One month--to the day--after I left Dominica, the island was destroyed by a Category 5 hurricane. Dozens of people lost their lives, but fortunately none were killed or injured in Thibaud. Initially I had been very worried about them (see the blog story immediately prior to this one), but slowly I started to hear reports and eventually regained communications with some of my friends there.
When I was sure that I would not be a burden on their food supply, I began making arrangements for a vacation. There was no electricity or running water yet in that part of the island, but I was prepared to deal with that. Besides, unlike many other villages, Thibaud is blessed with a great spring and plenty of river water!
There were only seven passengers on the flight from San Juan, and I was pleased to see someone I knew on the plane (a Dominican who had been on a visit to Florida, where he had been surprised by the cold temperatures the state had suffered recently). I could tell as soon as the plane landed that while the greenery was returning slowly, the damages were still readily apparent. The trees on the ridges surrounding the airport were ravaged. Roof damages at the airport were evident, and even the "Welcome to Dominica" sign facing the tarmac was still not fully repaired. But they were trying to return to normalcy.
Another immediate example of the damages from the hurricane was at the bar just outside the airport. After Tropical Storm Erika, a small Cessna 172 private plane had been ruined by the flooding, and was brought over as an outdoor decoration next to this bar. During a trip with some of my school children, I had made a stop there just so they could examine closely a real airplane--the first opportunity any of them had had to actually touch what they sometimes saw flying in the sky. Well, the plane was apparently anchored down well near the main wings and the cabin, but Maria had twisted off the tail, like a petulant child playing with a toy.
Now, driving from the airport allowed me to see much more than I had ever seen before. The ocean was often visible through the trees. In some ways, it was interesting to have the different perspective, but the cost to get it was too high. Another immediate change was seeing all the utility poles along the road. Few of them were still standing in their normal positions. Most were bent and many of the broken, resulting in the heavy black cables criss-crossing the road, with vehicles simply driving across the wires that now carry no current.
In America, when a powerful storm knocks out utilities, I've often seen caravans of utility trucks from other providers in other regions heading towards the affected areas to help out with restoring services. Being a large country helps to make recovery much easier as resources can be temporarily shifted to the area in need. However, life on an island is much more difficult. There are only so many "bucket trucks" in Dominica, and it isn't easy to ship more here. Thus, it takes months to restore services island-wide.
Upon arriving in the village on Saturday afternoon, I was greeted by a throng of my former school children, eager with hugs while insisting on helping to carry the heavy luggage up to my former home. They yelled so loud when they saw us that citizens living in the heights above the village wondered what all the commotion was about, until they looked down and saw that it was the kids screaming in excitement at my arrival. As someone who spent two years trying to improve their reading and writing skills, I was especially touched that many of them also wrote adorable “welcome back” notes for me.
My landlord had my old house fixed up and it is good to be in familiar surroundings again. My Peace Corps replacement who had moved in to the house on August 19 as I moved out has been relocated to another island to continue her service, thus my old house was available to rent for two weeks. [Only a few Peace Corps Volunteers were allowed to return to Dominica, primarily because they live near the capital where utilities have been restored.] There is no electricity or running water in Thibaud yet, but I brought with us the necessary equipment (solar lights, flashlights, solar rechargers, LifeStraws, etc.) and food (Ramen noodles, tuna fish, etc.) to get through the two weeks.
As a special treat on Saturday night, I had brought down three cannisters of the "glow bracelets" that I had sometimes given out to the children during my stay there. They had always been fascinated with the glow-in-the-dark light produced by the chemical reaction. As darkness arrived on the first night, it was quickly apparent that with no electric power, thus no streetlights, the village became really dark! However, that just made the kids enjoy the glow bracelets that much more! It was especially fun to watch them run up and down the streets with the bracelets around their ankles. I saved the remaining two cannisters to do one giveaway at the mid-way point of my visit, and also on my last night in the village. The children had a great time each night!
Sunday was special for me as I attended church, and they sang my favorite hymn (“Give thanks with a grateful heart”) for me. I got to sit in the same seat where I had sat for two years. It was beautiful to be back again and listen to their wonderful singing. Fortunately, the Catholic church in Thibaud suffered only minor damages compared to most other buildings.
After church, I was invited to a family home for dinner. It was an excellent meal, including dasheen (a local staple that grows underground), chicken, quiche, macaroni pie, and more. Here I was, less than 24 hours in the village, and the former school cook was sharing some of her families limited food supplies with me. They may not have much, but Dominicans are generous people! This was just one example of the good people there sharing stuff with us (e.g., my former host family provided me with dinner the second Sunday there).
Monday required a trip to the capital of Roseau, so I could deposit some American money into my credit union account and withdraw some local currency. I also purchased groceries at the one major store in town that has reopened, plus reactivated my local phone number.
The long trip to the capital let me see much more of the devastation from Hurricane Maria. The thick forests have been stripped bare. Once tall sturdy trees have lost their smaller branches, but they are beginning to come back to life, with patches of green re-emerging from the broken limbs. Sometimes the trees remind me of broccoli, because there are these thick, stout trunks, topped with a short crown of greenery.
The road conditions are horrible even on the main road on the west coast. I had not realized that the essential Layou River Bridge had been damaged in the storm. It was constructed as two separate but adjacent bridges (one north bound and one south bound), but now traffic must take turns using the single span that it still viable.
So many houses are covered with blue or gray tarps, having lost their roofs on the night of September 19. There is currently a shortage of roofing material to replace all the damaged ones, so it is hard to tell how long the island will be dotted with blue rooftops. Most of the tarps had the imprinted logos of UNICEF or Samaritan's Purse. Sometimes they need to be redone, as shown below.
It was especially sad for me to see the two villages of Coulihaut and Coulibistrie, both on the Caribbean coast. These two villages were among the worst hit by flooding during Tropical Storm Erika, and I had gone with Thibaud church folks to serve them food shortly after that disaster (see the second half of my previous story about Erika's aftermath). This time, both villages were not just ravaged by the raging flood waters, but also devastated by the wind. It was sad to see the big Catholic church in Coulihaut with part of its roof missing.
One of the most remarkable changes is the view from my porch. I used to love sitting out there and enjoying the view. However, after Maria tore down or stripped most of the trees, now I have a much different view. Most of the houses in the village were hidden by vegetation, but now I can see virtually every house. I have a much wider view of the Atlantic Ocean as well. It was good to be back on my porch again!
I spent a lot of time just listening to the stories of the villagers about what the late-forming, Category 5 hurricane was like, as well as their lives in the aftermath. It must have been horrible to go through as it pounded this island in the dark that night.
Some of you may recall that I wrote a story when I first arrived here about Hurricane David. I was arriving in Washington, DC, for my senior semester as an intern for Congressman Rahall when the remnants of Hurricane David dumped lots of rain on the eastern seaboard. One of my “conversation starters” with older folks here was to ask them about their memories of Hurricane David. It had been the worst hurricane to ever strike Dominica, and they often had interesting recollections from that dreadful storm.
Just to show you how bad Hurricane Maria was, I asked one woman to compare the two storms. Her reply now was simply “David was not a hurricane!” Similar replies came from other elders in the village. As bad as they previously thought Hurricane David was, it paled in comparison to what a huge Category 5 storm unleashed on this island.
One man, his wife, and son hid under the bed when the roof started peeling off, and were fortunate when a big piece of galvanized crashed down next to (rather than on top of) where they were sheltering.
One man shared with me how he and his wife huddled in the small end of hallway inside their house during the storm. Hurricane David had passed through in a brief amount of time, perhaps an hour or two, during daylight. However, Maria had struck after dark, and lingered over the island for many hours. He recalled how he would check his watch, and give his wife the time on every hour and every half hour. As the storm continued that night, he kept thinking that surely it would end soon, but every 30 minutes that he kept announcing the time, it still seemed to continue. It was a long and harrowing night for all!
The people I talked with said the fact that the storm hit after dark probably helped to save some lives. Because of the darkness, people were more likely to hunker down and wait it out rather than try to make a run for other locations. Going outside was dangerous because of all the flying debris that was impossible to see at night.
During the storm, trees and other debris collected under the Church Street bridge in Thibaud, diverting the river into the village itself. Water rolled down the Main Street, flooding houses and causing other damages, such as pushing down the fence around the credit union. On the other side of the bridge, the carpenter's shop (and all his equipment inside) was totally destroyed. Indeed, his nearby house was flooded, and had to put a chair up on top of his bed to avoid the floodwater that half-filled his house.
One woman took me up to see her house in Uprising City. [This hill on one side of the village didn't get its name from some sort of civil insurrection. Rather, it is because of the spectacular view the homes on that hill have of the sun rising each morning.] Her house lost much of its roof, but she wanted me to see that she had had her Bible open on a nightstand in her bedroom, and although many other items were blown around when the roof flew off and the windows burst, her Bible had stayed right where she had left it. [Below is a view from her window.]
The children were also eager to show me the new basketball court that "Courts for Kids" built before I left. Based on the aerial photographs I had seen after Hurricane Maria, I had assumed that the storm surge had carried a shipping container that had been being used for storage between the road and the sea, and deposited it on the court next to the health center. As it turned out, the storm surge had not been that big. Instead, it was simply the strength of the 160 MPH winds that had blown this shipping container all the way across the large playing field and up onto the court, breaking one of the backboards in the process. The kids are still playing half-court with the remaining backboard. [Notice how all the black paint on the left side of the pole is sandblasted away by the strong winds from the hurricane.]to the spring and showering in your swim trunks. I brought some collapsible five gallon water bladders with spigots that were very useful, especially for washing dishes.
When it came time to do laundry towards the end, I couldn't do my typical bucket laundry that I had done nearly every Saturday morning on my front porch, using water from inside the house, while listening to the NPR news over my wifi. Instead, for the first time, I did my laundry in the river, in true, old-fashioned Dominica style. In hindsight, doing laundry in the river works pretty good! There are large stones for rubbing out the dirt, and the fast flowing water provides good rinsing action!
In some respects, my two weeks in Thibaud without the usual conveniences were what some Peace Corps Volunteers have to face on a regular basis. I had felt a bit guilty that I had it as good as I did during my two years. In my mind, the Peace Corps should be sending even more volunteers to Dominica during this time of need. The good people of Dominica are surviving without electricity and water, so Americans should be serving right along side them. I think the fact that we went down there for our vacation helped to show some solidarity with the people of my village, which they appreciated. [The picture below shows one of my kids next to a water tank installed at the Village Council office from yet another charitable organization--the International Medical Corps.]
I swam in the ocean a few times with the kids, which they thoroughly enjoyed. While walking back to the village after one of these swims, I got to meet someone I didn't know during my two years, but got to know after the storm over Facebook. Emerline Anselm is a teacher at the Portsmouth Secondary School, who has become a "citizen journalist" during her free time after the storm with her "Emonews" Facebook page. Her early reports on the situation in various locations was very important to those of us familiar with the island but located elsewhere (see some examples in my previous blog story, including how she used pictures from her notebook to get the word out to friends and relatives). I was very happy to meet her and to personally thank her for all her efforts.
I also made a concerted effort to spend money in the village to help the local economy. I purchased something from every shop while there, spending a lot more money than I ever did on my limited Peace Corps budget. Food was generally available and I never had any problems during our stay. When I left, I even gave away some of the food I brought down, because I didn't need to use it.
I also gave away most of my clothing, shoes, equipment, etc. I had done the same thing when I left in August, but this time I had fewer things to give away. It was a major project to decide who would get what, and then try to deliver those goods the morning before leaving. It was fun to see guys wearing my old shirts and stuff--I just wish I could have given away more. The only shirt I returned with was a treasured gift from my time there--my NCCU Thibaud Building Committee shirt.
One of the major things I did while we were there was to distribute the "Toys for Thibaud." The church where my daughter and son-in-law attend in Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Asbury United Methodist), had decided to support my village by filling those large, ziplock, gallon sized plastic bags with toys and school supplies for the children of Thibaud. I purchased a large plastic shipping barrel from Grainger and arranged to send the barrel to Dominica. Once the church filled the barrel on Sunday, November 30, I transported it to a shipping company that sent it via truck to Miami. Then it was sent by airplane to the island of St. Martin. There, it was placed on a ship that eventually arrived at the port in Dominica.
Agriculture is another concern. Bananas, plantain, green figs, etc., all grow not on a hardwood tree, but on a plant stalk (a bit like a corn stalk), and were no match for 160 MPH winds. With the entire crop destroyed, farmers are cultivating new plants. However, throughout the island, all of the "banana trees" are approximately the same height, and just beginning to bear fruit. I worry about the economic market effects when all the farmers are trying to sell their first harvest from these trees. It might be hard for them if they all have trees getting harvested at the same time, resulting in a surplus in the marketplace and thus low prices for the sellers. In the old days, farmers would have different sized trees, with fruit becoming ready to harvest at different times. I'm no agricultural expert, but this is just one of the worries I have for Dominica as it struggles to recover.
The best thing the Dominicans have going for them is their indefatigable spirit. They know life on the island isn't easy, but it is their home, and they will make the best of it. I had a memorable conversation with a bus driver from the next village over. I remembered that he also owned a boat and did some fishing on the side. I asked him about if his boat had survived. He just smiled his big grin and said no. All the boats moored in his village had been destroyed by the storm. But he was still smiling about it! As I mentioned earlier, Dominicans are STRONG and RESILIENT!
It was hard to leave when the time came, because I had enjoyed myself so much living with the people of Thibaud. After running into someone I knew on the flight down, it turned out there was someone I knew on my return flight as well. Dominica's Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerritt, was on our flight, and I was able to speak briefly with him (we had met several times during my two years there). I told him that sometimes from great tragedies arise great opportunities, and to continue working towards leading the country out of the mess that Maria had left. I also let him know what a wonderful time I had as onw of the first "tourists" in Thibaud, and that the people there were so wonderful to me. He seemed to appreciate hearing that. They have lots of work to do to get back to normal, but they are making progress. I hope it turns out well! I'm eager to see how much better things are the next time I visit, because I will be returning. I have to see my friends and check up on my kids there!