A report by Janise Elie for London’s Guardian.
When it rains or the wind blows in the tiny fishing village of Scotts Head, the youngest residents run for cover. With Dominica’s once-lush landscape deeply scarred by the unprecedented fury of Hurricane Maria only weeks earlier, the signs of nature’s wrath are everywhere and felt by everyone.
“The children are terrified the hurricane will return – we all are. Everybody is still in shock,” says Guadiosa Ytac, 49, who left London for the Caribbean more than a decade ago.
On Monday 18 September, in the dead of night, the category 5 storm bore down on the island and lashed it for hours. Torrential rain and 160mph gusts tore off roofs, smashed through walls, uprooted trees and lifted roads. Communication towers snapped in two, schools were flattened and electricity cut. Nothing was spared.
In the few short hours between sundown and sunrise, the 29-mile by 16-mile “Nature Island” – which boasted dozens of waterfalls, rainforests, nine active volcanoes and 365 rivers – was reduced to rubble, lurching from tropical paradise with a burgeoning eco-tourism sector to abject poverty and ruin in a single night.
Ytac’s roof, windows and front door were smashed in by the hurricane, leaving mounds of concrete, dirt and shattered glass scattered throughout the two-bedroom house she shares with her teenage son.
She counts herself one of the lucky ones. Only a few yards away, her neighbour, a woman in her 80s, is missing, presumed dead.
“That night the waves were higher than the houses, higher even than the coconut trees,” Ytac says. “By morning, there was nothing left of my neighbour’s home on the seafront – not even a scrap of furniture. She was gone and so was her house. The sea took it all.”
With 95% of buildings damaged or destroyed and the few remaining roads still clogged with tree trunks, the distribution of aid – much of which has come from neighbouring islands – has been treacherous and slow.
Approximately 3,000 Dominicans are living in shelters; the rest are staying with relatives and friends, according to the UN, which launched an appeal for $31.1m (£23.4m) to reach at least 90% of residents – about 65,000 people – in the next three months.
Informal estimates suggest one-fifth of the population have fled the island since September, with ferry operators reporting that a growing number of passengers are opting for one-way tickets.
But what of those who remain, marooned without work or permanent shelter? What are their hopes for the future now that the country has, according to the prime minister, been reduced to “worse than a war zone”?
“Things were so hard straight after the hurricane. We had nothing,” says Ytac. “Every day my son would go to the bay, hoping to get a delivery of food and bottles of water. He would stand there from morning to night, watching as neighbours collected boxes of supplies delivered by their relatives on fishing boats from Guadeloupe and Martinique. But every day he would leave empty handed and disappointed … We have no one there to help us.
“Some emergency goods have been arriving in Scotts Head over the past couple of weeks – biscuits, corned beef, napkins, that kind of thing – but we still struggle to get the stuff that everybody wants, like water. We have a drum to collect rainwater, but some days it’s dry and there just isn’t enough.”
“The recovery feels so slow, and the days and nights are so long. I received a solar lamp recently, which has been a godsend as it gets dark by 5.30pm. I’ve been told there will be no electricity until next year. There is no post, barely any internet and the phone lines don’t work properly, which makes me feel trapped here.
“Roseau used to be so busy; now there are hardly any shops. We had several supermarkets, but now there are only two. Many shops went bankrupt because people were hungry and came from other villages and stole all the food. Now the army and police guard the shops and only five customers are allowed in for 10 minutes each. The queue goes all the way down the main road and around the corner.
“I spend a lot of time worrying about the future. I worked in town as a housekeeper for a Brazilian woman, but she was hit by a flying door in the hurricane and left. Many Chinese and Indian business owners have also returned home, leaving many of us with no jobs. Now my boss has gone; I am so stressed – I have no way of making money.
“It feels like Dominica is finished.”
When Hurricane Maria struck, Dominica was still recovering from tropical storm Erika, which pummeled the island in August 2015. That disaster caused $483m of damage there, according to the World Bank, equivalent to 90% of its GDP. Estimates suggest Maria wrought far greater devastation.
According to rules set by the western-dominated Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, some Caribbean countries are considered too wealthy to qualify for aid. This is despite the fact that many western states have had centuries of financial ties with the region that began with the transatlantic slave trade.
Dominica has so far received a pledge of £5m from the UK. Some relief has also come from UN agencies such as Unicef. The children’s division of the organisation has been on the ground providing temporary learning spaces and classroom equipment.
Perhaps most beneficial has been its school-in-a-box kit, which contains materials for an entire classroom packed into a portable aluminium case. A box includes a solar/wind-up radio and even an inflatable globe for geography lessons; the inside lid doubles as a blackboard when coated with the special paint provided.
There are plans to reopen 25 of the country’s 76 government-owned primary and secondary schools, some of which were either damaged or being used for shelter.
Emrode, 14, has had no classes for five weeks. He was in bed when Maria made landfall and, when he ventured out at dawn, he discovered his home had been badly damaged. Many of his friends’ houses were obliterated, and his school’s roof was sliced off.
“So many houses were broken around here that nobody can come to school now. A lot of the buildings were made of wood and aluminium, and the hurricane just ripped them to pieces. Most of my friends’ homes are damaged – and some don’t even have a home any more.
“I know fifth formers who are studying in tents, but there aren’t classes every day. Because I’m not sitting my main exams next year, my education is not considered as much of a priority as the older kids.
“It’s so boring without school that I read books and do the gardening to pass the time. Sometimes I meet my friends and we play basketball or cricket. We would rather be at school, but we try not to think about that.
“I was doing well and getting good grades; now I don’t even know when I’ll be able to continue my studies. I have no clue what is going to happen next, and it’s scary.”
“People are trying to be strong in Dominica, like everything is fine, but it’s not. Everywhere needs rebuilding but there is no money to rebuild things with. OK, so we have some food and water – but how long for? Everything else is gone.”