We arrived in Dominica nearly three weeks ago, and with the exception of a couple of days at Iles des Saintes have been on a mooring in Portsmouth. We have made several more taxi tours of the island, and continued to learn about the impact of Hurricane Maria.
The damage to vegetation and habitations varied quite a bit from place to place, with the Southeastern part of the island hit the hardest. While many trees have started to leaf out in other places, in parts of the Southeast they are mostly still bare and probably dead. There are a couple of towns on the West side of the island, tucked into protected valleys, that saw little wind damage compared to the rest of the island. On a hopeful note, Gretchen and I can easily see that the leaf cover is already thicker than when we arrived. There are a few palm trees that appear to have their full complement of fronds.
A major problem for rebuilding will be the electrical grid. There are downed power lines basically everywhere, usually a rats nest at the utility poles the villages. Many poles are leaning at a 30° or 45° angle, others are snapped off at the base. We saw several crews working to replace utility poles and string new power lines, but its an enormous task. Even in the larger towns of Portsmouth and Roseau, few buildings have power. The big IGA grocery store near Ross Medical School has lights, but not enough power to run refrigerators or freezers, so most of their stock is bottles or cans. It's hard to imagine how long it will be before people can take electricity for granted again. A few people have generators, but they use a lot of expensive fuel, and most can’t afford to run them very often or for very long. Even when electricity returns to a neighborhood, the power company won’t hook a house up unless it has a roof, which leaves folks in the dark.
The main hardware store in Portsmouth has a model of a roof, showing the correct way to brace the rafters and attach the corrugated roofing. With money and materials very scarce, though, I’m afraid that many people can’t afford the stronger construction.
We have heard many stories from Dominicans of where they spent the night of the hurricane and how they felt. Our friend Alexis had built his own house using dense local woods, specifically thinking about making it hurricane proof. It was one of the few houses in the neighborhood to escape damage, but he tells of being terrified during the storm, never knowing when the roof might come off or the house might get blown off its foundation. He said there was constant noise of debris hitting the side of his house. There are stories of elderly people who literally were scared to death, suffering heart attacks from fear.
We were told that in the immediate aftermath of the storm 24,000 people left Dominica for other islands, or even going all the way to the UK. Out of a population of only 70,000, that’s enormous. More than half have already returned, but I think that there will be a permanently lower population here.
The Medical School has moved its operations, first to a cruise ship anchored off St. Kitts, then in January to Knoxville, TN. It has been an important driver of the Dominican economy, and many businesses that catered to students and faculty have been shuttered. We understand that they intend to resume teaching on Dominica, but have heard various theories about when.
The people here are extremely proud of the progress they’ve made in rebuilding, and hopeful about the future. We have seen many welcoming smiles as we travel about. They understand how important visitors are to the economy, and are very happy to see the yachting industry starting to return to normal. We wish them all the best, and are looking forward to seeing the progress they’ve made when we return next year.