Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Post-Erika Post

The remnants of Tropical Storm Erika hit Dominica in the early hours of Thursday, August 27. Instead of passing over our island, it instead decided to linger, emptying its clouds upon us. Nearly an inch of rain per hour was recorded in some areas. Rivers flooded, landslides fell, roads were cut off, bridges washed out, and eventually all communications were lost. [See my previous blog post for how I “weathered the storm.”]

The newest members of the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean were to officially take our oath of office during the last week of August, with the island of Dominica scheduled for the final event on Friday, August 28. Separate ceremonies the previous days were held on St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines where all of them were sworn in. Needless to say, with our island in a state of emergency, plus with roads and communications cut off, we did not meet the U.S. Ambassador in the capital city that Friday for our ceremony.

However, one week later, detours around the broken bridges had reopened the main highway to some intrepid vehicles (but not our usual buses). The Peace Corps arranged for a driver with a four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser to bring the four of us (two from last year's class who are midway through their two-year service, and the two rookies—myself and a woman from Athens, Ohio) from the northern part of the island to Roseau. Bringing us all together with Peace Corps staffers allowed for a major discussion about the storm and its aftermath. Plus, it allowed us to finally get sworn in (albeit without the usual pomp and circumstance).

The trip along the Roseau/Portsmouth highway usually takes about an hour, but it was more like 90 minutes on Friday. Here is a picture of the first bridge we saw that had been destroyed, not far below Portsmouth. The picture below was taken as our vehicle forded the now docile but once raging stream.

The picture above is another bridge that had collapsed, and this was where a river emptied into the Caribbean. This river seemed nearly three feet deep where the quickly built detour crossed. I wish I had taken one more picture following the one below to show how deep this small Suzuki SUV ahead of us went down into the water. Obviously I would not have driven my Prius through that river crossing!
We witnessed a lot of devastation on the way to Roseau on Friday. However, most of the pictures I tried to take from the moving vehicle cannot truly express the overall situation. It was sad to see how hard some villages had been hit (as well as businesses that were destroyed, such as the Colgate Palmolive coconut oil plant), and knowing that my beloved village got off relatively easy this time. It is going to take Dominica a long time (and lots of resources) to fully recover from the impact of Erika.
Once safely in the capital (where the picture above was taken), we met with our colleagues and staffers for a post storm debriefing. Hindsight is always 20/20, but there really is very little that we might have done differently than what we did. Some outsiders have questioned why we weren't evacuated prior to Erika's arrival, but no one was predicting that this weakened storm would “pack the punch” that it did. Armchair quarterbacks are always greater in their own minds than the real quarterbacks who actually take the field, but I'm glad that we were not evacuated, because it was important for me to stay and help in my village.

It appears that schools will open on September 21, rather than on Monday, September 7 as originally planned. Our discussions indicated that all of us have plenty to keep us busy during this two-week delay before school starts. Finally, at the end of the day on Friday, we were given the oath of office and provided with our official Peace Corps identification cards. Later in the evening, I took this picture of a Venezuelan naval ship at the same wharf where the gigantic U.S. Naval Hospital ship had been docked one month ago (I was impressed that this ship played the Dominican national anthem at sundown).

We gathered again on Saturday morning for more discussions. Finally in the afternoon, the four of us from the northern side of the island met our driver for the return trip to Portsmouth (from where I would then need to catch a bus to get home to my village).
As we passed the small airport (which is now the only airport, since the other larger airport was destroyed by flooding), a Coast Guard helicopter was landing. Our driver thought it was the Barbados Coast Guard (without the orange stripes, it was clearly not from the U.S. Coast Guard). I also got a picture of a used car lot that had been flooded, with cars stacked up on top of each other and half-covered in silt.
This time I was able to get a picture of the Layou River landslide, which now has a detour that goes further up the hill to get around it. I wish I could have got a picture of the huge crane that was half submerged in the river. This is the same river which I went on an innertube adventure many years ago when I visited Dominica on a cruise ship.
Soon we were stuck in traffic at one of the other major detours—a long one that avoids two gaps in the roadway where the floodwaters knocked down the bridges. The traffic tie-up was because a big truck with a flatbed trailer (carrying a heavy Dynapak roller) had become stuck, blocking the detour for everyone.

Our driver decided to get out of his vehicle and research the situation. He walked across a path he thought would allow us to get around the obstacles. He came back and told those of us who had waited in the Land Cruiser that he was going to try his “detour around the detour.” We were willing to give it a try—it was his vehicle after all. [Below is a picture showing the reason for this detour—look close and you can see the second chasm in the distance (yes, I walked up to the precipice to take this shot).]

Unfortunately, the swath of dirt that we had to cross, which seemed sturdy when our driver walked across it by himself, could not bear the weight of the Land Cruiser (along with a driver and four Peace Corps Volunteers inside). The hot sun had baked the top of this silt leftover from the floodwaters, but further down it was a soft mud. Just a few feet from successfully getting across this dirt, we bogged down and got stuck.

He tried several times to get unstuck, but to no avail. Our brave attempt to remedy the traffic backup had failed. The driver went off to seek assistance, while some of us tried to dig out the Land Cruiser. I found a length of 2”x6” to use as a shovel, a log to use as a fulcrum when necessary, and a dilapidated piece of corrugated metal to stand on (because the more I dug, the more I was sinking into the mud as well). The driver later came back and gave it one more try, but we just weren't able to make much headway.

The solution to the original traffic tie-up was a Caterpillar 966 Excavator, which helped to smooth the path and then push the trailer across the river ford. Fortunately for us, our driver convinced the Cat operator to help get us out next. He maneuvered the big piece of equipment over to our vehicle, and successfully pulled out the Land Cruiser. The big Cat nearly got stuck itself from its attempt to free us, but eventually he was able to wrestle the rig out of the silt field.
Soon we were back on the road again. We may have lost an hour or more, but it left us with yet another unexpected adventure in the Peace Corps. One of the most important things about serving in the Peace Corps is to be flexible and adaptable, because your service is not well scripted. If you want a predictable 9-to-5 job, don't apply for the Peace Corps, because you never know how things are going to go, whether it is tropical storms or getting stuck while detouring around a detour. However, I enjoyed today's excitement—especially now that I am safely back home at my new house.

To conclude this memorable weekend, my Sunday was devoted to a charitable endeavor. My village prepared massive amounts of food and delivered it to two other villages that were heavily damaged by Erika. It started early in the morning with food preparation. I performed some minor tasks before I was assigned to dumpling duty (rolling balls of flour paste into round dumplings that were added to the two huge pots of soup we cooked outdoors over fires). [This was a much safer activity for me compared to when I tried my hand at trimming coconuts with a machete—fortunately, I still have all my fingers.]

Once the food was ready (which included the aforementioned pots of soup—one made with chicken and one with pig snouts, as well as salt fish, rice, cucumber salad, roasted breadfruit, green figs, coconuts, fresh lime juice and cherry juice, plus probably other items I've left out), we headed over to Portsmouth and then down the same major highway described above. At the first bridge outage, those of us who couldn't fit in the 4-wheel drive vehicle carrying the food had to get off one bus and transfer to a different bus on the other side. This requires passengers to carefully balance their way across the rocks set up at the ford below the bridge.
After resuming our southward journey on the other side of the river, we only went about half-way to the capital on this day, stopping first at the village of Coulibistrie. This village is located where a steep-sided valley empties its river into the sea, and it was flooded heavily during Erika. I experienced the devastation first hand, with a 360 degree view of everything around me. That is what make it so disappointing when I look at my pictures once I am back. The pictures I took simply can't adequately convey what these people must have went through. For my fellow West Virginians, it looked like the archival news footage of the Buffalo Creek flood, or any number of other major floods through small towns in our state.

Just as one example, here is a sad picture I took at the Coulibistrie Primary School, which would normally be set to open tomorrow. Unfortunately, the ruined desks, books, computer equipment, etc., sit in muddy piles around the school grounds.

Later in the afternoon, we headed back north to stop in Colihaut, which was similarly destroyed by its raging river. Just like at our previous stop, the air was permeated with the extra fine dust from the flood silt, along with the occasional smoke from burning debris piles. I saw lots of destroyed vehicles and houses, but none of my pictures were more poignant than this house, which is now toppled and buried partway in the silt. It is very sad to see what these villages have suffered.
There is a large British navy ship just off the coast from another village along our route. The Brits are doing a lot of work in that area. Although I didn't get the opportunity for a good picture of the ship, I did take the shot below of one of their military vehicles. I also saw a team from Columbia today. It is nice to see so many other foreign countries coming here to help.
I'm glad I got to see first-hand the destruction that Erika unleashed on this side of the island. I'm also glad that my village was motivated to help out other Dominicans in need. It was the third straight interesting day for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The only bad part about this weekend was my wardrobe choices. You see, I would have been a lot better off to have saved my new Peace Corps Volunteer t-shirt to wear today. It would have looked nice as we delivered meals or when I was serving beverages. Unfortunately, I chose to wear it yesterday, when many cars drove by our hopelessly stuck vehicle (after our hired driver tried to create a detour around the detour). Some of them probably snickered at “those Peace Corps folks” as they drove by our predicament. Oh well!

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