every time I venture into town I come home exhausted. Even if I only have a few errands, the drive alone over these devastated roads if enough to wear me out. Whether it be grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy, or the never-ending search for Wi-Fi, town is always a struggle. The traffic is horrendous, and because there’s absolutely NO place to park, it’s necessary to walk from task to impossible task once you find a spot. Not that I mind the exercise, but I can never get what I want on the first try. I end up searching shops in the debilitating heat, tripping along the sidewalks that are broken and dangerous, and circumventing the trash that is piled up everywhere. Even if there was a nice place to quench your thirst or have lunch, I can’t imagine eating or drinking in town. The idea is to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, more than once I’ve come back to find a traffic ticket attached to my windscreen after squeezing into a dubious parking slot. Then it’s off to pay the magistrate’s court before I forget and have to go to court. What a racket.

Even though I feel better than last month, I decide to get another blood test just in case the Iron tablets (400 mg twice a day) the doctor gave me last month aren’t working. The good news is that they are, and my blood hemoglobin is up to 9.5! I only wish John could be cured so easily. He has another doctor’s appointment in Martinique on July 6. I sure hope they can do something for him this time.

Unfortunately, John comes home a day early saying they cannot treat him in Martinique, which is exactly what they told me a year ago, but he wouldn’t listen.  He must be thoroughly discouraged—I know I am. The night he returns, I’m supposed to meet the ferry at 7:30. Hurricane Beryl is in the forecast, and I’m anxious about driving. I wait over an hour and then attempt to drive home in the pouring rain. My night vision is impaired under normal circumstances, but that night I am especially blind. We pass long lines at the grocery and gas station, but I’m too nervous to stop. We reach home at 10 o’clock. I have a glass of wine and go straight to bed.  

When I check the internet the next morning, it looks like Beryl, with winds of about 100 mph, is pointed toward Dominica like a loaded gun. Considering what happened with Maria, I panic, and so does everybody else. We rush to the gas station and fill up, get money from the ATM at the airport, buy 100 lbs. of dogfood at the feed store, stand in a long line at the grocery, and then buy fresh fish, batteries, and roofing nails before heading back home. Phew. Mission accomplished. After the groceries are unpacked and put away, we start securing the guesthouse. Thanks to Maria, there’s only two windows left to cover with plywood. I carefully put away the few belongings that remain intact, while John cleans out the garage so the transport can go inside. Now there’s nothing to do but wait.

By evening, the data on my tablet stops working, so there’s no way to check the storm’s position. They used to include a hurricane-tracking map with the phone book, but I guess that’s too old fashioned. These days, if you can’t Google it, it doesn’t exist. The radio is playing gospel hymns interspersed with clergymen praying, which only adds to the portent of disaster already hanging in the air. I hum along while drinking an entire bottle of wine. What else can I do?

On Sunday morning, people begin to flood into the shelters. The hotel here in Layou Park, which has been hanging on the side of a cliff since TS Erika, is where we’re instructed to go. Yikes! According to PM Skerrit, neighbors are supposed to check on the elderly (me) and disabled (John) who don’t comply, but we don’t see another soul all day. My son Josh phones to say Beryl has hit wind sheer and is slowing down. Hallelujah! At dusk, I put the dogs in the cast concrete kennel just in case, while John elects to sleep in the transport in the garage. Déjà vu all over again. In the end, we get a little thunder and lightning, some rain, and absolutely no wind. John comes to bed around midnight and we sleep peacefully until daybreak, when, like robots, we start undoing what we did to prepare, only this time in reverse.  

Life goes on, one day at a time, for the remainder of July. The ferrous sulfate pills seem to be doing the trick as far as my hemoglobin is concerned. I look and feel much better. Now that I’ve figured out how to transfer documents and pictures from my laptop to my tablet where I can send them out as via email, I’m back to submitting short stories to literary magazines. It’s always a gamble, but at least I can still call myself a writer. The problem is sometimes you have to wait so long to get a reply, and the story is tied up in the meantime. I’ve also sent my 4th novel, Rise Up Sister, to my editor. I’ve worked on it for over two years now, so I hope she’s gentle with me. I’m not sure it or I could survive another complete rewrite.

They finally tested and reopened the $11 million Chinese bridge, but the road is practically impassable on either side. I call it the Bridge to Nowhere, but not too loud and not in public. Why? If one has the courage to live here and the patience to wait, the government of Dominica can be quite helpful, i.e. they finally gave John the money for his operation with no strings attached—he can spend it how he wants and probably will. I got some money for food allowance a few months back, and I am also pleased to be getting a monthly sustenance allowance for the elderly through August. Then, miracles of miracles, the guys who came to assess the damage to my home in April return! Yes! They intend to supply labor and materials to fix my roof! There are three of us from Layou Park on their list:  my 80+ year-old widow neighbor, a blind man up the road, and myself. Some people might be offended to fall in such a pitiful category, but all I can say is thank you very much. The representatives say they want to inspect the structure to make sure it can take a proper roof, which fortunately it can. What a relief. I’m so glad I didn’t rush out and fight for materials myself. Sometimes courage and patience pays off, although when I ask when they intend to begin, they cannot tell me. Oh, well. I’ve waited ten months already, so I guess I can wait a little longer.

Just when I’m practically broke, July 18, 2018 dawns as a bonus payday. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, when my US Social Security payment is deposited in the bank. It’s also the day I pick up the third government sustenance check from the village council in Mahaut. Surprise! Surprise! First thing in the morning, the guy who’s the supervisor for the construction of my roof phones to say they’re coming to inspect my structure (again). I commit to waiting for him, but a tropical wave accompanied by torrential rain has arrived, so he later postpones. I go to Mahaut and collect my cash, and then I powwow with Giselle to try to sort out a problem between my tablet and my dashboard at WordPress. We succeed, and I manage to send off the second installment of “Maria! Maria!” to my WordPress blog from home.  

I make lunch using what I imagine to be seasoning peppers from the garden, but they turn out to be extra hot and my food is ruined. Shit, man. As I’m cursing the peppers, the phone rings. The representative from the World Food Program informs me that I have another installment of WFP money waiting at the St. Joseph village council office. What, boy? I thought that was finished. He says it’s a one-time payment, and I can pick it up tomorrow. Great. I only have one question — if I am so blessed, why am I so depressed? It must be all the rain, or maybe it’s the fact that my old Rottweiler, Babylon, has a grossly swollen head and seems to have gone blind in one eye. It started with a runny nose about 3 months ago, and the sneezing and coughing up blood. I had the vet for antibiotics to no avail, then he cut off a growth under the dog’s tongue which bled like a stuck pig for 3 days and then stopped. I thought he was getting better, then all of a sudden Baby went completely blind! I wonder if he doesn’t have cancer. He’s still eating and I take him out on a short leash so he won’t bump into things, but I feel so sorry for him.

AUGUST: Don’t Trust

August is a month of celebrating emancipation in Dominica. I had thought about launching Nobody Owns the Rainbow in conjunction with August Monday, at the beginning of the month, but after the cultural events that occur at the Old Mill, which includes dance, music and an art exhibition but nothing literary, folks are accustomed to taking a vacation before school starts in September. Luckily, Anne, my friend at Papillote Wilderness Retreat in Trafalgar, decides to host an art exhibition for a mutual friend of ours on the 12th, and I am able to take my books there. It’s a lovely spot with a hotel, restaurant, gardens and hot springs, most of which has been restored since Maria. The crowd turns out to be just the kind of people for me to chat up. I have a good time and sell quite a few books. At 6 p.m. I make my exit and drive like a maniac to reach home before it gets dark at 7.

On Monday a guy comes to measure the metal gates that need to be replaced after fifteen years of service at River Ridge. (Maria dealt them a final blow.) I know he is not the best welder around, but he used to be my mechanic and helped me out of some tight situations, and I know his family needs the money. I give him a deposit for materials, and he says he’ll complete the job in five days.  

On Tuesday morning, a set of roof people show up. (I now realize that my case has been juggled between a couple of different aid agencies.) These folks are from the IOM, International Organization for Migration, sponsored by the UN. Two nice young Dominicans, Nathaniel, the supervisor, and Jewel, his sidekick, spend a long time taking pictures of flowers, gathering herbs, and telling hurricane stories. On Wednesday, a long dump truck that actually manages to back down my driveway and over the bridge delivers the materials. There are about six other people involved besides Jewel and the driver, and they all have drinks in hand. After endless chatter and confusion, the lumber, galvanized, nails, screws are in my possession. Great. Jewel says she will call to let me know when the work is schedule d to begin.

The next day, a set of neighbors that have never been invited to set foot on my property for various reasons arrive with an order to take away four sheets of galvanized. What? I’ve waited eleven months to get this stuff and now they’re taking it away after 24 hours? When I find out that these are the guys assigned to put on my roof, my heart sinks. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but as far as I know none of them has much roofing experience. On one hand, just like with the gate builder, I like to give people a step up and a chance to improve their skills. On the other hand, I wonder if they can handle the job. I have plans to visit my family in the States in September, so I hope they will be done before then. Maybe it’s better if I’m not around if and when anything goes drastically off the rails. As I’ve said many times before, I never signed up to be “de white boss” so it’s a good thing John will be around to keep an eye on them.

The IOM roofers return and start on the house on August 15. Luckily, the weather holds up and they finish what they are authorized to do in 5 days. About halfway through, the guys inform me that I need to buy 14 more sheets of galvanized, but Nathaniel comes to my rescue and has them delivered along with plenty of extra lumber and plywood the same day. The inside of the house now resembles a big barn with the bare underside of the galvanized showing and the rafters exposed. Sheets of plywood running the wrong way block the sides. Although they never intended to do the veranda, they refuse to divert from their plan so that it can attach to the wall of the house instead of an extension of the new roof, which is bad in case of the next hurricane. Oh well. Before they can come for the extra wood, John has already used it to construct the frame for the veranda. I’ll have to buy more galvanized, but other than that most of the roof was a gift.    

Meanwhile, I’ve located another growth on the edge of Baby’s gums that bleeds profusely when you press it. Just as I’m about to call the vet again, the very expensive new gates arrive—big, clunky, boxy atrocities with menacing spikes on top. Ug! After you pass down my long driveway surrounded by hedges of colorful flowers, the gates are the first thing that greets you. Stop! Beware! War in Progress! That is the message the new gates broadcasts loud and clear. The way I see it, I have two choices about the gates and the dog: try to fix the problem, or live with it. But I am not a welder or a magician, so again I’ll just have to wait and see.

September: Remember

The roof is on (more or less) and the plane is on the runway. Never mind that my dream home now more resembles a barn with a high pitched roof that exposes galvanized corrugation from the inside and that Hurricane Isaac is marching across the Atlantic toward the Lesser Antilles as a Category 1 storm. I am off to the States to check on my boys, Zach and Josh, my three grandchildren, and my friends, all of whom have their own set of paersonal problems—emotional, marital, and health wise.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since Maria. Before I leave home, I secure my few remaining belongings and leave the rest to John, poor guy. Currently, there are no windows in the big hutch and the veranda roof isn’t nailed down, so of course I’m worried. Truth be told, I’d rather stay on island and face the music rather than fret about it from abroad, but the developed world awaits.

Amazingly, the official death toll death toll in Puerto Rico has risen from 67 to almost 3,000 despite President Trump’s claim of stellar response. The threat of Category 4 Hurricane Florence to the Carolinas is yet another wake up call for a world where some folks still insist that climate change isn’t real. Luckily, Isaac is downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reaches Dominica and does little damage. Florence, however, made landfall as a Category 1 and continues to dump rain measured in feet instead of inches on the eastern seaboard and inland. It will be interesting to see if Donald takes this hurricane more seriously than Maria. His narcissistic world finally seems to be seems to be crumbling around him. Dude, where is my country?

As much as I love my family and friends, I feel like a fish out of water in the States. The time spent in front of the TV watching news, sit coms, and sports combined with the endless hours spent in the car and eating fast food on the run is debilitating. That’s not how I want to spend the last years of my life. Sure, it’s great to be mobile and have proper roads and telecommunications, but life on the Nature Island (despite the relative struggle) is still worth it in my mind.

Apart from the lack of convenience, the deep and abiding love I have for Dominica is second only to that of my family. Let’s just hope the hurricane season settles down for the rest of the year, I reach home safely, and, God spare, I can linger in “paradise” a bit longer.  


(Publication date: September 16, 2018)