My Disaster Aid Deployment to Dominica Part II

My Disasteraid Deployment to Dominica Part I

http://disasteraiduk.org/

 

On Saturday 11 November 2017 Suzie and I went with Hans in his car to collect Tore from the Charles Douglas Airport in the north-east side of the island. As we left an abolo lizard was next to the car and Hans said that a family of iguanas lived in the hotel grounds.

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We drove into Portsmouth and into a poorer part of town by the sea, really just wooden shacks and shanties and Hans pointed out the home of Wayne Abraham the Ham Radio operator who became the voice of Dominica and the only point of contact to the outside world in the first few days after Maria

En route to pick up Tore we visited villages and spoke to people and tried to ascertain levels of water filters given out. We saw lots more damage including saddest of all a house where five people died. It was now a concrete square beside a river with debris piled high to the right. The people were warned about the danger of the river rising but thought they could get out in time or would hear or see it coming. They and the whole house were swept away as the uncontrollable raging torrent swept through.

 

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We visited the villages of Paix Bouche (literally hush your mouth), Anse de Mai, Calibishie, Woodford Hill and Wesley and spoke with locals and discussed a few ideas that we might be able to help with. On the way we passed some famous and spectacular beaches including Thibaud, Batibou and the romantically named Number One Beach.

As we continued round the island we saw lots of people washing themselves and particularly clothing in rivers. However, as there were often cars nearby these people were possibly not the totally impoverished and it may just have been the easiest way in the circumstances. From what I could see as we swooped past on the narrow twisty roads, the chore was being turned into a wee bit of a party with lots of fun.  How to turn a negative into a positive, Caribbean style.

We met Tore who was waiting for us having just arrived and drove back to the Hotel. Suzie and I updated Tore on our findings so far and that night over dinner we had a meeting with members of Rotary Club Portsmouth; Ezra (President), Ann, Hans and Lise. We shared plate after plate of different pizzas and although I like to try local food most of the time, the varied pizzas were brilliant and perfect for sharing during a meeting. The meeting was very productive and I was very impressed with everyone and how they were trying to help others.

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Almost all our communication was via Whatsap with no voice calls. I occasionally managed to get some internet and started posting on Facebook to keep Dominica and fundraising to the fore. Suzie turned out to be a brilliant exponent of Whatsap and soon had groups made up so that everyone knew what was going on.

The following day, Tore went with Hans and Lise to procure buckets for the water filters and I got on with some admin creating forms. Later Tore, Suzie and I went to meet Sari, a Rotarian in Portsmouth to view some houses she had identified.

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Most international relief organisations try to prioritise the needy and we are no exception. In most survival situations the strong can grab what they need and the vulnerable can be overlooked. So, whilst not ignoring the capable, we look at the vulnerable and needy. Elderly, disabled, mothers with children and so on. We will also try to get to geographically more difficult areas in case people there have been missed.

We had funds to carry out worthwhile projects to help people but we wanted to spread the impact and help as many people as we could, with water filters and repairs to roofs being the main identified need. The main thing with the roofs was to build them back stronger so they had a chance of standing up to the next Hurricane.  However, the basic house also needed to be sound, there is no point of putting a new roof on a house that was too badly damaged.

The first roof we looked at summed this up exactly. A totally needy family in fairly basic housing anyway but Maria stole their roof. Everything looked great from the needs assessment point of view but the rest of the house was so unsound that we could not put a new roof on it.

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We surveyed some more roofs and met some lovely people including Christian (77) and his son- in- law Errol, who had been a prison officer in Wormwood Scrubs and was now retired. Errol showed us his house next door which survived well because the roof was well built. He was present during Maria and the French doors blew in and he had to jam them shut. When he went to close them, Maria threw him across the room onto his back. Flood water damaged the flooring and there were some cracks under the ceiling but he was lucky. Tore and Ezra had a good look at his roof to learn how it survived when others didn’t. Two master builders immediately bonding.

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On Monday 13 November 2017 we travelled down to Roseau, the capital and went to the Fort Young Hotel which had been completely taken over by the relief agencies as their base. We attended a UN Cluster Meeting on WASH (water sanitation and hygiene). As standard practice, the United Nations co-ordinates relief activity and humanitarian effort and hosts meetings in various sectors such as WASH, Shelter, Health and Food security and Nutrition. My first UN Cluster meeting was very interesting and informative. I had been wondering what professional relief workers would think of amateurs but we were warmly welcomed. There were representatives from a large number of NGOs from all round the world. After the meeting we had a training session on how to access a database to record our activity. I ended up taking charge of this for us and over the deployment added our activity in handing out water filters which was then represented on a map.

By the time all these meetings were finished it was dark as we drove back to Hotel the Champs in Portsmouth. All the advice, even before Maria, was not to drive in the dark because of the condition of the road and landslides over precipitous slopes into the sea. However, being used to Scottish roads definitely helped and we were fine. Any time a local came up fast behind me, I just allowed them to pass and we got back with no issues.

On Tuesday 14 November 2017 we followed up a couple of leads given by local Rotary Club members for houses that we could try to help with. The first house was in Sineku in the Kalinago Territory in the east of the island.

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As explained earlier, the Kalinago are the indigenous people and although some people call them Caribs, their own preferred term is Kalinago. The standard of living is possibly a bit poorer in some ways but the people seemed happy. We eventually managed to find the house we were looking for, although the elderly lady owner was not at home. A helpful local man jumped in our car and directed us. The house did seem suitable for us to help with. Whilst there, another local man from nearby asked us to look at his house which had a damaged roof. We did and it looked like another possible project.

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Running a bit late now, we made our way to Wesley to demonstrate and distribute Sawyer Water filters. Hans had arrived ahead of us and everyone had gathered at the police station, having been informed to attend by the local councillor and the Environmental Health Officer.

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The Travelling Medicine Show

All the demonstrations followed a similar pattern and we all took turns at being lead after Tore did the first few. We would explain about dirty water, bacteria and stomach issues. Then we would fill a bucket with water sometimes from pipes sometimes from a river and ask the people if they wanted to drink from it. They would shout “No”. We would then grab a handful of dirt, throw it in the bucket, swirl it around and ask if anyone wanted to drink it now. You can imagine the response!

We would then attach a Sawyer water filter to a bucket and transfer the dirty water to the bucket with the filter attached. The filter is attached to a plastic fitting screwed into a pre-drilled hole in the bucket. A short hose is attached and the other end connects to the actual filter. When the filter is held below the bucket, gravity takes effect and clean, bacteria free water comes out and can be collected in a clean container.

We collected the clean water in a clear bottle and it was obvious that it was crystal clear but there is still a leap of faith that it is bacteria free, so we would take a big swig and you could hear the gasps.

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Then we would ask who wants to drink it now? The braver ones would try and all of a sudden everyone wanted to drink it and then be trained in and receive a water filter and bucket.

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That’s the magic moment when your audience is hooked and we individually trained the recipients to make sure they knew how to assemble, use and clean the filter.

We had some real fun doing this all over the island and because there were no language difficulties it was simplified and we could really get the message across. We were also able to joke about a bit and threaten to pour dirty water over kids’ heads etc and it was all taken in good spirit.

It struck me early on that when Tore was doing his demonstrations he was like the travelling medicine man from the Western movies, selling alcohol as a cure all.

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“How much is your health worth?  Is your husband bald ?  Give him this !  Do you have headaches Maam ? Take this !  Is your husband too frisky Maam ?  Give him this !  Is he not frisky enough …… Cures rheumatism, diabetes and bad breath. Natures true remedy and only $1 a bottle.”

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Professor Tore’s Travelling Medicine Show was all very entertaining and the locals loved it but more importantly we got the message across about the importance of clean safe water.

 

A Very Dubious Character Hands Out Sweets to Kids  

One of the bits of advice I had been given prior to deploying was to take wee daft gifts for the kids. The person advising me had taken loom bands and the kids loved them. I thought about pencils and things but in the end bought 300 foam smiley faces and about 150 packs of Parma Violets sweets.

All my life I have been told never take sweets from a stranger and all my adult life I have been careful not to break that rule as well. But here I was in the Caribbean 4000 miles from home, handing out sweeties to weans.

They loved it and their mothers seemed to like the gesture too and invariably told the child to say thank you and to be fair most of the time they already had. They loved the Parma Violets but what surprised me was the stickers. I thought they would put them on their t shirts or take them home and put them on the wall. Nope, they all invariably put them on their forehead and I went from village to village getting my photograph taken beside children with smiley face stickers on their foreheads. Some of the stickers had sad faces and understandably they were not as popular but some had eyelashes and the boys were adamant that those were for the girls. Hilarious!

We surveyed another house in Woodford Hill and the picture of the lady taking us into her house says it all. She was bent near double walking with a stick. Her house looks as if has a roof but it is just salvaged sheets put on by neighbours,  which leak and will not last the next breeze never mind a hurricane.

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We then went to Calibishie and did another demonstration and distributed filters. A grandmother was there with a baby and Suzie ended up holding the baby which seemed to have a fever. Suzie said she had never felt a child so hot and was quite worried about her.

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My First Ever Rotary Club Meetings

We returned to Portsmouth after issuing about 100 filters and went straight to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Portsmouth at Anne’s house which was interesting and illustrated just how committed and public spirited these people were. Anne’s house had spectacular views and some lovely plants in the garden.

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The following day Wednesday 15 November 2017 we upped sticks and left Hotel the Champs to stay a couple of nights in the capital Roseau and work with the Rotary Club of Roseau along with their President Aylmer

Before leaving we met Ezra at an isolated cottage at Borne and assessed it for a new roof. Everything was wet inside and although the house was uninhabitable it was sound and was given the go ahead by Messrs Ezra and Tore Building Contractors Ltd, Established 2017.

 

We then had a quick visit to a coffee plant being developed by another resident of Hotel the Champs; John. John is an American/Canadian who I could only describe as a coffee magnate and what he doesn’t know about coffee isn’t worth knowing. A fascinating character very passionate about coffee who travels all over the world dealing with coffee, setting up processing plants, training Baristas and anything else coffee. We were lucky enough to be drinking his coffee at the hotel and it was great. John had taken over a coffee processing plant which had been started by Venezuela but had never got off the ground. It was then damaged and flooded by our friend Maria.

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John was working hard to get the plant operational and processing coffee. The first strand was to import the beans from other Caribbean countries and process them. The second strand was to establish coffee plantations in Dominica and start producing high end coffee. Another hugely public spirited person, John was trying to create jobs and wealth, kick-starting the Dominican economy. He could probably walk away and make far more money doing other things but he does what he loves and helps people at the same time. Did I mention he makes great coffee?

 

We then drove down to Roseau to attend the Rotary Club of Roseau meeting and we were a bit early so had a walk around the town. As people saw our logoed t shirts they stopped to shake our hands and thank us.

Walking down by the sea front, benches were bent and mangled and we saw the ironically named Safe Haven Real Estate.

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Mid-afternoon the rain started and soon became Biblical. The gutters at the sides of the roads went from bone dry to about a foot deep of fast flowing water in minutes. The Rotary Club meeting was at the University and we stopped in the nearby Botanic Gardens which had not re-opened after the storm.  There is an African Boabab Tree there which fell and crushed an empty school-bus during Hurricane David in 1979. This has been left as a monument.

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We travelled up the River Roseau valley and saw some horrendous devastation and  some of the most graphically damaged houses we saw in the whole visit.

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The rain had stopped and we went into the University for the Rotary Club meeting. Again, I was impressed by the commitment of everyone led by their President Aylmer who took time away from a very important job to assist us. There was also a bit of humorous banter by a couple of members behind us and the meeting was enjoyable. Early on everyone stood and sang their national anthem “Isle of Beauty” which was not only beautifully sung but was my kind of anthem celebrating the beauty of the land, the rivers and mountains. It was more akin to the beautiful Welsh National anthem “Hen Wladfy Nhadau” (Land of my Fathers) than some of the xenophobic dirges that abound.

During the meeting it began to rain again and got heavier and heavier. When we left it was a mad dash for the car, getting soaked in the process but at least it was warm rain.

A New Addiction is Born

We stayed over the next two nights at Ma Bass Guesthouse. The owner recommended a takeway food shop for breakfast and suggested we might want to try cacoa tea and bakes. Hmmm. We joined the scrum of locals at the front of the tiny shop frontage, not really sure what we were ordering and I ended up with a chicken bake (delicious) and a small cacoa tea.

It took us the rest of the trip to get a proper explanation of what the chocolatey nectar with a hint of cinnamon was. It appears to be dried, fermented and ground cocoa beans which are then formed into sticks. A drink is made of grated cacoa stick boiled up with water and then milk or condensed milk and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Stunning but earthy street food as opposed to cuisine. Funnily enough we went back the following day and the day we left.

We distributed more filters in Giraudel and Eggleston which were quite high up commanding more fantastic views.

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The search for buckets was a continuous and sometimes difficult task but we eventually picked up some on behalf of both Rotary Clubs. We then left our guesthouse and it was all a bit of a rush and I was sweating buckets never mind buying and drilling holes in umpteen of the things.

We drove to an even more remote village Bellvue Chopin to distribute filters and on arrival the difference between the towns and the rural parts became even more pronounced. In the towns there was food to buy by the roadside and in the shops. Out in the country there were large queues of people patiently waiting for food at the community centres. It was very hot and umbrellas were much in evidence as parasols.

 

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Several people spoke to us as we were setting up, wanting filters and buckets and a couple could have become quite threatening. Its easy to see how violence or riots could develop when people are really needy and they don’t think they are going to get any of the aid. As usual good humour and a bit of banter got us through.

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I had a nice conversation with Wanda an off-duty police officer and we compared notes which were surprisingly similar. There were lots of kids and I temporarily ran out of Parma Violets. We had some stunning views on the drive back down and later did another demonstration for Rotary Club members.

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As we drove back to Hotel the Champs, tired but happy I asked the others if anyone else felt as if we were going home and they agreed. Lise was so pleased when I told her.

By this time, I had managed a few posts on Facebook showing our activity and they were also going on DAUKI and DAUSA pages which all began to generate a lot of messages of appreciation and support. That feeling of support when I was 4000 miles from home was one of the most special parts of the deployment

I meet Mr Iguana

On Saturday 18 November 2017 I organised filter kits and drilled holes in 40 odd buckets while Suzie made arrangements for us to go to Paix Bouch to distribute filters. Just before leaving I saw the hotel iguanas. Firstly the big black male about 4’ long climbing up a tree in the hotel garden. Then a bright green one slightly smaller on grass. I went quite close to the tree and if that iguana had jumped, Mr Usain Bolt would have been behind me but I was pleased to finally see the iguanas.

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Well Hush My Mouth

Paix Bouche was a bit chaotic and having met the village councillor Annette we ended up doing about four demos at slightly different locations which meant things went on a bit longer for our 32 or so filters issued. At some points the villagers were quite rowdy and loud but it was all extremely good natured and celebratory and it genuinely was fun for us. There were loads of kids as usual and more stickers on foreheads.

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As we left we had fantastic views of the mountains and ended up driving home in the dark again.

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The Caribbean Meets the Atlantic

The next day, Sunday 19 November 2017, Suzie and I went to help Rotary Club Roseau deliver food and other items in the south, while we distributed more water filters. We helped to load a lorry then drove first to Soufriere and then Scott’s Head at the south west tip. This was also the day that Prince Charles was visiting the island and we just missed him a couple of times.

Large crowds were receiving the food aid and filters at both locations and the crowd was very noisy and boisterous and very close packed, again illustrating how easily distribution could get out of hand and turn troublesome.

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At Soufriere we spoke to a lovely 8 year old girl; Nyia. She had apparently been on the BBC in the UK describing Hurricane Maria and she did a wee video for us and was just lovely.

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At Scott’s Head, I was demonstrating and issuing filters from the back of the lorry and the crowd were so enthusiastic that they were jammed right up against me, literally. It was all very good natured but my goodness, talk about personal space. I was actually laughing when I was trying to get them to move back and they would move back an inch then move forward two and were pressed against me. The Rotary Club members, under the direction of Aylmer, were very enthusiastic and clearly were very committed and enjoyed what they doing and achieving. Another great advert for Rotary.

 

Scott’s Head is in the south west corner of the island with a spit of land leading to a small peninsula. The south side of the spit is the Atlantic Ocean and the north side is the Caribbean Sea and I couldn’t resist touching the Atlantic Ocean then running to touch the Caribbean Sea some 20 seconds later. The beach was very stony but Aylmer said it had been sandy before Maria.

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There was some more very graphic damage to houses here and on the way back towards Roseau and the area looked quite impoverished even before Maria.

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We stopped briefly at Canefield Airport and were part of a sizable crowd waving cheerio to Prince Charles as we watched his plane take off before returning to Portsmouth in the dark. Hopefully his visit would help keep Dominica in the public eye and keep donations coming.

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Homeward Bound

Suzie had originally booked a ferry from Dominica on Thursday 23 November to take us to St Lucia for our flight to Gatwick at 2040 that night. However, having assimilated ourselves into the Caribbean we realised that the laid back relaxed lifestyle meant that we might end up late. I was reminded of a Scottish Gaelic joke:

An elderly Gaelic gentleman from an island on the West Coast of Scotland was talking to a visiting Spanish man. The Spanish man asked what the Gaelic word for manana was. To this, the Gaelic gentleman contemplated for a while before replying in a soft lilting accent

“Och do you know, there is nothing quite in the Gaelic that conveys the urgency of the word manana”

The Caribbean is just the same, so we re-assessed our travel. There was no ferry on a Wednesday and the booked Thursday ferry might run late and at the very best induce stress, never mind cause us to miss our flight home. The decision was made that it was safer to leave on the Tuesday ferry and have a couple of days in St Lucia

 

On Monday 20 November 2017 we drove Tore to the Airport and on the way passed the house at Borne and workmen had started repairing the roof. Tore was up the ladder tout suite making sure it was being done properly.

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Later that day when Suzie and I were returning the roof was quite far advanced so we were happy progress was being made.

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After dropping Tore off at the Airport, Suzie and I surveyed another couple of houses. Suzie was still worried about the wee girl at Caliebishie and after surveying a house there, we went down to the village meeting point and found the child and her grandmother and by this time the wee girl was much better, so we were both quite relieved.

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The meeting point had a bar at the side and we were talking to Brenda, the village councillor when Pascal (60) came up and had a wee snifter of Rum from a bottle full of leaves of some kind of herb.

He then proceeded to give us the most memorable description of Hurricane Maria

“that big tittie lady who was blind and going in circles breaking everything with her big stick”

We could hardly stand for laughing.

Our final visit that day and of the deployment was to Lucian to whom we gave a couple of tarpaulins and ended up surveying her roof. She showed us her bathroom where there wasn’t room to swing the proverbial cat but ten people somehow crowded in to shelter from Maria.

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The following morning, we got the bus to Roseau and after a final cup of Cacoa Tea got the ferry to St Lucia. It turned out to be a good decision going on the Tuesday because it was getting dark as we arrived at the Uptown Guesthouse at Souffries and we may well have been late for our flight had we waited until Thursday. On arrival we could see the famous twin Piton mountains, Gros Piton and Petit Piton. Absolutely spectacular and apparently even better seen from the sea.

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As we were now early for our flight we had a full day and a bit on St Lucia and managed a swim or two and climbed Gros Piton. On Thursday another memorable bus ride took us to a beach near the airport where we had a brief swim before saying au revoir (for now) to the Caribbean, you don’t really say Good Bye to the Caribbean.

 

Reflections Without a Mirror     

We arrived at Gatwick on Friday morning (24/11/17) and said our goodbyes as Suzie left for home and I waited for the Glasgow Flight. I ended up sitting on the same balcony seat with yet another coffee and reflected on what had happened since I last sat there. I was happy with what we had achieved. We could always have done more but things move slowly in the Caribbean and issuing about 250 Sawyer water filters and buckets probably means around 1000 people now have access to safe clean drinking water. We also were helping with a number of roofs and this was the main part of our deployment and any money left over would be spent wisely by our local Rotarian friends including for example a scheme to make wire Fish Pots for local fishermen to stimulate the economy.

The deployment was probably at the easier end of the scale and certainly more comfortable than I envisaged and I am under no illusions that the next one could be much more arduous and uncomfortable. What will be will be and I look forward to helping again.

The one thing that has surprised me was my friend’s reactions to my deployment. It would be fair to say they have been blown away and have said some very lovely things. I hadn’t really thought of things in those terms but it is nice to be appreciated. It was especially nice reading their comments 4000 miles from home.

On arrival at Glasgow there was snow on the ground and I had dropped about 30 degrees C in a few hours. It was good to be home.

Job done.

Post Script. The last word should come from my Grandaughter Millie who made me this card and nearly had her Grandfather in tears

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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.

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