My Disaster Aid Deployment to Dominica Part I

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

My Disasteraid Deployment to Dominica Part II

I Want To Become A DART But Is My Head Too Blunt?

In September 2017 I travelled 4000+ miles to attend a four day course in Maryland, USA. The course was the culmination of my application to become a DART (Disaster Aid Response Team member) for Disaster Aid UK and Ireland (DAUKI). Having decided it was a long way to go for a four day course, my wife Shona and I travelled out for a few days holiday in Baltimore before the course. She then flew to Florida to shop whilst I was on my course and we met at BWI Airport to fly home together.

DAUKI is a project of The Rotary Club as are the other Disaster Aid countries including amongst others; Disaster Aid USA (DAUSA) and Australia. All the Disasteraid organisations act independently but also come together under the umbrella of Disaster Aid International.  Because DAUKI had no pending training courses I had elected to travel to the USA to join in the course that DAUSA were running. The quicker I was trained, the quicker I was deployable.

I met some very interesting and impressive people both instructors and students and formed what I am sure will be lifelong friendships. It felt like a unique and life changing experience. How many folk travel 4000 miles for a weekend course?

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We spent some of the course in a field with a large tent as the class room and slept in the same 8 person tents we would distribute to people in need at disaster locations.

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I Once Knew A Girl Called Maria

1 October 2017 was the final day of the course at a hotel and instead of an arbitrary exercise we were split into groups and tasked with researching current disasters. The course director Larry’s aim was to gather intelligence for possible deployments and use us to come up with ideas and also give us realistic training. On the job training indeed. I was with Dan and Christine the other two British students and we were tasked with looking at the Caribbean. After a few false starts we honed in on Dominica and focussed our attention there and analysed how Hurricane Maria had affected the island state. We eventually presented our findings on a flip chart. Larry asked lots of questions and had me going back to various points. At first, I wondered if we were off track and was thinking “crap I’ve messed it up!”  but we were eventually congratulated for good work and Larry announced that a deployment to Dominica was a distinct possibility. Phew!

The course ended, we all passed and I had learned some ‘merican y’all. I crossed the Atlantic wondering if and when I would ever be deployed. I didn’t have to wait long.  A couple of weeks later I was asked to go to Puerto Rico which had also been hit by Hurricane Maria. I scurried round getting my gear organised and getting inoculations but just before leaving, my part of the deployment was cancelled. I was disappointed but by now realised that uncertainty and flexibility were the name of the game, so I was fairly philosophical. I was told that my deployment was cancelled to save some funds for another potential deployment.

It slowly sank into my head that Dominica could be on the cards and I began some internet research in case I was picked for that.

Preparations

As I began to research I found some horrific and heart-breaking scenes on the internet. Having entered #Dominica I found a video on Twitter of a woman wandering round the remains of her house. All that was standing was a bit of one of the exterior walls and an interior wall or two. She had lost everything and probably didn’t have that much to start with.

This hardened my resolve to go if I got the chance, after some folk were questioning why I was going. At that point I couldn’t even explain to myself why I wanted to go. Did I need the hassle? Did I need the stress?  Was I risking PTSD? Was I risking harm from humans, mosquitos or any other things that wanted to eat me?  There didn’t appear to be any crocodiles which is always a good start!  I’m not too worried about running away from a crocodile as I’m usually going to be a faster runner than whoever I’m with …  but still!

I suppose there is an element of adventure, mixed in with helping people less fortunate. My thoughts were and still are that some elements of a deployment could be distressing, some could make me wonder what the …. I was doing there whilst other elements could be uplifting and even funny but ultimately, I would come home having hopefully risen to the challenges and feeling that I had done something worthwhile. I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone or to say look at me, how wonderful am I?

On 1 November 2017 I received an email asking if I could go on deployment to Dominica around 10 November 2017 with Tore from the USA as the team leader, and could I reply as quickly as possible. Tore had been an instructor on my course.  It took three minutes to type my answer; YES. Was that quick enough?

This time things started to move apace and the third team member was soon identified as Suzie, also from the UK. Things never faltered either and this time it began to be obvious I was actually going, although I never relaxed or fully believed it until the plane took off

I continued gathering intelligence right up to the minute I left and amassed a good deal of information which I shared with Tore and Suzie.

The following is some of the main points and helps understand the situation:

Dominica, should not be confused with the more built up Dominican Republic, a separate island state in the Caribbean. Originally, I was pronouncing it as DOMIN IKA but later learnt that the correct pronunciation is DOMEN EEKA more like the French version Dominique. It was named by Christopher Columbus because he passed on a Sunday.

It was a possession of France and then Great Britain who colonized the island in 1805 and finally it gained its independence 1978. The population of around 73,000 live mainly in towns around the coast and is 86% black. 3,000 Kalinago people still living on Dominica are the only pre-Columbian population remaining in the eastern Caribbean and they mainly live in what is known as the Kalinago Territory.

Dominica’s economy has been dependent on agriculture – primarily bananas, but more recently has been driven by tourism as the government seeks to promote Dominica as an “ecotourism” destination. Known as “The Nature Island of the Caribbean” due to its spectacular, lush, and varied flora and fauna.

Ross University,an American medical university at Portsmouth in the north provides a high percentage of the GDP and has around 1300 students. This is a major source of employment and revenue, particularly in Portsmouth with bars, restaurants and hotels relying on the income derived from the campus.

I also found the latest statistics in relation to the humanitarian relief effort and a spreadsheet giving contact details of agencies and Non Government Organisations (NGOs) in the field all co-ordinated by the United Nations.

No Babies Will Be Named Maria For A While

Maria, the 13th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, became a category 5 hurricane, the highest level, near the Leeward Islands on Monday 18 September 2017 and its first landfall was Dominica at approximately 9:35pm that same day as an extremely strong hurricane with wind speeds in excess of 155 mph.

 

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Imagine what would be going through your head as Hurricane Maria approaches and you read the bulletins or hear the news on the TV or radio. How would you feel as you stared into your husband’s eyes? What would it be like as a father with your children looking at you with big eyes and trusting expressions knowing that Daddy always protects them? You can protect them from a lot of things but from the full wrath of Maria?  What would it feel like, as you hear the roof straining and tearing and that the only thing between your family and the full fury of the storm is a flimsy roof, that you really meant to put a few more nails in last month? When the unthinkable happens how do you keep your brood together?

Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica only two or so weeks after Hurricane Irma had caused considerable damage. Maria is undoubtedly the worst Hurricane ever to hit Dominica. It struck in the south east, swirled around the mountains in the centre then went back and exited the island on the north west near Portsmouth before going on to cause havoc, death and destruction across the Caribbean and Americas.

Maria tore every leaf from every tree, blew many over, flattened banana trees and took the tops off the cocoa nut trees. Official government figures state that 100% of agriculture was wiped out. Entering the populated areas, the wind ripped the roofs off houses, flattened and carried away the less sturdy houses and threw objects as large as shipping containers around like twigs. Even if the roof stayed affixed, the wind found its way into the houses by blasting open doors and windows then unless pressure could be relieved by opening the opposite door the pressure could cause the house to implode.

Just as bad, Dominica has 365 rivers, one for each day of the year as they say, proudly. The rivers became choked and blocked with debris then turned into dams with the incessant lashing tropical rain. The dams grew higher and higher until they burst, crashing through and carrying all before them, sweeping houses, bridges and other impediments along in a headlong dash to the sea.

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The storm lasted all night and by daybreak the tropical island paradise was broken and cut off from the world. Even the Prime Minister lost the roof of his home such is the egalitarian nature of the Hurricane. The first contact with the outside world was via a ham radio operator as all power, telephones and the internet were severed. Mains water supplies were disrupted, roads were impassable, bridges were broken down, every plant had lost every leaf, if it was even standing and it must have seemed like Armageddon to the stunned survivors.

 

As Dominica’s World Falls Apart The World Comes to Dominica

The world began to swing into action and the relief effort began.

Disaster Aid like most other NGOs specialises in certain products and ours is:

Water filters (Sawyer or Sky-hydrant)

Tents

Shelter Repair Kits

Disaster Aid is a small charity run by volunteers and it takes a while for it to be safe enough to send volunteers and to accurately assess the need and to establish contact with local Rotary Clubs. However, Disaster Aid officials swung into action and on 8 November 2017 I was on a plane from Glasgow to London Gatwick. In my hold luggage I had 50 Sawyer water filters.

I stayed overnight in a nearby hotel and the following morning checked into my flight to St Lucia. I was meeting Suzie at the Airport and as an experienced traveller she had taken over some of the travel arrangement burden. She had managed to route us to St Lucia then after an overnight there, we would get the ferry to Dominica. By this time, I had chatted online with Suzie but had never met her or spoken with her and had no idea what she looked like.

All I knew was that Suzie was a Project Manager who had recently returned from, a backpacking trip to Ethiopia. That implied to me that she was adventurous and self- reliant but again that’s a generalisation.

After a reflective coffee looking at the replies to my departing Facebook message and all the good luck messages, I made my way to Gate 33 and looked around for Suzie. Could that be her?  No. Is that her?   Nope.  Finally, I saw a woman who I thought fitted the bill, busy typing into her phone and I began to walk over but held off on approaching. I had made my usual joke that I would be wearing a red carnation and would be holding a copy of the Times. For once it was nearly accurate as I was wearing a poppy and actually did have the Times which been given out for free. As I looked at this woman, my phone pinged with a Whatsap message “Hey Matt sorry am at gate. Been on phone !! Are u on plane?”  I took great delight in quickly replying “might be standing next to you” and her head turned to me and we both burst out laughing. A good start.

The British Airways flight to Hewanorra Airport in St Lucia was pleasant but uneventful and we chatted and got to know each other.

On exiting the airport, we emerged into baking hot heat and politely declined the tourist taxis and the package holiday tour reps and found a bus that took us a short distance into town. From there we jumped into a local bus to take us from the south east to the north west of the island to be near the ferry terminal at Castries.

These local buses are amazing and are small, mainly Toyota minibuses with 15 passenger seats and they are very quickly jam packed. If you put your bags on a seat you pay for the seat, so our luggage was on top of us and in front of our legs and we could barely move sitting on 3 seat bench behind the driver. 8 $East Caribbean ($EC) £2.40 was the incredibly cheap fare. As soon as the full bus moved off, I realised that having our bags in front of us was an absolute boon because I could see out of the front windscreen and it was not a pretty or re-assuring sight.

The bus was going at breakneck speed, overtaking on blind bends as was the rest of the traffic and right behind the car in front. Allied to this was a preponderance of duct tape around the interior which appeared to be holding the bus together. I realised that we were probably the safest passengers on the bus and that our luggage would act as airbags in the event of a collision.

At one point fairly early on, the driver was not far from a rear end shunt with the vehicle in front and a female at the back remonstrated with the driver. He then launched into a five minute tirade, where he went on and on without drawing breath. We could hardly make out a word that he said but it was hilarious and if nothing else his lung capacity was admirable. Eventually a man from the back told him to shut up and drive and the entertainment stopped.

At this point we still had no accommodation for the night as our intended guesthouse had not returned Suzie’s email but the guy sitting next to her said he was the finance director at a hospital and chatted to us in the most friendly and welcoming way. He eventually took Suzie’s phone and confirmed our booking.

This man’s friendly helpfulness proved to be the norm on both islands and people were so helpful and friendly even before they knew we were there to help. When they did know or saw our uniform t shirts they were even more effusive and stopped us in the street, shook our hands and thanked us for coming. Given that we were more often than not, the only white faces in a sea of black, the level of racial harmony was astonishing. The rest of the world needs to bottle this.

The bus dropped us off right at Eudovics Guesthouse where we booked in and quickly showered and went out for dinner. My bed was decorated in tropical flowers.

The owner of the guesthouse then drove us to a local restaurant and introduced us to the staff before leaving us to enjoy a delicious meal of salt fish, bananas and green bananas. Our drink was Sour orange from a tree in the garden. We chatted with a couple of ladies who grew bananas and learned all that you need to know about bananas and more. The restaurant staff flagged down a bus to get us back to the guesthouse, nothing was too much trouble.

We were up early the next morning and jumped on another bus which screetched to a halt as we flagged it down and in minutes we were at the ferry terminal and booking onto the ferry. My bag was searched at security and the security officer was holding her nose and putting Vick in her nostrils I presumed she had a cold but I remember thinking “wait till you smell things in two weeks” but she was pleasant enough.

Our first stop was Martinique, a French island and the rain was chucking it down good style but the scenery was good even then.

About 1050 I got my first sight of Dominica and at the same time a movie started on the TV monitors; The Smurfs. As far as I was concerned that was a good omen, given my long-standing nickname of Papa Smurf. As we got closer I could see green tree covered mountains but the trees on the summit ridges were a bit barer and looking skeletal.

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Our Arrival In The Broken Garden of Eden

On arrival in Dominica we were met by Alan from the car rental company who took us from Roseau to Portsmouth to collect the car. En route we stopped for lots of pictures of damage including shipping containers that had been blown across the road, houses and buildings de-roofed. Debris was bad around the frequent rivers. Alan gave us a good commentary and perspective that helped us grasp the situation and begin to see it from the survivors point of view.

 

Six weeks on, greenery was recovering and already a lot of stuff was growing. The roads were very windy and steep anyway but were covered in debris. Bits of road had been swept away, bridges were missing and detours went through land to the side.

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After sorting out the car hire and driving permits we finally drove up a hill, using maps.me to great effect and found Hotel the Champs owned by Lise and Hans our local Rotary contacts from Rotary Club Portsmouth. Hans and Lise are Dutch and you couldn’t meet nicer, friendlier, more energetic and public-spirited people and we immediately felt at home. They had suffered a lot of damage to the bar, restaurant and roof but were re-opening on Friday and Saturday evenings serving pizzas. On getting to know Hans and Lise, it is obvious that Hans is a bit of a wine buff and both enjoy fine dining but sensibly for the time being are limiting their operation to pizzas. This keeps it simple and attracts customers to have a respite and a nice meal out and gets the hotel working again but more importantly, creates employment for the hotel staff.

 

 

We were shown to our rooms and I took pictures of a stunning sunset. We had dinner with Lise and Hans. Lion fish with green beans, carrots and onions. It was lovely.

Next day the work starts.

 

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(continues in Part II)

Author: Matt Gemmell

I'm retired and active in Ultra Running and many other outdoor activities. I do voluntary work with a Childrens' Hospice, Ultra Running Races and as a Disaster Aid Response Team member. I'm just me but some folk seem to find my stuff interesting for some bizzarre reason.

2 thoughts on “My Disaster Aid Deployment to Dominica Part I”

  1. I visited Dominica in December 2015. Even then there was considerable damage from a hurricane in October. Your post made me think back to that beautiful, undeveloped raw diamond of an island, and especially its people. I travel a lot and Dominica is one of the top places in the world I have visited with regard to people. Thank you for this and the fantastic work you are doing! And keep on writing!

    Like

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