Monday, August 31, 2015

Putting up with Erika

Last week, Hurricane Danny commanded a lot of attention, as my island of Dominica was potentially in its path. Thankfully, it weakened to just a tropical storm and veered northward by the time it went by last Sunday night (August 23). We got some rain and wind, but nothing major happened. My 90 minute bus ride early Monday morning was interesting because my driver had to contend with some unexpected minor rock slides in the road (there's nothing like coming around a blind corner to discover the roadway littered with rocks), but he successfully dodged each of these surprise additions to the route and I made it to the capital city for training at about my normal time.

Lurking behind Danny was another tropical depression named Erika. I have a friend from my old job named Erika, and I sent her a note after Danny had passed asking that her namesake storm might go easy on us. Apparently she didn't get the message.

This is the view of the raging river from the bridge where I have posted calmer pictures of in the past.

While Erika's winds didn't rise to hurricane status, it did drop a lot of rain on Dominica. I would not have considered it a torrential rainfall, but there was a lot, along with thunder and lightning. It began overnight on Wednesday, and by dawn on Thursday, we realized we had a problem. Villagers were all abuzz in the early morning light because the river was flooding, with water covering the primary road along the north coast as well as the entrance to Main Street. [Note that they don't define a river the same way we do—it is only about a mile long and would be called a creek back home, fed by several small brooks that are often nearly dry.] I was told that it had been about a dozen years since they had suffered flooding like this in my village.

The junction where Main Street joins the road around the north coast. The creek leading to the river should go under that small bridge, not over top of it.

After preparing for Hurricane Danny, but not being impacted by it, there were even less warnings and preparation for this storm, especially since it had not acquired hurricane status. I think it caught the island somewhat by surprise. I'm not a geologist, and have only lived here for less than a month, but the steep mountainsides and the volcanic soil seem to make it prone to landslides, especially along the cuts made for the roads. It didn't take long for the combination of flooding, landslides, and other problems to cripple the island. Infrastructure here is not as resilient as it is in the United States.

Looking upstream from a footbridge—ordinarily the flow in this little tributary is just a trickle.

The Peace Corps Security Manager called to check on me early on Thursday morning, and while we were chatting the call got cut off. From that point on, the cellular phone coverage in my area was gone. The Internet was down in the village as well. With the roads blocked, I had no way to communicate with anyone. Later in the day, the Peace Corps had one of the radio stations announce that Peace Corps Volunteers should try to contact the office, but there wasn't any way for me to do so. No one in my village has one of those “new-fangled” satellite phones.

Speaking of radios, I had a small transistor radio, but all I could pick up was a French music station on the nearby island of Guadeloupe. Neighbors with better radios—capable of picking up one of the stations on Dominica which was still broadcasting—kept us apprised of the news (and the continuing Peace Corps requests for us to call in). Apparently there were a few deaths on our island from flooding and landslides, but at this point I don't know the specifics.

The view down the river channel from the Church Street Bridge.

There were some animals that died, too. Some folks from our village and other nearby villages walked over the ridge to the next river, and found some goats and a cow that had drowned. In many Third World countries, livestock is not penned, but often merely tied to a tree, or perhaps merely to a stake in the ground. The owner will move the location of the tethered animal around the land so that different areas of grass can be eaten. Unfortunately, this flash flooding apparently caught some of the livestock owners by surprise, and their animals were unable to get to higher ground.

The villagers who had hiked to the next river (which was still out of its banks with the bridge under water) realized that these animals had just recently died. Apparently the decision was made that this meat should not go to waste, so with their ever-present machetes (known locally as cutlasses), the carcasses were butchered along the roadway and divided up. That was the explanation I got after seeing the back half of a goat being carried up Main Street. Such is life in the Third World.

By afternoon, the rain had died down and the clean up began. This is when I got to see the real spirit of my new community. Lots of folks pitched in to clean out the debris, rocks, and silt that had filled the concrete open culvert for the creek coming down from Back Street. It was great to see the cooperation as so many pitched in to help out, while others watched and encouraged them.

At first, I watched with my host sister, taking it all in as if I were a journalist or sociologist, studying my new community. Eventually, I realized that perhaps I should join in and help. I wish I had thought of it sooner than I did, but at least I got to shovel up some of the muck leftover from the flooding. It felt good to contribute to the community clean up!

Clearing the culvert under the bridge on Main Street.

Later in the evening, I decided to try the only barber shop in my village, to get a hair and beard trim before my swearing-in ceremony. I think I may have been his first white customer, but he did a meticulous job. My host sister also ironed my shirt and jacket and helped me pick a tie to wear. We were still clinging to hope that the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony might somehow still take place as planned on Friday.

I am writing this early on Friday morning, and we still are without phone, Internet, or water, but we are hopeful to be reconnected soon. At 10:00 AM today, I was scheduled to be sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer at a ceremony marking the end of my pre-service training. However, we heard the Prime Minister on the radio last night calling for everyone to stay home from work and focus on cleaning up after the storm, so I am assuming that our ceremony is going to be rescheduled. There are bridges that were damaged between here and the capital, so I have no way to get there (plus I could use a shower before getting dressed up for a big event). It seems strange to be so isolated, especially when one is accustomed to having the world at your fingertips with cell phones and the Internet.

So instead of getting dressed up and sworn in at a fancy ceremony, I will spend the day in my village. I've already spent much of my time off the past two days reading an excellent book about the Peace Corps, entitled “The Bold Experiment” (look for a book report about it in a future blog posting). In the meantime, neighbors have just reported that another announcement was made on the radio for Peace Corps Volunteers to call in to the office to report on their situation. As soon as I get either cell service or an Internet connection, I will do so (everyone seems hopeful that at least cell service will resume today). Until then, my island is now comprised of just my village—it is a small world, but the inhabitants are good people. I feel safe here.

Rivlets of water running off the corrugated metal roofs which are common in my village (this was taken during Thursday's rains).

NOTE: The story above was written early Friday morning, and was ready to be posted as soon as the Internet was accessible again, which we had hoped would happen at any moment. Unfortunately, I spent another day without phone (cellular or landline), Internet, television, or running water. I was able to get a ride to the closest larger city (past numerous landslides) in the hopes of obtaining cellular phone coverage there, but had no luck getting a signal. The road beyond that city to the next town was completely blocked. After my return trip, I walked to the top of a major hill overlooking my village in an effort to pick up a cell signal, but to no avail.
My host sister took this picture during our walk up the hill seeking cell service.

This was also the day that I was scheduled to move into my own house further up the hill. I did get to take a tour of it again, and it has now been outfitted with some basic furniture and kitchen items. However, given the current disaster situation (plus the fact that my water filtration unit is down at the Peace Corps headquarters, from where I had planned to bring it home with me after the ceremony), I've decided to continue living with my host family a few days longer (there is strength in numbers). Hopefully I will be able to move in by September 1st.

We also saw the helicopter go by that was providing the Prime Minister with an overflight of the island so he could see the problem areas. There are rumors that the electricity will be cut off soon because fuel trucks can't make it to the diesel powered generation plant (Dominica is unique in the Caribbean because it gets nearly half of its electricity from a hydroelectric plant, but that method can't supply the entire island). Plus, the weather reports are calling for more rain from another system this weekend.

This evening, after the nightly ritual of watching the bats leave their cave, we sat on the porch talking as we marveled at the beautiful (nearly) full moon—just as the natives had probably done centuries before white men came to this island. I also knew that friends back in the states were looking up at the same wondrous moon, yet I had no way to make contact with them. Hopefully things will get back to normal soon. If you are reading this story, that means the Internet is finally available and that I am safe.

Today is Saturday, August 29—the anniversary of Hurricane David, the only disaster that impacted Dominica more than Tropical Storm Erika. Thankfully, Erika didn't have the 150 MPH winds that David carried, but the large amount of rain has cut communications and roadways, effectively dividing the island into regions. No one is sure when we might get back to normal.

The rain we experienced on Thursday morning was the type where flash flood warnings would have been made by weathermen back in West Virginia. For the most part, unless you live in low-lying areas, one isn't impacted by such forecasts back home. That is a big difference between life in Dominica and life in the USA. As I stated earlier, the infrastructure is not very resilient here. The landslides and bridge outages, along with the loss of Internet access and cell coverage, have resulted in problems for everyone. The mountainous terrain makes it difficult to build roads, so there are not very many of them, and the few that exist are very important “lifelines” that unfortunately are easily cut off.

I awoke this morning, put on my bathing trunks, and walked up the hill to “La Source” (the spring in the forest that feeds one of the brooks leading into the river). Plastic pipe has been installed there to create a shower, so I was able to wash my hair and clean up for the first time since Wednesday. It was fun to be taking a shower outside in the middle of the jungle.

After I came back and dressed, I went down to the road and caught a bus to the second largest city on the island. There were many landslides that had been cleaned up along the way, as well as trees that had fallen down and been cut up. It took longer than usual to get there, but I made it to Portsmouth.

First, I went to the Saturday morning marketplace to pick up a few things requested by my host family (cabbage and tomatoes). Then I walked up the hill to the house where my Peace Corps classmate lives. I had a nice visit with her and her host mom. They have no water, cable, internet, or cell phone either, but they are surviving alright. Her host brother had been able to get a ride down the coast yesterday, and then hiked for hours to get to the top of a large hill. From there he was able to get a weak cell signal, and was able to send out a message to the Peace Corps office that my classmate was safe. However, he wasn't available to guide me, and it just wasn't feasible for me to make the same attempt today. At least my classmate can let them know I'm safe, because being in Portsmouth, there is a good chance she will get connected quicker than my little village will.

After my visit at her house, I went to a store that her host mom recommended as the best bet for me to be able to buy some bottled water to take home. Unfortunately, they were out of big bottles, but I went ahead and purchased half a dozen smaller bottles (about half of what was left). I thought I would buy more at a couple of small stores on my way back to the bus stop, but they were completely out of bottled water. At least we can boil spring water to use.

On my way back to the village, we took a detour to drop some folks off in a different village way up on the mountain. There were significant landslides up there—one in particular threatens to cut off the main road entirely. The protective railing that had been along the roadway above the steep hillside has fallen down the cliff, and has been replaced for the time being with a fence made from bamboo. Needless to say, I held my breath while our bus passed this precarious part of the narrow road.

Once I was home, I did some roaming around with my host sisters, watching folks doing laundry in the creek as well as watching the men with machetes and a single chainsaw tackle the debris clogging the creek behind the church. Plus, just like the last few days, we have sat on the front porch listening to our neighbor's radio. The local station is providing continuing news coverage of the disaster, as well as open phone lines where people call in seeking the condition and/or whereabouts of friends and family members. Dominica's population is only about 70,000 people, so the national radio station is really like a local station in America—I can remember our hometown radio station carrying similar news and call-ins during the aftermath of major storms that knocked out electricity.

I also walked down to the seashore this afternoon to check out some of the new tidal pool areas created by all the new rocks carried down the river to the sea. While I was down near the shore, another helicopter flew over. I wish I would have had time to organize the trash on the playing field so that it would read not “Send Food” or “Send H2O,” but instead “Send Internet!” We have enough local food and water in our village to survive for a long time—it is just that it is not as convenient as you might want it to be. However, the inability to communicate with friends and relatives who are probably concerned about our well-being is what is most frustrating to me at the moment.

Day 4: I woke up and once again walked up the hill to La Source (pronounced “La Soose”) to take my shower in the clear spring water. Then I went to the 8:00 AM service at the Catholic church (there is also a Pentecostal Church in our village and a Seventh-Day Adventist church on the outskirts of town). After church, community members had planned to meet on Back Street to dig out the landslide blocking the road there.

The work to clear the slide would have gone quickly if there was an end loader or Bobcat available, but it might be a long time before we could get one. So instead, men from the village shoveled for hours to clear the roadway. Rather than waiting for help, my village prefers to help itself, even if it means doing it the old-fashioned way.

I was doing my part shoveling again, when suddenly to my surprise, in the middle of the afternoon a familiar voice called my name. It was the Peace Corps staffer in charge of our security. Because I had not been able to contact them (ironically, I had been talking with her on Thursday when the phone system went down), she had to come out and check on me—all the way from St. Lucia. Our Peace Corps Director for Dominica was also with her. They had taken a boat from Roseau to Portsmouth, and then hired a van to bring them to my village. They told me that my sister back home had contacted the Peace Corps office because my family members were worried about me. I appreciate their concern, but my sister should never complain about paying her taxes again after causing a civil servant to track me down on a Sunday (if you know both of us, you know we like to tease each other). The Peace Corps just needed proof that I was okay.

They also came up with a plan for me to travel to Portsmouth on Thursday and spend the night at the home of my Peace Corps classmate. On Friday morning, we will take a boat from Portsmouth to Roseau, and hopefully our swearing-in could take place that day. However, I should pack to potentially stay for the weekend in Roseau if necessary. Then they had to quickly leave in their van to convey the plan to my Portsmouth colleague, before catching the last boat back to Roseau.

While here, they also asked me if I wanted the Peace Corps to pull me out of my village until the situation improves. I quickly declined, reassuring them that I was doing fine. In fact, I am getting to know the residents better by helping out during this crisis, as the two of them witnessed today. The community spirit in this little village is very impressive!

The “search party” that came looking for me on Sunday from the Peace Corps.

After we were finished, I helped my host sister with the clean-up from the luncheon that had been served at the worksite. Then I went by myself down to the river near the Church Street Bridge, to wash the mud out of my Teva sandals, and off my legs. Sitting on a rock in the rapids, it reminded me of similar locations back home in West Virginia—yet I realize, especially during this major disruption, that I am truly a long way from home.

Monday, August 31: I walked up to “La Source” to take my morning shower under the 3-inch PVC pipe that forcefully pours cold water down upon one's head in the middle of the forest. This time, I also filled up a two-liter Coke bottle I had with the fresh spring water. For Christmas, my sister had given me a “Life Straw” water filtration unit, so I am experimenting with drinking untreated water because our supply of bottled water is diminishing rapidly. Hopefully my gastro-intestinal system will survive (if not, I'm blaming my sister!). It seems a bit funny to be drinking water through this foot-long, about one-inch in diameter straw.

The good news is that our land line started working this morning, which allowed me to contact the Peace Corps office in the capital for the first time since this crisis began.

More good news! My local cell phone started working at about 10:00 AM. My first call was from the acting director of the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean. She was very glad to regain contact with me, and let me know that even the U.S. Ambassador for the Eastern Caribbean at our embassy in Barbados was aware of my “Missing In Action” situation. We still don't have our Internet connection yet, but I am writing quickly so that I can post this on my blog as soon as it is available.

Well, needless to say, it is going to take longer to fix the fiber-optic cables that were broken when one (or more) of the bridges collapsed. It is hard to tell when I might get the Internet access I need to post this story. If I get to Roseau on Friday, I should be able to post it there.

I walked over to the school today to see if anyone was there. To my good fortune, the principal was there doing some preliminary work of her own. I spent several hours working in the school library, separating the three book cases so that one contains beginning reader books, one contains intermediate level books, and one contains books for more proficient readers.

After my library work, I walked up the hill to the end of Main Street (a section of the village known as Green City). The older woman who lives in the highest house suffered some landslides, so the men of the community worked to clear the heavy dirt and rocks with shovels, pick-axes, and wheelbarrows. Some of the women cooked a nice dinner. It was another day of community cooperation.



  1. So glad to see this photo of the three of you...and looking forward to seeing you on Friday!

  2. Glad to hear that you weathered the storm successfully. I had posted a request for prayer for you and the folks of the island on Facebook, and requested prayer at church on Sunday. God is good. God answers prayer! Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  3. Glad to read your confirmation that you are safe and sound. I had been assured earlier by one of your fellow PCTs / PCVs that all PCers were safe, but reading your blog was the best news.
    After everything returns to some sense of normal, and after you finish reading “The Bold Experiment”, perhaps you should read "Peasants Come Last" by Dr. J. Larry Brown. It is available as an eBook if you have an eReader.
    Please convey my best wishes to the PC staff at your swearing in and good luck with your swearing in as well as with getting settled into your new living quarters.

  4. I love this article. Sad, scary and resilient all in one. How is the Life Straw working? I bet you are thankful you have it. I brought two with me because you never know!

  5. thanks! I liked your account---and my heart is breaking for Dominica--so much work to do to get the country fixed up! thinking of all of you PC volunteers and so glad you are safe---a note about the water: In Pt Michel--where I was--there is a spring--but the local water came from another source. I used the filter the PC provided with the local water only for a short while because green algae would grow on the filter and in the tank and it was hard to clean thorouhgly---I had stomach problems off and on for months--which TOTALLY dissappreared when I started using the water from the local spring---local spring water is fine with out the filter. I had to haul the water back to my place on the bus--but it was worth the trouble. I think the algae that grew in my filter tank made me sick. Another PCV,Rebecca, drank spring water the whole time also from her village and never had any stomach issues. So I would just drink spring water if I was you.

  6. Makes me want to be there....plan is 2017 married couple tour.