Dominica was hit hard by hurricane Maria last year. This little island was devastated. Since Dominica is a country they struggle to get any aid. For example, St. Maarten was hit by Irma and is a French island. It wasn’t long before aid started to arrive from France. Puerto Rico received aid (eventually) from the USA as it is a territory. But, Dominica is off most people’s radar when they think of donating for hurricane relief. We were safely in Grenada when Irma and Maria struck. Grenada is also an independent island and knows firsthand the aftermath of a violent storm (Ivan 2004). Grenada was the first to send aid to Dominica and we watched the boats being loaded just across the water from our dock. We heard things were bad. Now, we are hearing personal tales of survival from the people living here.
We stopped only at the most northern port of Portsmouth in Prince Rupert Bay. It is a large natural harbor with a small town. A few years ago, crime was on the rise on this island and cruisers started to sail past it. Too many people lost their livelihood when the tourists stopped coming so they did something about it. The area formed an association called Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services or PAYS. PAYS is a group of local boaters who patrol the harbor. They work mostly for tips and will assist in picking up a mooring buoy, anchoring, taking trash, or tours of the island. There is not much that PAYS doesn’t do for boaters. Upon entering the bay, we were welcomed by Daniel aboard Edison. The members of the PAYS team have markings on their boats identifying them as such. The boats are brightly painted and the members are friendly. They have learned being friendly translates into good tips. We decided to pick up a mooring buoy for a small nightly fee. We could anchor for free but really wanted to give some money to PAYS as they have made Dominica a safe spot for cruisers once again. Once securely tied off, Daniel offered to take us over to Customs and Immigration saving us from immediately having to set up our dinghy. Only one person needs to take all the paperwork, the Captain. The crew can stay on the boat. It was Cindy’s turn to be Captain and she went with Daniel while I tidied up the Puffster. It didn’t take Cindy long to be whisked off across the bay to the Government building completing the paperwork gaining us legal entry. When we returned she talked about how Daniel had lost everything in the storm. His house was completely gone along with the contents. All he cared about was his family was safe and he still has a boat a VHF radio so he can continue to earn a living. Cindy paid Daniel twice the going rate. His face lit up and I thought she was going to get a hug.
The losses experienced by Dominicans on their independent island are monumental life changing events. To evacuate ahead of the storm is not feasible. Neighboring islands are also in the eye path and there is not enough transport to move all the residents. Locals ride out the hurricane in solid concrete shelters, usually churches or community centers. These buildings are not immune to damage. Merely surviving the storm is not the only difficult part. The following months or years will truly test people’s ability to overcome adversity. In Daniels case, he lost his house. It is not like he can just check into a hotel; the hotels are all damaged by the storm. He has no place to live and everything inside his house is lost. People whose houses survived the storm and are still inhabitable open their doors to others like Daniel and his family. They are welcomed guests for as long as they need to stay. Daniel was fortunate he still has his boat and can make living, but will the cruising boats come this season after the storm? Will sailors still spend money to tour a devastated island? And, when Daniel does get enough money to start to rebuild his house, are the materials going to be available? There will be a shortage of building supplies for years to come. Everyone needs a roof. Everyone suffered damage to their home. According to some sources, about 90% of homes and business on Dominica were damaged. As we walk the streets, I think this is a fair estimate.
PAYS hosts a BBQ for cruisers every Sunday evening during the season. A general announcement is made on the VHF and then one of the PAYS team will hop from boat to boat selling tickets. The money from this event helps pay for their building which now sports a new roof, the newly rebuilt dinghy dock and maintenance of the mooring buoys. When the PAYS boat pulled alongside Cream Puff we purchased two tickets and was told the menu for the evening was BBQ chicken, fish, rice, salad and rum punch. It is all you can eat and drink with music entertainment. The ticket price was EC$50 each, about US$18.50 or 15€. A deal!
We were happy to see a big turnout for the evening, about a hundred people. With the rum punch flowing freely before the chicken was placed on the grill, it didn’t take long for the crowd to get loud and friendly. A good time was had by all. And, while all the people from the anchored boats are at this event, a couple a guys from PAYS are patrolling the harbor to ensure nobody takes advantage of the empty yachts. We sat at a table with people from Australia, USA, Norway and England. As the emcee for the evening wrapped up his welcome, he asked for people to shout out their home country. I was amazed that at this moment in time on this tiny little island about fifteen countries were represented. The most interesting person I found in the evening was a fellow named Rus who had been cruising the globe for the past seventeen years. He suffered a stroke when in the South Pacific but recovered enough to still keep going. He was on his way back to the USA where he plans to sell his boat and once again become a land lubber. When talking to Rus about his adventures I noticed peacefulness about him. He seemed very content with life and I wonder if I will ever experience the same contentment. I also wonder how long we will cruise and where our journey will take us. Talking to Rus made me realize how much further we can sail if we chose to.
We only planned to stop in Dominica for a couple of days to rest before heading on to Guadeloupe. However, the weather Gods had different plans for us. The wind has howled for 5 straight days with gusts well into the 40 knot range. The offshore forecast is for snotty seas and steady 30 knot winds. This is the sort of weather that makes us appreciate not having a schedule and being able to sit and wait for a better day to sail. Along with the high winds, Dominica is living up to its reputation as the rainy island. We are treated constantly to ten minute showers followed by awesome rainbows. The winds associated with this front are cool and feel good as they blow though our open hatches and whisk about inside Cream Puff. We now refer to our hatches a “rain makers”. It the hatch is open, rain is imminent within 10 minutes. If the hatch is closed, no rain. We are controlling the weather!
Dominica is referred to as The Nature Island. Nature heals itself much faster than humans can rebuild. After a hurricane, the greenery on the island is gone. The leaves are blown off the trees. Any crops and vegetation are smashed to the ground by hard rain. Nothing survives 200 mile an hour winds. Locals complain about the incredible intense heat after the storm. They have no roofs on their houses and no shade. Humidity is high and it is summer in the tropics. Trees snapped in half will eventually die. As far as trees go, loosing leaves and shedding branches is the best way to survive the storm. The least wind resistance they have the better the chances of not being snapped in half. As we look about the island today, the trees have leaves again on the short stubby branches that managed to remain part of the trunk. The odd shape of the trees will be gone in a couple of years as things grow quickly in the tropics. But, the pieces of corrugated tin roofing wrapped around or embedded into them will be there for years to come reminding Dominicans of the storm. The 19th of September, 2017 will never be forgotten on Dominica. I hope the rest of the world hasn’t forgotten yet either.
Two things struck me pretty hard during our visit to Dominica. First, was that the loss of life was not more momentous. Looking at the aftermath some five months later and seeing firsthand the significance of the damage, I was stunned to think anyone at all could escape unscathed. Thirty one people died during the storm. Another thirty people are still unaccounted for. The second thing was the attitude of the people we met. They were truly happy to be alive and really focusing on putting some level of normalcy back into their lives. Cindy and I walked slowly with a local lady for about a half a mile and talked as we strolled together to the town of Portsmouth. Her self assigned new mission in life is to replant the flowers along the roadside. She told us about how there were so many colorful plants before the storm and about how much she enjoyed the walk down this road. She is going to make sure those colorful plants are there again. She pointed out some of the stalks starting to grow leaves and assured us there would be a big plant there again soon, with a little care. We passed a slab of concrete. She said that used to be her Baptist church, “We’ll rebuild it, one day”. This was the only time the lady looked deeply saddened. “It’s only been five months and already we can walk down the street. A few weeks ago this road was still blocked with debris”. This accomplishment bought some pep back into her step. We continued to walk slowly as she pointed out some new plants she had made from cuttings. “It’s been only five months and look how much we have done. Yes, we have a lot more to do but look at how much has been done”. It was at this moment, we both understood the significance of her words. It’s truly truly truly incredible how much has been done and how people are taking it upon themselves to do it.
If you find yourself blessed with a comfortable life and would like to make a donation to the people of Dominica, here is one of many sites where you can help: Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund