Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Namesake

The year was 1979, and I was leaving West Virginia to live in the big city of Washington, DC. For the fall semester of my senior year as a political science major at the University of Charleston, I would be working as a Congressional intern. Although internships are quite common today, they were relatively new at that time. My college was an early affiliate with the Washington Center (, and my faculty advisor (and career mentor) Dr. Evelyn Harris had strongly urged me to leave the safe confines of our college campus located across the river from the West Virginia State Capitol, and instead venture off to spread my wings on Capitol Hill in Washington. I'm very glad I listened to her advice!

1979 was also the first year that the weather service started using male names to label hurricanes, instead of always using female names. I remember being interested to see that the fourth hurricane of that year was to be named “David”—I knew that I would watch it with interest because of it being my name. Unfortunately, it turned out that David was a devastating hurricane, wreaking havoc in the Caribbean in late August before steering northeast and (although in a weakened state by then) up the eastern seaboard of America.

In early September, my father drove me (and the possessions I would need for the semester) to Washington. The remnants of Hurricane David had passed over the parts of Maryland and Washington that we were driving through early that morning. Although it had weakened to merely strong storms, I remember seeing branches still down in the streets and traffic lights not working because of power outages. This “David” had arrived in the Washington area directly on the heels of Hurricane David. My first evening in Washington I watched the local news coverage of “my” storm's aftermath. I knew that while most Americans have long since forgotten about Hurricane David, I would always remember that I had arrived in Washington on the same day as my namesake hurricane.

Now, 36 years later, I find my myself with the Peace Corps on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and being reminded of Hurricane David once again. Dominica had been fortunate—it had only been hit with two bad hurricanes, which occurred all the way back in 1806 and 1834. But the one that everyone remembers here was Hurricane David, which ranked as a top-of-the-scale, Category 5 storm. It had originally been predicted to hit Barbados, but changed direction at the last minute and instead pummeled Dominica. The entire island was devastated that day by six hours of 150 mile per hour winds, with over ten inches of rain.

My host family can still recall that harrowing day. My host father was with another relative in the village, helping to make his famous dumplings for a family feast planned for later that day (after all, the storm was supposed to bypass them) and he did not get back to his house before the brunt of the storm hit. He still remembers the scary whooshing sound the winds made.

Back at their home, my host mom made the decision to move from their house which had a gabled roof to another nearby relative's home which had a flat roof. Carrying her youngest daughter in her arms, she and her two older children braved the strong winds and pelting rain to cross Main Street and ride out the storm with her relatives. She can still remember the wind blowing her children around as they made their way to the other house.

Once the storm had passed, the damage to our little village was quickly apparent. A large tree had fallen across the front of my host family's house, allowing much of the rain to enter the building. However, for the most part, their house had withstood the storm—the same could not be said for many of the other small houses in the village. Most of the wooden houses had been obliterated.

It was a miracle that only 56 Dominicans died, with thousands of others injured. The strong winds destroyed or damaged 80 percent of the homes on the island. Those who lost their homes found themselves sleeping outside or huddled into the homes of more fortunate friends for weeks and months after the storm.

The aftermath took more than a year to clean up. The playing field near the school where I will be teaching became a helicopter landing zone as food and supplies were brought in to my village. Recovery and clean-up activities were required across the island. Food rationing was instituted for the entire country.

Many residents ended up leaving the island; for some it started as a temporary relocation until Dominica's infrastructure was rebuilt, but for many it became a permanent emigration. Dominica lost a quarter of its meager population following this disaster. It took years for its economy and infrastructure to recover. In some respects, one might say Dominica is still dealing with this significant setback even decades later.

So, I met my school principal for the first time a few days ago. She told me she would be able to easily remember my name because she remembers Hurricane David. I'm not so sure that is a good thing! I guess I will have to prove that not all Davids are bad.

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