Saturday, August 27, 2016

Erika – One Year Later

Just a quick note to mention that today is the one year anniversary of Tropical Storm Erika. That storm caused the deaths of 31 Dominicans and over $1 billion dollars in damages (according to today's news reports). The island is still not fully recovered from the devastation.

The main road between the two largest cities (Portsmouth and the capital of Roseau) has three bridges that were all destroyed. Detours were built to temporary single-lane Bailey Bridges (named for the British designer back in WWII) that are still being used today. There are other places along the road where caution barrels warn of the roadway being undercut from the water damages during the storm, plus a large section of the road that fell into the Layou River, resulting in a major dirt detour up the hill and around the slip. It will be awhile before this, the most important road on the island, gets back to normal.

If you haven't already seen them, I've written four blog stories related to this storm.

With this story, I just want to cover a few points. First, the worst part about this storm was the loss of communication. Not being able to let the outside world—whether it was Peace Corps officials or my friends and family back in the USA—know that I was safe was very worrisome. We got a lot of rain, but it really didn't seem all that bad. It was the repercussions from all the rain that made life difficult. With our local spring, life without public water wasn't difficult. Dealing with no electricity was not a huge problem. However, the loss of phone service and internet was the most frustrating in today's world. Technology is essential in today's world. I remember writing in the first story listed above that if I was to try to lay out a huge message on our playing field to communicate with airplanes or helicopters passing overhead, I would be saying “Send Internet” rather than the conventional “Send Food.”

Secondly, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, it is tough in developing countries to recover from an unexpected disaster such as this. There were a lot of countries that provided disaster assistance (and were much more visible than the USA), but even with a lot of outside help, the signs of damages are still readily apparent. I think it will be a long time before all remnants of the storm damage has been fixed.

Thirdly, I found out later that I was being talked about in the upper echelons of the Peace Corps and the State Department. As the only Peace Corps Volunteer who had not been able to check in and confirm my safety during this disaster, both government bureaucracies were concerned. Thus, by Sunday, when ships started running passengers between Roseau and Portsmouth, the Peace Corps security manager and my country director sailed to Portsmouth and then hired a driver to bring them to my village so they could confirm I was alive (and to relocate me to the capital if I had desired). They went to my host family's house, only to be told that I was helping out with the landslide removal on a nearby street. They eventually found me, and the security manager took the picture below of me with my country director (with my shovel and a wheelbarrow behind me). I declined their offer to relocate me, because I was fine in my village, and there was still a lot of work to do. If the residents were staying, so was I.

Finally, there was a silver lining to Erika's clouds. My village has a great sense of community spirit, and rather than wait for the government to send equipment to clear landslides (as other villages did), we started doing it ourselves, using shovels and wheelbarrows. By volunteering to help with this landslide clearing effort, I was able to gain the trust of villagers and get to know them better. It helped me integrate into my community more quickly and more meaningfully than other Peace Corps volunteers.

Despite this silver lining, I hope I don't experience any more major storms during my stay here!

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