Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More About Dominica

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.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


We are on the island of Dominica for the first time since it experienced the devastating Hurricane Maria in September 2017.  Maria was the first Category 5 hurricane to ever strike Dominica, and caused catastrophic damage.

With sustained winds of 160mph, and frequent gusts above 200mph, Maria stripped the leaves from virtually every tree.  The high winds also took off most or all of the branches from many trees.  Of course, many trees also toppled over completely.

Something like 90% of all houses lost their roofs, along with many schools and commercial buildings.  Dominica is a very poor country, so resources to recover and rebuild are hard to come by.

We have been very concerned about the fate of our friends on Dominica, and anxious to see how the island is recovering five months after the storm.  Yesterday we took a taxi tour over the northern part of the island, and could see the damage and progress for ourselves.

Hillsides that used to be solid canopies of green look gray, showing the trunks of trees.  The good news is that most trees seem to be recovering, sprouting leaves from their trunks and remaining branches.  The palm trees have grown a few new fronds.  The understory of the forest looks almost normal, except for the downed trees littering the forest floor.

Nearly every farm was destroyed, and most of the crops take 6-12 months to bear fruit.  Fruit trees like oranges and mangos mostly survived, but will also take a year before the next harvest.  Many farmers have turned to growing vegetables that can bear more quickly.  We saw many freshly-tilled plots, and others in progress. 

The progress in repairing houses and buildings is remarkable. While many houses still are covered in blue tarps, many more have been re-roofed.  There are still piles of rubble and crumpled corrugated steel panels in many places, a great deal of this has been removed and put into holding areas.  The roads have all been cleared and temporary bridges put in place where needed.

Aid from outside Dominica is very evident.  We saw facilities and materials from US AID, UNICEF, the UN Food Program, and several private charities.  The people here are truly grateful for the help.  They need it.

Our driver took us to Anse du Mé, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of the island.  There we saw two small motorboats, perhaps 20 or 25 feet long, unloading vegetables and dairy products that they had brought from Marie Galante, an island that belongs to Guadeloupe.  Thinking about crossing the 20 miles of open ocean in such a small boat is frightening, especially since the whole Caribbean is experiencing large waves, 8-10 feet, at the moment.  We rarely see fisherman wearing life jackets, but all of these brave sailors had them on.  A couple had wet suits, trying stay warm as waves break over their boat.  Even though it was almost sunset, both boats returned to Marie Galante for another load, planning to return in the morning.
Prince Rupert Bay by Portsmouth looks almost normal, at least at first glance.  There are maybe 50 sailboats on moorings or at anchor, what you would typically find at this time of year.  Looking closer, you realize that nearly all of the small restaurants on the shore are gone completely, all but one of the dinghy docks have disappeared, the large ferry/cruise ship dock on the northern shore is gone.

The yacht services cooperative, PAYS, is one of the most successful in the Caribbean.  They have been working very hard trying to rebuild the boating economy, and to get back into the rhythm that we Yachties have so much enjoyed.  They are very glad to see the boats returning, have restarted all of their tours and other offerings.  They have resumed their weekly benefit Barbeques, and we are looking forward to attending on Sunday. It is wrenching to see the warm smiles, knowing that many are living in houses with no roofs, and no electricity. 

We are heartened by the progress we have seen, while very aware of how much work remains to be done.  Mother nature is very resilient, but it will be years before the forests are back to normal.  It will be fascinating to see how things have changed when we return next year.