HURRICANE MARIA – MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
On 21st September here in Dominica we were still mopping the sweat from our brow. after having expected Hurricane Irma to hit a week or so before. It had taken a turn North “like they all do” and we were reading with horror the devastating effects on the the other, more Northerly Caribbean Islands. We were appreciating our luck, which was kind of expected – after all, Dominica hadn’t experienced a serious hurricane for 40 years.
Then, all of a sudden, the little pretty but disorganised swirl of colour on the satellite image of the Atlantic was given the name Tropical Storm “Maria.” A few hours later, reports read it would turn into a Category 1 or 2 becoming Hurricane Maria, possibly passing or hitting the North of Dominica.
John and I live near Castle Bruce, around half way down on the East Coast.
Better to be safe than sorry, John went out to stick a large bolt to the inside of the little storeroom. We had decided this is the safest bet for a hurricane shelter, due to its having a concrete roof. He drills some small air holes into the door, as there is no ventilation, and we hurriedly throw a few things in – water, loo rolls, bucket, passport, cushions. We decide it will be “good practice for a real Hurricane”.
When the electricity and cell phone service go off late afternoon, we watch the weather from the porch, still not particularly worried. Its raining a fair bit, but that’s not unusual. At 5pm, we can see bad weather 3 miles away, towards the coast to the East, and it’s passing North as predicted. As it will soon be dark, we decide to settle in the little shelter ready for what should be Category 2 Hurricane Maria, and take our 4 dogs, and our ipads, so we can read. It’s now getting a little breezy outside.
HURRICANE MARIA STRIKES
Around 7pm, out of the blue, it sounds like a jumbo jet is landing in our garden. What the ????! As we live next to a rainforest, we simultaneously hear several trees snapping at once. The river is now roaring – with boulders and trees crashing on their way downstream. This is actually really bad news – we haven’t had enough rain for this flooding, which means that the rain must have fallen on the West Coast, which doesn’t have the terrain to cope with it. This goes on for the next SEVEN hours….
River raging, boulders crashing, trees falling, land sliding, the house and outbuilding roofs being wrenched off, the furniture in the bedroom upstairs being thrown about, thunder booming, and above all this noise the sound of Hurricane Maria which we later found was now Category 5. All this time, John is strapped to the door, as the wind tries to pull it out of its hinges, despite the extra bolt. He daren’t let go. Occasionally, the wind died down for a minute or two, but then it always seemed to come back with a vengeance. There was a surreal peace around 5 hours in – the eye – when the wind dropped, although the river still raged. we gingerly ventured out, holding onto each other, shone flashlights, had a super quick “bathroom break”! We couldn’t see much in the darkness. (I remember accidentally dropping a small piece of toilet paper outside, and thinking ” I must remember to pick that up in the morning”……ha.) The wind started again, and then, around 2am, the noise actually increased! We wouldn’t have thought that was possible! It turned out that, with that last gust of wind, a flying tree had hit our house, and this caused the whole two storey end wall to fly into our shelter, and then away over the garden.
Then finally Hurricane Maria left us. It gradually got quieter. Another (I can laugh now, moment) was that the flying tree had engaged the lock on the outside of the shed, so we were locked in! The door would’t open, and at first I thought we were covered by landslide, and the door was blocked. We quickly worked out what had happened, but it took around 30 minuted to slide a thin piece of plastic to pop off the outside lock!
At 5am, the sun started to rise, and we could see the devastating effects Hurricane Maria for the first time.
HURRICANE MARIA – THE MORNING AFTER
At sunrise, John and I open the door of our tiny hurricane shelter, and step outside. My first thought – “It’s a scene from the Apocalypse.” The rising sun is slowly illuminating total devastation. Our surroundings are barely recognisable.
We notice the trees first, as our house is surrounded by forest. There are no leaves…no branches…and not a strip of bark left on a single tree.They all look like skeletons – and so many of them fallen or in the process of falling. We can see bare earth between them, and landslides all around us, but luckily not near the house. It’s deathly quiet – not a sound apart from the background roar of the river. It’s all surreal and oddly beautiful. We can see for miles with no foliage left to hinder our vision. But it’s hard to believe anyone actually survived this – Hurricane Maria was no “category 1 passing North!
I am hoping that all our friends in Dominica went to hurricane shelters, but last time I was in contact with them, they were all (as we were) just planning to “ride it out” in their own homes. I push this thought to the back of my mind – there is no way of knowing – the main road is seriously blocked in both directions by landslides. There is no cell phone service, and in fact not a single upright telephone pole left. It took about three weeks to get the news on everyone – as I saw my friends and the children in the village, or heard from people who had actually seen them. I sobbed with relief every time that I found out they were ok and not among the casualties.
HURRICANE MARIA – THE DAMAGE
Surveying the damage to our property – two sheds completely disappeared. Another two outbuildings without roof, the dog kennel flat. Our main wooden house had no galvanised roof, although most of the interior ceiling remained, through which water was pouring in. The whole end wall was gone, but inside, the furniture remained just as we had left it, but flooded with rain water and completely covered in branches and leaves, with an overpowering scent of the forest.
Ok. We need to assess. First rule of survival is shelter. Luckily, a mostly undamaged square of roof has remained over the small outside patio and bathroom. And we have dry toilet paper – definitely a plus!
Next rule – sustenance. Gas cooker is wet, but working, I have bottles of water. I’m British. So of course, I put the kettle on, and make coffee and find the custard creams. (Cookies)
The dogs have remained calm throughout everything, and they are eagerly sniffing their new surroundings. As the fences have gone, they are free to explore. So they do. We look outside again – there is debris everywhere- all the way down to the river, interspersed with colourful items, which turn out to be a fair proportion of my school arts and crafts supplies – and most noticeably, dozens of Christmas tree decorations.
And glass. John breeds fish, and four of his large fish tanks have exploded, and are spread all over. (We never found the fish, though). All the huge fish ponds are gone too. There are nails sticking out everywhere. Within 5 minutes, we have both cut ourselves in several places, but thankfully, the dogs are more careful. Luckily, I have lots of bandages, antibiotic lotion and Dettol. I put duct tape over the bandages to keep the cuts dry.
We hear shouting – our neighbour, Rhyan has tackled landslides and fallen trees to get to the ridge overlooking our house. We give a thumbs up. There’s no way to reach each other.
SURVIVING AFTER HURRICANE MARIA
Our water supply is damaged, so John goes to put it back together, and clean out all the debris, at the same time fixing a supply in the road, so when people eventually pass, they can drink clean water. There is plenty of food – the fridge and freezer are full, and we have lots of tinned goods, and dry food too.
We need somewhere to sleep, though, as both beds -bedroom and spare- are soaked, and we have no way of getting them out of the rain to dry them out. Luckily, two of our sofas are part leather, and although soaked inside, they will suffice as beds, so John and I heave them on to the patio, where they just fit. In between them, we make beds for the dogs. We have a torch, and have already salvaged a solar light from the garden.
John and I are permanently soaked through ourselves for the first few days. Our clothes are all wet, rain pours in everywhere, and there is just no way to get dry. Every gust of wind sounds like an approaching hurricane – it’s hard to stay upbeat, but somehow we do. Mostly.
A stroke of luck, though – John finds our huge roll of plastic sheeting down by the river, and I have a heavy duty stapler, so over the next few days, we get to work hanging the sheeting everywhere, in an effort to dry out the house, furniture and ourselves. We have to put duct tape on the edges, so it doesn’t rip out of the walls, but eventually, we have a lot of the water redirected towards the walls, and we drill holes in the upstairs wooden floor, and put barrels under downstairs to manage the water more efficiently. We have to empty the barrels everyday, but it’s much easier than buckets everywhere and sweeping out constantly.
The stairs are now hanging at a funny angle, so John has to reattach them so they won’t collapse. Of course, everything has to be completed in daylight, including making food, and in the evenings, there is nothing to do but talk to each other. The batteries have nearly gone on all the electronic devices, as I didn’t think to turn them off, and we have no way to charge them. There’s no knowing how long it will be before power is restored.
All our clothes and bedding are soaked, so I make a washing line inside the house and we tack more plastic sheet above it. I have a mountain of bedding, clothes, pillows and rugs etc to try and salvage, so do some each day. Some of our furniture falls apart when we move it, so we throw it outside to burn later.
Both John and I are suffering with lots of open cuts, so John has to go around banging in nails, and I try and collect some of the glass in the immediate vicinity. There are also hundreds of brass tacks I was saving for another art class -and they all seem to be facing upwards…
We clean a lot of debris from the house the first week, but the leaves are stuck fast to the walls and will need scraping off. Some are still there even now. It soon became apparent that the whole house is unsteady and will have to come down. No way am I going through this again. If we stay in Dominica, we will have to build a stronger house. With no way to leave, as we are up in the mountain miles from anywhere, with roads blocked by landslides and fallen trees, there is nothing to do except wait patiently for help to arrive. But that’s another story!