In Dominica, a return to normal will take many years

A report by Adam Duvernay for Delaware’s News Journal.

Building with concrete is the surest way to weather a hurricane, but on the tiny island nation of Dominica, it’s not cheap.

Few can afford a complete concrete construction, creating an island of many homes made up half of concrete and half wood, stucco or tin. As money trickles in, people recast and fortify their houses and businesses with concrete and other heavier, denser materials.

That’s why across the island there are odd survivors, upper or lower stories standing while the rest of the structure is gone, blown away by Hurricane Maria’s sustained Category 5 winds on Sept. 18.

“You do the slab first. You come back a little later with the walls. You come back a year later and you build the roof as you get money,” said Jason Otis, a concrete construction contractor from the coastal town of Mero.

It could take five to seven years to afford and build a fully concrete home, Otis said. He predicts it will be years before the island can return to the way it was before the storm.

It will be years to even return to a sense of normality. And even then it will be defined by the number of people who have running water and the number of streets not riddled by debris.

During hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Isaac and Irma, Americans in affected areas at least could be sure they wouldn’t be forgotten. In Dominica, islanders just say they’ll be happy if foreigners don’t confuse them with the Dominican Republic.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t do that,” said Earl Hector, an 87-year-old Portsmouth resident. “The rest of the world better be prepared to help in any small way because I can’t see anything but decades of this destruction showing up here and there and everywhere.”

Hector, more commonly known here as Earl the Pearl, strolled to church Sunday dressed in a cream-colored suit and a necktie dotted with smiling suns.

He was a mechanical engineer in the United Kingdom as a young man and spent some time braving North Sea gales as a fisherman, but in the late 1980s he returned to his home in Dominica to be with his mother.

He’s seen storms since, but none like Maria.

“Six hours. My grandson stood in the shower, my friend stood there as well and I sat on the pot,” Hector said. “We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t hear anything other than the battering of the wind.”

His house was mostly concrete but when a blown-down utility pole smashed through his windows, in came the storm.

Rainwater washed in and soaked almost everything. All that survived was a bedroom closet and a few suits.

“Some of the recovery, you wonder whether it ever will be dealt with by the resident individuals or families,” Hector said. “Not only to claim those houses but attempt to repair them because nobody will be in a position to.”

Zaccheus Bruney might be in a position to repair his home if only he could find his handsaw.

A member of Dominica’s Carib population living on reserved native land in the village of Salybia, the carpenter has barely managed to recover anything from the knocked-down home he’d chopped, dragged and shaped local timber to build.

“We have the strongest wood on our island. It lasts for years and years and years,” Bruney said. “It wasn’t stronger than the hurricane.”

Over the weekend, his village hosted the Delaware Medical Relief Team, a group of doctors and nurses working with Hands International to bring medicine and care directly to the most storm-ravaged parts of the island.

“No clothes, no mattress, no shelter,” Bruney said. “My banana tree is no longer mine because after the storm everyone is hungry. All of us are looking for survival. If my roof goes and you find it there and you take it, nobody says nothing.

Brian Beautreau can see his next door neighbor from his home’s doorway, and that’s not normal.

“There were trees all around. You could not stand here and see that building up there,” Beautreau said.

Beautreau mills yucca flour, but there hasn’t been time since the storm. His Salybia home and business both were wracked by Maria, leaving about half of each structure standing.

“Before the storm, it was a pretty happy life. Not happy in the sense of having money, but we had our own little business,” Beautreau said. “Now, for me, I have a fear of what’s going to happen, if anything will come back the way it was. How are we going to build back and better?”

Rosillia Froncrs isn’t working toward better, not yet. If she can just get to stable, she’ll be satisfied. And that will just mean moving herself and her 4-year-old son out of her uncle’s house in Sybia and into a van parked on a cliff’s edge.

“I’m just trying to get in there, but I don’t have the tarpaulin to do it,” Froncrs said. “I have it organized inside, but I never slept there, not yet … I didn’t want to stay with my uncle because he has a lot of people in his house, too.”

Otis was waiting Sunday near the Portsmouth ferry landing for supplies to continue his work rebuilding homes and businesses.

“It’s coming in on the boats bit by bit. They say by next week some more commercial goods are going to start coming in,” Otis said. “Everything’s just selling out. They still can’t offload big boats, the containers, the cranes, so that’s going to be a slow start.”

In the village of Paix Bouche, inland and east of Portsmouth, Frampton Ettienne resupplied his store Friday for the first time since the storm. He’d come from an off-island trip to Guadalupe and pulled up with a truck full of food and a gas generator.

“There’s no stores in Dominica. No supermarket to supply the village with food. So I do what I have to do, go abroad to get it and bring it back,” Ettienne said.

There are hardware stores starting to restock in Rouseau, the capital, and Portsmouth, Otis said, but that’s only the first part of the problem.

“The unemployment was high here already. How many hotels are not going to open back? Businesses not opening back? Even if stuff’s coming in, people are not going to have money. It’s going to be a struggle to rebuild,” Otis said.

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