Sorry for the long delay in getting back to my blog, but I have a good excuse. On Sept.18, 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Maria scored a direct hit on my adopted homeland, the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. If you’re interested in knowing what it’s like to survive a major disaster on an island that has little infrastructure and no advance plan for dealing with such a cataclysmic natural disaster, read on….
MARIA, MARIA — Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane
On the evening of Monday September 18th, 2017, Hurricane Maria reduced one of the last island-based rainforests in the world, on the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, to rubble. For six hours straight, she ravaged three hundred square miles of lush mountain terrain, crystal-clear rivers, and black sand beaches as if hell-bent on total destruction. “Eden is broken,” Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit proclaimed upon viewing the disaster. The land and seascape, however, weren’t the only aspects of the Nature Island to suffer. Homes, businesses, and scores of lives were also lost.
We have a jingle on the radio during hurricane season: You’d better beware. You’d better prepare. Disaster can happen anytime, anywhere. But Maria was a rogue. She escalated from an unnamed storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 48 hours. I first heard about an approaching bad weather at a Waitukubuli Writers meeting in Roseau on Saturday afternoon. At that point Maria was nameless, and I wasn’t especially concerned. Although my heart went out to other islanders whose lives Hurricane Irma had affected a week previously, I took my usual fatalistic approach to natural disaster: let’s wait and see. In a hurry to get home before dark, I passed the grocery store straight
I haven’t had a TV in 25 years, and the Internet wasn’t working on Sunday, so I couldn’t check the storm’s coordinates. Truth be told, I was busy with the weekly blog and the report for the Lit Fest and didn’t think to shop for supplies. It was Monday morning before I realized Maria had escalated to a Category 2 hurricane and was a definite threat to Dominica. But by then it was too late to risk dashing out for provisions. Like the rest of the population, my partner John and I secured our home and belongings the best we could. While various disaster management personnel advised the public of the dire situation, the announcer repeated a long list of hurricane shelters. But for us there is no other place to go, especially with all these dogs.
By afternoon Maria was a Category 3. Prime Minister Skerrit was on the air begging people to forget about stocking up on food and take shelter immediately. John and I hurried to complete preparations—by 6 p.m. we had the outside shutters nailed shut, breakables and electronic equipment stashed away, and important documents in a safe place. Maria, now a Category 4 hurricane, was likely to make a direct hit on Dominica. As she stalked steadily forward, people and dogs congregated in the cast concrete garage under the house and waited to take our blows.
Glued to the radio, we listened as Maria escalated to a Category 5. She was predicted to arrive around 8 p.m. with sustained winds of 175 mph. (I later learned that there were gusts up to 255.) When the antenna blew off the DBS radio station, it went off the air. But we probably couldn’t have heard anything anyway. For the next three hours, wind shrieked like a banshee, growled like an enraged bear, and howled like a dying dog. Sequestered in the transport in the dark, we could only imagine what went on outside. At one point the garage door blew off, and stinging rain drove inside in horizontal sheets. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed while I held onto the steering wheel for dear life. I may have even uttered a prayer as Maria attempted to suck the jeep backwards into her churning belly.
When the eye of the storm arrived about 10:30, I ventured outside with my flash light. Hopefulness morphed into a sense of utter helplessness at first glance. Most of the upstairs hurricane shutters had been ripped off, and the veranda roof and railing were gone. Crawling up the steps, I realized that the main roof of the house was also partially missing; stars shone through the rafters, and the place was flooded. A couple of solar panels had fallen inside, and artwork and books lay scattered everywhere. I could see a light blinking far across the valley. John said it was probably a soukouyan looking for somebody’s blood to suck, but I figured it was just another bewildered soul trying to make sense of what had just passed.
The roaring started up again around midnight. Since there was obviously nothing we could do, we scurried back to what we trusted was safety. But to my mind the second half of the hurricane was worse than the first. What phase 1 damaged would surely be demolished by phase 2. After Maria finished with Dominica around 2 a.m. the agonizing four hours remaining before daylight felt like four years.
Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, I waited for the dawn. In the interim, my mind spiraled back to other disasters I’d suffered through since moving to the Caribbean. Besides my brief, ruinous marriage to my Dominican husband, Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn hit in 1995. Hurricane Lenny arrived from the west by sea in 1999 after I had moved to the mountains, so I wasn’t affected. But élas. Fate wasn’t finished with me yet. My dream house burned down to the ground in 2000. We rebuilt soundly, and when Hurricane Dean passed in 2007, mashing up crops and roads, there was no structural harm to my residence. Then, in 2015, Tropical Storm Erika did massive damage to the infrastructure of the island, killing some 20 people by flood and mudslide. Although a landslide blocked the road to my home at River Ridge for over a month, the house stood strong. But this monster called Maria, this bitch, was something else altogether.
Dawn finally arrives, eerily silent after the cacophony that raged overnight. I emerge into the unknown like a blind butterfly from a cocoon. You think you are prepared for anything, and then your entire world falls apart. There is an expression for daybreak in certain parts of the Caribbean—dayclean—and that’s exactly how the world strikes me in the early hours after Maria. It looks as if the abundance of the tropics has been power washed away and a forsaken, mist-covered moonscape has taken its place. The paradise supposedly created by the Lord God in six days has been totally destroyed in six hours, and my previous sense of helplessness sinks into a sense of gut-wrenching hopelessness tinged with guilt. Why wasn’t I better prepared?
The dogs are similarly disoriented, sniffing for familiar scents and attempting to mark this alien territory as their own. A disorganized colony of bats flits back and forth, looking for shelter even though the sun has risen. The limited birds that greet the dawn are also confused. A lone hawk floats overhead while flocks of unsettled parrots survey the drastically altered scene. A couple of bullfinches, banana quits, and one kingbird chirp uncertainly, while a desperate hummingbird tries to suck juice from carambola fruit that lies rotting on the ground.
When I lift my eyes unto the hills, I can see for miles across the ravaged countryside. I feel I could reach out and touch houses and landmarks that used to be invisible.
My magnificent mountain view has virtually disappeared. Lofty Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s tallest mountain, once cloaked in luxurious green, now stands stark and naked in the distance, stripped clean of vegetation. Morne Couronne, the double mountain across the Neiba River from my home, more resembles an eroded ski slope than a pristine tropical forest. A landslide accompanied by a brand new waterfall has occurred at the top, and the angry and log-jammed river at its base is running murky brown instead of crystal clear. A few battered tree trunks, completely defoliated and uniformly broken off at a height of about 50 feet, remain standing. Their fallen companions lie strewn across the ridges and ravines like insignificant matchsticks. But where are the old giants, the ancient hardwoods of the true rainforest?
My heart sinks when I realized that none of them has survived. Trunks, limbs, and branches lay horizontal to the ground while perpendicular clumps of matted earth, broken stone, and severed roots mark their final resting place.
A more personal aspect of the disaster dawns on me when I shift my attention to the ruins of my former home. With no roof in place, rainwater cascades through the wooden floor from upstairs to downstairs; unless I act fast, there won’t be any chance of saving what is below. To make matters worse, bat guano pours down the walls like stinking manna from heaven. And so I start shifting and mopping. I realize it’s useless—water flows in much faster than I can soak it up—but at least it’s something to do. At dusk, dogs and people line up for supper. Because I neglected to pack in extra supplies, including dogfood, we dine on fallen avocados and Crix crackers. And because the mattresses are wet, we sleep uneasily in the transport again tonight.
John cleans out the garage for a place to cook, eat, and sleep. He installs the semi-dry mattress from the guesthouse while I literally wade through the upstairs to try to save books, artwork, and electronic equipment. The report from the road, when it finally arrives, is as expected: We are blocked inside by landslide on both the main and the feeder road. I let the chickens go maroon before we settle down, exhausted, to a supper of rice, canned baked beans, and grapefruit juice spiked with the last of the rum. We have no means of communication or transportation, no lights, no help, and no hope of obtaining emergency rations. Other than that, things are normal. Ha. Ha.
Parrots search for food while helicopters hover overhead, presumably to take pictures of Maria’s destruction. And believe me; there are plenty of photo opportunities. Adjacent to the skeleton of my house, a huge African tulip tree has compromised the bridge. Beyond that, other fallen trees, broken phone poles, and scraps of disfigured galvanized roofing litter the driveway up to the feeder road. From there it’s anybody’s guess. Even if the road is clear past the landslide to the village of Layou Park, then what?
The $11 million Chinese bridge to the west coast has never been opened, and the other direction is blocked by a fresh landslide covering the one that was never properly addressed since Tropical Storm Erika. And even if we could get out, I’m sure there’s no possibility of sourcing groceries or building supplies anywhere on the island.
Around 10 a.m. Max, a part-time helper from the village, arrives on foot to help John repair the roof on the guesthouse so there will be somewhere decent to put ourselves and our things. But progress is minimal. Many of the galvanized sheets that have blown off the roof are in the river or irreparably damaged, nails are in short supply, and there’s no roof putty. In the meantime, I continue to mop and sweep and sort. It’s a bright, clear day, good for getting clothes and books dried out but bad for sunburn and dehydration. Gazing out from the upstairs veranda, I assess Maria’s work. Most of the citrus and coconut trees on my 5-acre property have been snapped off clean, breadfruit and breadnut trees are uprooted, and the vegetable garden is nonexistent. Eden is indeed broken. More disturbingly, human trash formerly camouflaged by lush vegetation litters the pathetic landscape like a chaotic manmade blight.
Helicopters pass over on a regular basis, but we have no idea why. (I find out later they are looking for me!) Max says the homeless villagers in Layou Park have moved to the hotel on the corner, but there is no electricity, no water, and the shops are completely empty of food. Fortunately, here at River Ridge, the propane fridge is functional and so are a couple of gas lamps. The pump has stopped working, but the swimming pool is fine for sponge bathing, laundry, washing dishes, and flushing the toilet, and so far the river water is okay to drink. I have picked up baskets full of grapefruits and avocados, and we have provisions such as dasheen and tania in the ground. The dogs are learning to eat green bananas and dry coconut mixed with some rice and a bit of their regular kibble. A parcel of chicken breasts stolen from the abattoir is a welcome gift from a Rasta neighbor, but I’m dying for a fresh green salad.
The river keeps changing its course as if it too is looking for a way to escape. As rain starts to fall, I realize that most of my hard work has been in vain. Books I thought were safely stored in the office are soaked through as water drips relentlessly through the cracks in the ceiling. Clothes in the closet, mattresses and bedding, all of which I thought were dry, get wet again. The garage is jam-packed, and the roof on the guest house roof isn’t totally repaired, so there isn’t any place else to put things. When I have no more strength to carry belongings, I break down and cry.
We christen today as one of well-deserved rest. John makes a nice soup with chicken and some packaged egg noodles for lunch. Afterwards, I figure out how to plug the radio into the cigarette lighter of the jeep only to hear evangelists on the air calling Hurricane Maria the devil’s work. There is no portable water in town, 45 people are missing or confirmed dead, there is looting in and around Roseau, and there have been 40 arrests for violating the curfew. It seems the majority of Dominican people are even more desperate and hungry than us.
My sense of isolation suddenly turns into a sense of freedom. I have water in the river and food in the ground and no one is trying to rob me. Furthermore, given a chance, I believe the earth knows how to heal itself. Imagine: I’m already beginning to see signs of natural rejuvenation, and I, too, am still alive. For me Hurricane Maria represents a wakeup call—a chance to stand back, get my priorities straight, and make adjustments where necessary—one day, week, month, or, God spare, one year at a time.
To be continued ….
(Publication date: June 6th, 2018)