Before the Storm – Hurricane Maria and our survival
November 18, 2018
Before The Storm
At 9:15PM local time (21:15 AST, 1:15 UTC Sept. 19th), on the night of Monday 18th September 2017, Hurricane Maria arrived on Dominica as an extremely powerful Category 5 hurricane. Some, including me, have described Maria as a Cat 5+. That means, that if there were a Category 6, she would definitely have fallen into that category. When it came to wind speeds, she was not the first such hurricane, there had been faster than her but there was one significant difference. Maria broke the world record for the lowest central pressure with 908 mbar, in recorded history thus far.
As a Cat 4, Maria was highly likely to set down tornadoes. These were the truly destructive elements. Every Cat 5 hurricane is basically already a tornado class in itself and worse, they automatically spawn multiple tornadoes. Hurricane Maria survivors related accounts of several tornadoes touching down simultaneously as they lost their roofs during the night of the onslaught. 18 tornadoes touched down simultaneously in one survivor account. Another survivor related having seen his refrigerator spin suspended in the air in his living room, the only time he questioned whether he would get through the night alive.
The Hours Before The Storm
I watched in disbelief as the hurricane bore down on the island. What was incredible was that Maria spawned on September 17th and one day later became a Category 5, causing confusion in information dissemination. By the time she was reported as having risen to a higher class, she was already turning into an even higher category.
Speaking to my mother every couple hours on the previous day, she was becoming annoyed that the authorities said that is was 1 or 2 categories below what I would report to her. All I could offer up was that they were in fact right at the time they issued their warning but that Maria was developing extraordinarily fast and that the authorities could not keep up with hourly alerts. They were likely preparing in other, bigger ways for what was to come. In the final 2 hours prior to landing, Maria then gave a final twist to the knife by transforming into the extremely formidable and dangerous Category 5 hurricane with a central pressure that broke all world records. Such extraordinary intensification shook the resolve of onlookers.
At around 6:25PM on the fateful evening, I held the last conversation with my mother. It was the last telephone call before the hurricane hit the island later that night and one of two I held with her during the day. Other family members had already had previous conversations with her and so this was the last connection before the usual black out of telephone connection. We were all taking care not to disrupt her preparations. Even as she had made preparations for two whole days for a possible landing by Hurricane Irma just only 2 weeks prior, it seemed that this time, she decided to carry out last-minute actions such as moving certain items from her house to the guest cottage and making second checks whether the water tanks were shut off and other actions we did not know about. It’s a matter of course that every year, we go through important and crucial steps when severe storms or hurricanes threaten the island. Usually, they end up having good or satisfactory outcomes. Having been on Guadeloupe when Hurricane David hit Dominica in 1979 as a Category 4 hurricane, we had been ‘near-island’ survivors of Hurricane David and knew that it would be just a matter of time before the island would be similarly impaired or devastated.
Electricity had already been cut by the authorities at around 3:00PM, 6 hours before landfall and my mum informed me that this indicated very bad news, in her opinion, the authorities knew more than the people on the ground knew. In the aftermath, it became obvious that PM Skerrit was feverishly communicating with the Prime Minister of St. Lucia trying to put things in place for an ultimately massive disaster response as they knew would no doubt be the case after Maria’s passage.
The Beginning of Maria’s Assault
At about the hour of 6:25PM to 6:30PM, the Kalinago indigenous Territory was already under an immense assault of extreme weather and my mother spoke loudly over the tumult evidently going on outside her cottage. I couldn’t hear much of it, but it was evident that they had to speak very loudly to hear themselves. Perhaps the hurricane shutters that I had insisted that I push to afford, were fortunately blocking out sound for me over the distance of the call.
The cottage was shut tight with all doors and windows fully barred, it would have been pitch black inside, save for any lamps they had lit. Had I been aware at that moment that Maria was to turn into a Cat 5 within these last few hours and having been aware of her low her central pressure had measured, previously unheard of, I might have become too rooted in fear to talk any sense.
She related that lightning was tearing up the skies and it was therefore unsafe to keep the conversation long. I wished her the best of luck, told her to hold tight and that we loved her very much. We also quickly went through the steps of the necessary actions to be taken should she lose her own roof and that staying within the innermost room in the cottage, far away from outer walls was absolutely necessary. All this I did in as calm a voice as possible so as not cause more anxiety.
At the time of this last call, approximately 2.5 hours before Maria hit, Maria was still a Category 4 hurricane. I had already found it difficult to break this news to my mother as only hours before, the news that it had changed to a Category 3 seemed to portend a quickly worsening situation. I had advised her earlier on in the day that it may upgrade from a Cat 2 to a Cat 3, at the same time feeling quite confused. I began to wonder if I was being overly dramatic and fearing the worst. I thought I heard a faint flutter in her voice which I assumed to be some fear and had to gather up as much strength as possible to sound as confident as possible. Inside, I was beginning to sense the worst. I had sensed it since Day 1 of Maria’s life, but now the fear was growing like never before.
If I knew my mother well, that slight disturbance in her voice was most likely less fear than it was adrenaline and her usual tight-lipped resolve when powering up of all her energy to meet the worst. As I turned around and looked at the hurricane data at around 9:00PM, my knees literally went weak to see that a Cat 5 was bearing down on Dominica. I wondered if I had given her the best advice but didn’t waste much time worrying about it, it made no sense. I just did not sleep much. I realised with dread that most Dominicans would not know that a Cat 5 was to bear down on them in the last hour before landfall.
We can only guess how it must have been for the survivors as to date. Exactly 21 days after the hurricane, we still are not able to hold any good or long conversation with our mother. After the first call to tell us that she was alright, there was only one second call, a terrible connection where we could hardly understand each other. She managed to give us a list of supplies she needed, then the call broke off and that was that.
She also sheltered others and so during our last call before Maria made landfall, she must have then felt that she needed to ensure the combined lives of those she sheltered.
Breezes Cottage as a Safe Shelter
Our mother sheltered several other individuals who chose to keep her company and who also wanted the company and assurance that they sheltered in one of the best possible structures. Among them were an 80 year mother of a friend, a female friend and her two children. Another family member promised to make it to the cottage ‘if it got bad’. The husband of the 80 year old grandmother separated from his wife to go to keep his own son or daughter company, having found out that he/she was alone in a location unknown to us. His decision was hopefully made in good time, if I remember correctly, about 3:00PM that afternoon.
A day prior, I had advised my mother that I was unsure whether the roof of the school shelter would hold but left the decision up to her to shelter where she felt it was best. Furthermore, I had gotten worrying news from a source in Dominica that one of the shelters in the north was lacking supplies, as I assumed the case may have been across the island. Dominica had had relatively little warning as Maria developed and upgraded in record time. When the Prime Minister did his press conference the day before the storm, he sounded confused and uncertain and it was the first time that I had seen him this way. All not good signs at all.
The Lighthouse Keeper Decides to Ride Out the Storm Alone
The lighthouse keeper in the north of the island near Capuchin made up his own mind to ride out the hurricane in his own quarters, high up in the mountains on the north west side of the island. He valued his view and was busy sending out images of the worsening conditions on the coastline in the north. His last tweet and Facebook post were at 3:54PM. He had been following and posting out information on the storms since Irma had passed close enough to Dominica to cause extremely rough seas and bad weather. He walked the cliffs and reported on the movements of ants, disturbed at the small earth rumblings that Hurricane Irma was bringing before her arrival.
The lighthouse keeper was clearly brave and fearless. Always reporting regularly and down to the last minute, his sudden silence after 3:54PM on Monday 18th September as Maria approached did not look good at all. It took up to 16 days for his friends and family to be assured that he made it through. International evacuation attempts to get at him were successful but to the surprise of his friends and family, he declined rescue from his perch.
Concerns about the structural stability of Shelter Roofs
I had additional concerns. Should the roof of the school not hold, the pandemonium that would ensue would certainly not be good for older people, perhaps even detrimental. They would likely be trampled and pushed around in efforts to find more protection. In those moments, I had actually forgotten that the school was 2-storey and so those who sheltered would have been on the lower floor, not directly subjected to driving rains and hurricane force winds. My mother made her decision based on my thoughts and information.
It often happens that some shelters lose their roofs in extreme weather such as this, churches somehow being the worst of the lot. I think that most places have given up on churches as a means of protection. I’m not saying this to disrespect churches as I for one, love the atmosphere and peace that they offer to souls and am addicted to stepping into the most beautiful of cathedrals any time I can grab the chance. Their older architecture was extremely well thought out to offer a sense of peace, wonder and grace, all necessary to battling the wars we encounter during our lives. Not so with hurricanes. If I remember correctly, Hurricane David of 1979, broke down the church in Goodwill near Roseau where many sheltered and as result, many persons had lost their lives. For some strange reason, I cannot find this information on the web but the evidence of a new and modern church, designed by Trinidadian architect Geoffrey Maclean, stands as testament to the restored Dominica after Hurricane David.
All Communications Cut After the Hurricane, Chaos Ensues
Immediately post Maria’s passage over Dominica, communications with the entire island of Dominica was completely cut off. In the following days, much chaos ensued with the diaspora of the families of those on the ground. Teams of families and friends began to assimilate to enter Dominica from several neighboring islands and territories, some further afield. Some persons never arrived, having gotten stuck in neighboring islands and not having the connections to get any further than the nearest airports. International aid is called and responds after a somewhat slow start. Groups took boats out of Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and other nearby islands, and entered Dominica. Among these, medical teams entered Dominica in attempts to bring immediate relief to many coastal communities across the island. One heard that these medical teams actually went ‘in hiding’ from government officials which apparently was extremely displeased at the disorganized fashion of unknown persons entering the island through any fishing port or bay possible and without proper control. One could understand the government’s position given the serious problems that the Caribbean has when it comes to drugs and human trafficking.
The tug boat The Flying Buzzard decides to also go on the mission, collecting individuals and families with their cargo of aid and supplies in St. Lucia and it tugs the length of Dominica’s western coast, going first to Roseau and hurrying on to Portsmouth where it finds that the aid is better distributed.
Lone wolves from islands such as Trinidad pack up as soon as possible and within 4 to 5 days are on the ground looking for their family members. For countless persons, they could not reach soon enough. The situation in Dominica is discovered to be dire, Roseau looks like a town that has just been flattened by war, indeed, almost as though a nuclear bomb had been dropped, and the Prime Minister initially sets about to visiting all communities. He eventually changes his mind after he has gathered enough information and drops the visits to appear urgently in the United States at the UN General Assembly to beg for assistance and help. The Prime Minister of St. Lucia joins him on this journey. Both Prime Ministers state clearly that they are on the forefront of a war on climate change and that Dominica and all Caribbean islands are at severe risk if the nations who are aggravating climate change do not consider it their combined duty to help Dominica recover and to become the first island that will be ‘climate change ready’. The rest continues to make history. Those in the know are fully aware that it is not that severe storms never existed but it is the first year that so many severe hurricanes have formed and have gone on to damage some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean region, plummeting their economies into disarray and an uncertain future for their people.
We at Breezes Cottage support our governments fully in their plea to prepare our islands fully for a changing world. Our Prime Ministers have spoken with emotion and with their throats tight. We have entered into a new era and we hope that our site visitors and all concerned, will recognize the urgency not just for the Caribbean but for its effects across the world.
Breezes Cottage Survives Maria & The Aftermath
Some 5 days after the passage of Maria, being in a tortured seizure as I was the only one who could make the time to go into Dominica yet kept back by the concerns of family, I managed to find aerial photos on Facebook, done by WaveMaker Photography, of our mum’s cottage. It not only seemed to have survived the hurricane but to our astonishment, had kept its solar box on its roof and appeared pretty untouched, along with the Salybia Primary School and Salybia’s relatively new Community Center, in comparison to the vast majority of destroyed structures around.
On the 7th day, after much worry and tension, our mother called to report that she was fine and that we should not worry. She had made it down to the capital city with a bus of others from the indigenous territory just to make this important call and to see if she could access some bank funds. No banking was possible as they were severely damaged and closed. What met our mother’s people was clearly shocking. We were just about planning to go in to find her and this plan was dropped for the time being as she begged us not to enter what she described as a war zone. Repeated exclamations of ‘Roseau is no more, no more! It is unrecognizable, you cannot even recognize where the streets are, it is a war zone! The place looks like a ghost town!’ were shouted over the phone at us. Evidently, over half the town had already formed an exodus into other islands as the town was simply unlivable. I had seen pictures of the Chinese leaving by the dozens. We were just elated and excited to hear her voice. The magnitude of the situation would sink in deeper and deeper with each passing day.
On the other hand, our mother’s residence, originally built between 1980-1986 with meager funds from her savings, has lost its roof. Reports from an indigenous woman who assisted medical groups to reach the KalinagoTerritory, indicated that our mother was ‘fine’ for the time being but had lost part of the roof to her residence. To what extent was not described but from the aerial photographs, it looks to be at least 50% of the roof cover. There was no time to ask our mother any questions or get any confirmation as her group was trying very hard to hurry their way out of the mess that was Roseau. Looting had already begun and we suppose that they were also concerned about this. As swiftly as she called, she disappeared into the clouds of uncertainty that is now Dominica, back into the north east of the island before so easily accessible but which now seemed like a journey into No Man’s Land. It is good to talk and write about these things because they help us accept the situation as it is and it lessens the pain and the worry.
The Semi-Finale, Conclusion
As the cottage is currently being used as a continued shelter, it is no longer available for tourist rentals. We really don’t mind and care once she has a roof over her head when the residence is watered down, likely a sad reminder of her days when she returned to her country. We will help her make it through again. We will help her rebuild with time but this would take backstage to helping her and the people around her. We are far more worried about her personal health as she is 75 and for the coming years, not just for survival for all, but for the survival for our region.
As an aside, we always knew that this was coming. Whether it is part of our heritage as indigenous and First Peoples from whom we are directly descended or not, we have seen the signs that many fail to see and acknowledge. This is the saddest part of what Hurricane Maria has shown to the people of Dominica and the world. If the world is truly looking on to what has gone on in Texas, Mississippi, Miami, India and several other places across the world during this eventful year of 2017.
A day before Hurricane Maria’s arrival in Dominica, while I was raking in the garden, I observed scores and scores of Corbeaux flying from north to south over my residence. Large groups split into dozens, maybe more, perhaps 7 to 8 groups in total, those I saw – they must have numbered over the 200. Maybe it is that I was never observant before but I got a chill when I watched these majestic birds soar way above their usual gliding height. Circling in unease at times, they moved further south, more and more groups flew past until I had to stop my work and observe them as they flew on. They seemed disturbed but what caught my attention even more, was the fact that frigate birds seemed to fly ahead of each group. Some may call it foolish but their movements told a story that something was not right. It was not usually like this.
As the ants move out of their dungeons, you know that the earth is trembling. As the birds move as if there’s an unusual exodus, you know that something is disturbing in the skies, something is coming. As humans, we see them and know. These were the only warning signs that early natives had which told them that something big was about to happen. Nature speaks to every living thing in these ways.
We still hope for a better world one day, a world where we all care about nature and our own environments and of course, each other and our own survival. As we place less importance on material things and more on helping each other it has been proven many times in history, that possessions can not only disappear overnight but that the only things that are lasting in our lives are our relationships with our families and the unconditional love that we can show to each other every single day, even the people you meet in every day life, not just your family. Hug your family members today or appreciate someone because you never know if it is the last time you may ever see them again.