Hi loyal reader-folk. As promised, the saga of Maria continues . . .
Diary of a Category 5 Hurricane
It’s hard to believe a week has passed since disaster struck on September 18, 2017. My back is killing me, and John is unwell, but we press on. They say hindsight is 20/20, and it’s true. Yet it’s amazing how fast a practical northerner can turn into a tropical fatalist. There are certain things you should always have on hand during hurricane season—duh, mainly galvanized nails. And a practical fatalist, which is what I strive to be, would have had a larger store of batteries, nonperishable food items, roof putty, and perhaps even the extravagance of home insurance tucked away. Considering the struggle I had to go through to collect from the Babylon Insurance Company when my house burned down, however, I would never voluntarily go through that again, no matter the reward.
I used to say that landscape equaled mindscape. It was important to me to be amid beautiful surroundings so I could have beautiful thoughts. Nevertheless, here I am, a 70-year-old woman, gazing at a homestead and a landscape I don’t recognize. I have a camera, but I barely have the stomach to use it. The destruction is just too heart wrenching. Yet despite my aching back, I feel more energized than I did before the disaster. Sure, I wish things could go back to the way they were before, but it’s as if post Hurricane Maria marks the beginning of a new phase of my life, a chance to start fresh and clean. It may be the last chance, but I can honestly say that I have no remorse and no regrets.
Anyway, onward! I hope Max will show up to help me move the remaining furniture from upstairs to the guesthouse, originally called Bati Mamzelle because of all the dragonflies in the fishpond. Unfortunately, it’s raining, and he doesn’t appear. John walks to the village in the afternoon and comes home with toilet paper, a can of mixed vegetables, and 2 pounds of rice. After dinner, I try to sleep on the mattress in the guesthouse, but it’s slightly damp and saggy. Considering my aching back, I return to the daybed on the downstairs veranda, where the dogs are glad to welcome me.
Rain is still falling the next morning. John seems to have caught a cold yesterday, so he’s still in bed. I’ve had my ration of one cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, banana, and raisins for breakfast, and I’m ready to rock and roll. If only help would arrive, maybe we could make a tiny amount of progress. Whom am I kidding? After TS Erika we were blocked inside for one month and nobody came to help. Don’t forget, Maria was a Category 5 hurricane, and River Ridge is at the end of the line. Well, at least we have water, coconuts, a few avocadoes, and some grapefruit and oranges, which is a lot more than those poor people trapped in town.
I can hear the heavy equipment working above us to clear the main road, but the feeder road that leads to my home is another story. It’s always forgotten in times of natural disaster, and unless I can somehow make my way over the debris to where they are working, there’s a good chance we will be forgotten back here in the boonies. Never mind. An afternoon thunder and lightning storm shuts down the entire operation and also floods the same areas I have spent days mopping, mopping, and mopping. Depressed, I join John in bed in the garage without eating supper. I don’t sleep well. The air in the space is dead and musty space. He coughs for most of the night, and I succumb to sneezing fits because of the mold. When dawn breaks, I am exhausted and famished.
Max arrives during a torrential downpour with the report from the roadside. Since there is little chance of getting anything done in the rain, he takes his time to fill us in on local news. Looters locked the manager of the dilapidated Chinese hotel in his room and stole everything they could manage—booze, exercise equipment, refrigerators, and tools.
While we are talking, I notice a parade of people passing over the landslide above us with big bags on their heads. Max says they have broken into the abattoir and are stealing the chicken in the freezer. They are on foot, but the road is apparently open from Pond Cassé to the Warner junction where their escape vehicles are waiting. We get a good laugh out of this one even though it means no more contraband chicken for us.
The rain keeps up so Max heads home with a borrowed raincoat. A few helicopters pass over while I attempt to hang up some half-ruined artwork in Bati Mamzelle. At dusk, I notice a pair of optimistic parrots mating. Two broad-winged hawks perform their evening ballet, and a yellow-crowned night heron makes its way up the ravaged river just before dark. The dogs have taken over the downstairs daybed, so I sleep in the garage again. At least the mattress is dry and firm. I wake up in the middle of the night, and when I venture outside to pee, I notice lightning and far off thunder in the west. It reminds me of what Dominicans called “turtle lightning” when I lived by the sea. It’s on such nights that the female comes ashore to lay her eggs in the sand. I say a little prayer for the hatchlings. Like me, they’re going to need all the luck they can get.
When the piping of the pipirit (Grey kingbird) wakes me, I suspect the next day will be bright and beautiful. The bare mountains glow in the sunlight—every ridge and ravine clearly defined, and every shadow distinct. Undergrowth and low plants are already creeping back on Morne Couronne because of all the rain, but bare tree trunks are still the predominate feature. I see a few honeybees that used to live on the mountain sucking nectar from the star grass and the blooms of the Pacific palms in the yard, but I have yet to see another hummingbird.
I start soaking laundry in the baby pool around 9 a.m. The dogs go crazy when a team of guys with chainsaws show up wanting to clear our driveway. What? $400 to saw one tree? $2000 to open the feeder road to the landslide? Of course, we sent them away. Who has that kind of cash on hand in the bush? Besides, isn’t this a time when neighbors should be helping each other out instead of ripping each other off? Still, I wonder how long it will be until I can drive out to some place where I can contact my family.
Mid-morning, John goes out to try to get groceries and a new chain for the saw. This involves scaling a mountain littered with fallen trees and walking up the road until he is able to hitch a ride to where he can catch a bus. As I’ve said, he is not all that well, and I worry the entire time he is gone. I rinse the laundry and hang it up to dry in the interim. Many clothes are ruined, but I try to save what I can. John returns with $100 worth of groceries, which is all one person can buy, batteries for the radio, and a new chain for the saw. We try to listen to the local evening news, but it doesn’t seem like the government is telling people very much. Internationally, 67 people were shot dead by a single gunman in Las Vegas. What a world.
As long as the sun is shining, I keep on doing laundry. My hands are numb, and so are my feet. John and Max are busy putting the back porch roof on Bati Mamzelle while I carry bits and pieces down from the upstairs. The wood floor is slippery and the tiles are loose, so I have to be careful. When it rains, water pours downstairs like a waterfall, and the plywood partitions have already begun to warp and mold.
When neighbor Steve arrives wondering, “Where do we go from here?” My answer is simple. “Nowhere soon.” I still haven’t been able to call my family or check on the set of books that are supposed to be sailing to Dominica to from the UK.
Despite the fact that I’m physically and mentally exhausted, I’m having trouble sleeping. With no BBC World Service to lull me to sleep, I lay awake and listen to the barrage of night sounds. Huge crickets, bwa cabwit, shout close to the guesthouse while frogs shriek and owls hoot. Unfiltered by the rainforest, the full moon lights up the bed room like a spotlight. God forbid the wind should start to blow or heavy rainfall. Post-Maria stress is real. If I do happen to get to sleep, I wake up around 1 a.m. and stay awake until dawn listening for the next disaster.
Max says Layou Park is the only place in Dominica not receiving rations, so I offer him what I can from our meager pantry. The dogs are down to eating once a day—boiled green bananas and coconut and rice—even the clef palates that aren’t supposed to eat anything but dry kibble. I’m not sure what the remaining wildlife are living on. As we’re clearing the driveway, I see parrots feeding off grapefruit on the ground. A Lesser-Antillean flycatcher is cocking its head and calling pree, pree (please, please), but generally birdsong is scarce. A couple of thrashers zoom by and three opportunistic hawks soar in the sky, but nary a hummingbird. Bullfinches and to a lesser extent banana quits continue to beg in the kitchen. There are plenty of lizards about, especially in the guesthouse. Unfortunately, the other plentiful thing is mosquitoes, I suppose due to the drastic reduction in bats.
The prospect of running water from the debilitated ram pump via the cistern is still a long way off, so I have been sponge bathing in the pool. This afternoon, when the work finishes, the dogs and I head down the ravine to the river. Naturally, it’s a disappointment. There is a logjam of fallen trees above and below my boundary. The trees that are still standing are bare and probably dead. All the big boulders are gone, and the waterfall where I used to bathe has disappeared. Everything is flat and gray. Lush vegetation like bamboo that used to grow along the riverbank has vanished, and saplings are choking in silt. Still, the dogs have fun. They race, splash, play in the shallow water, and then roll in the stinky sand. I enjoy myself vicariously watching them run around like happy pups.
Since the idea of more beans and rice is not very exciting, I linger on the riverbank and wait for the full moon to rise over the mountain. When it crowns, bright and glorious, there’s more than enough light to climb back up the track. I go to bed almost immediately and sleep well. I wake up around 4 a.m., and the moon is still riding high in the Western sky.
In the morning, I make French toast with the last egg and slather it with Kayo syrup left over from when I was bottle-feeding puppies years ago. I pretty much have the household routine down now, so after breakfast I head outdoors to work in the flowerbeds around the house. Plenty of shredded ginger lilies need cutting down to the ground, and I want to do some replanting. While I am finishing my work in the garden, a purple-throated Carib hummingbird inspects the remains of the honey suckle. It hovers right in my face and then zooms away, disappointed.
On Sunday, John and Max clear a path down to the landslide on the feeder road so I can walk somewhere and get a ride to access phone service. As I climb over downed trees and telephone poles to reach Steve’s, a squadron of thirteen parrots passes overhead. Apparently, Steve is at church, but neighbors who greet me on the other side of the landslide seem cheerful, considering. I, too, am happy to be out, but when I reach the village of Layou Park, everyone is occupied with their own personal trauma. Don’t they realize that we’re all in this mess together?
As I am about to head home, I meet my British neighbor with her car. We drive to the abattoir to check on available chicken (none) and then to Pond Cassé to try to use our cell phones (no service). The destruction along the Layou road is phenomenal. The huge landslide is cleared to a single lane, but walls of mud and rock loom precariously overhead as we pick our way through the rubble that used to be pavement.
Uprooted trees and broken utility poles lean at precarious angles. We have to stop frequently while I raise loose wires so the vehicle can pass. The Chinese hotel looks as if exploded, hit by a tornado rather than a hurricane, while ragamuffin shacks just across the road are virtually untouched. Newish cement houses with flat roofs decked with concrete have fared better than those with gable roofs, some of which never have been lived in.
The unevenness of the damage reminds me of a parable. Trees that can bend with the wind, such as willows or bamboo, seldom break. Yet what you resist persists, and an oak or a tropical hardwood doesn’t stand much chance against 225 mph winds.
On the way down, we pass our Parliamentary Representative, who is studying a long list of people who are supposed to get rations. After I tell him I have been blocked in by landslide for almost 3 weeks, he says he didn’t know anybody lived as far back as I do. I later find out that the gang with the chainsaws we chose not to hire told the backhoe guy the same thing, so he moved on to another job. Now it will be up to me to pay an operator to clear the remainder of the government feeder road to my home.
We flag down the bread truck and shop for overpriced groceries in the village before heading back to my friend’s house, which is virtually undamaged. She makes a pizza with imported dried tomatoes, mushrooms and grated parmesan cheese for lunch, a real treat, but I break a tooth on the crust. An omen? We chat for a while and then make a plan to rendezvous and go to town the next morning. She drops me at the top of the landslide, where I crawl back across, reach my home, and collapse. My tooth hurts like hell, and of course, there is no hope of dental care now. I make a list of what I need to do in town the next day, but I wonder how much I’ll be able to accomplish. I hope I’m able to buy layer for my hens so I can at least I can have eggs. Or maybe I’ll resort to a rooster!
(Publication date: July 18th, 2018)