“We Have Never Seen Such Destruction”

Ivan Wong Rodenas CC BY ND 2 0
Photo by Ivan Wong Rodenas CC BY-ND 2.0

For many following world news today, Dominica remains an unfamiliar name, a cruise ship port of call perhaps, an obscure destination on a treasure map dotted with numerous island pearls.

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Those in the know have called Dominica—a nation often confused with the Dominican Republic— the Caribbean’s best kept secret. A place of volcanic peaks cloaked in the Lesser Antilles’s most biodiverse rainforest, the island’s rugged terrain and lack of white sand beaches have precluded the development of the crowded beach resorts and hotel high rises that have spoiled the true nature of less forbidding Caribbean isles. Twenty-nine miles long and sixteen miles wide, Dominica is blessed with abundant rainfall, countless waterfalls, clear flowing rivers.  The last Carib Indians, the Kalinago, still call the island home. They say that Dominica  is the only Caribbean island that Christopher Columbus would still recognize today—at least until Maria arrived.

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Photo by Reinhard Link CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today, nearly four weeks after impact, the full extent of Dominica’s suffering– the damage to its infrastructure and ecology, the loss of human life, and the enormous task of rebuilding ahead—has yet to be calculated. News of Dominica has dropped quickly from sight in a season of spectacular catastrophes elsewhere. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. North Korean missile launches. The Mexican earthquake. Mass murder in Las Vegas.  California wildfires.

The morning after Maria made landfall, island Facebook pages went quiet, their photos of yesterday’s Eden frozen in time. Updates were slow coming in, but within a day or two, news of the island’s total devastation began to reach the outside world. Thirty people had been killed outright, with many more missing or cruelly injured. Residents had emerged  from their hiding places at dawn to confront an unimaginable new reality that barely resembled the life they had known just hours ago.

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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Rawad Madanat/Released

The ICU unit at the hospital at the capital of Roseau was without power, its backup generators flooded. The streets of every town and village were awash in mud, deep in wreckage, and tangled with masses of downed power lines, snapped trees, smashed vehicles. Food, water, and medical supplies were running short. I was shocked to see news helicopter footage of Dominica’s once-verdant mountains looking winter-brown and napalmed, vacuumed of all greenery. Huge rafts of broken forest trees had washed down the raging rivers to the sea, trees not only stripped of leaves, but also of bark by the power of the storm.

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Dominica’s mountains stripped bare. UN Photo.

That morning, Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit composed a distressing SOS that began with: “ Initial reports are of widespread devastation. We have lost all what money can buy and replace.”

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The Prime Minister’s offices, the morning after Maria

In the light of day, the island was stunned, but not paralyzed. Immediately, the islanders set about the long task of recovery. As news coverage soon noted, Dominica’s citizens are a naturally resilient people, accustomed to setbacks, possessing an unshakable sense of humor even in the face of disaster. But it would be a long road back to even a semblance of the life they had known before the storm.

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The strain of the island’s immediate need was best embodied by the Prime Minister’s appearance on a local news station in neighboring Antigua on September 21. Describing Maria’s passage, Skerrit sketched a scene from the apocalypse. “ Our country has been devastated. We have never seen such destruction.” Dominica was without running water. Cell phone towers were down, electric power just a memory. Every structure island-wide was damaged. Nurses at the compromised hospital in Roseau had been working nonstop for ninety-six hours under impossible conditions. A dialysis patient had walked from Portsmouth to Roseau, twenty-four miles through wreckage, only to find dialysis machines inoperable. Many people were now homeless. Residents in neighboring communities were cut off from one another, unable to locate loved ones. Already the first storm victims had been laid to rest, buried quickly in the tropical heat. Search and rescue was now the main preoccupation of first responders across the island.  When asked about the immediate needs of his countrymen, the Prime Minister dropped his head for a moment, wiping away tears.

Quickly collecting his thoughts, Skerrit outlined a plan for immediate recovery, declaring that Dominica could bounce back. He announced that he would be traveling to New York the next day to appeal to the UN for immediate aid. The island had not yet healed from the ravages of 2015’s Tropical Storm Ericka. Recovery post-Maria would now be a long and much more difficult journey. Every village was in immediate need of water. Entire communities would have to be abandoned and rebuilt. Cell phone and internet services must be restored so that communication could resume.  In closing, Skerrit stated:

Unfortunately, we have to wait for an Irma or Maria to understand what I have been saying for a long time. We need access to resources to build more resilient societies and countries. The extent of the resources necessary is beyond us.

Meanwhile, world news had moved on. Maria had smashed the US Territory of Puerto Rico to pieces. Texas and Florida had barely begun the cleanup post-Irma. The blood of innocents flowed in the streets of the Vegas strip. The United States was embroiled in the greatest political rift in living memory, a divide gobbling up every spare moment of news time. California was on fire, with hundreds of residents missing and dead. North Korea was threatening to incinerate millions more. People everywhere were shutting down, unable to absorb the next day’s catastrophe.

Through it all, I remained focused on Dominica, watching and waiting, blocking out all other news. In a world unhinged, the suffering of this one island Eden– a place I was yet to visit– had somehow changed the course of my life.

On the morning after impact, the island emerged, totally present, in my conscious mind, just as its volcanoes had risen from the deep eons earlier. I realized at that moment that I could not let Dominica’s story fade into the endless roll call of disasters. I could not turn away.

 

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Photo by Thomas Jundt CC BY-NC 2.0

 

 

 

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“We Shall Survive by the Grace of God!”

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Hurricane Maria Approaches Dominica, 9/18/2017

Like most of us glued to breaking news coverage on the afternoon and evening of Monday, September 18, 2017, I was apprehensive as newly-christened Hurricane Maria approached the Caribbean, her progress broadcast live on CNN and The Weather Channel in exhaustive detail. By now, I was past storm fatigue and settling into a state of denial. This couldn’t be real. The third major hurricane to strike the region in as many weeks, Maria’s malevolence was palpable, her colossal skirt of rainbands whirling across the screen in a rainbow of infrared colors. Tracking west toward the Lesser Antilles, she was rapidly gaining strength.

The 2017 Hurricane Season was already shaping up to be the costliest on record. On August 25, Harvey had smashed into Texas at Cat 4 strength, crushing tiny Rockport, drowning the Houston metroplex, and leaving a trail of near-total devastation from Aransas Pass to the Louisiana border. From September 6-8, “Nuclear” Irma had wrecked the Caribbean: wiping out Barbuda, trashing the US Virgin Islands, and grazing a frightened Puerto Rico. The beast ground into Cuba as a Category 5, then turned her sights north to Florida. After chewing up and spitting out the Keys, Irma finally made landfall on the US mainland at Marco Island on September 10, creating billions more dollars in damage.  Only Hurricane Jose, petering out over open water on September 20, never made landfall.

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Maria morphs into a monster

Less than two weeks after Irma mangled Florida, a new contender appeared on the scene. Originating as a tropical wave in the western Atlantic, the disturbance quickly mutated into Tropical Storm Maria on Saturday, September 16. By Monday, the storm had doubled its muscle in twenty-four hours, morphing into a Category 3 hurricane. Developing under “remarkably favorable” conditions over warm waters that afternoon, the storm strengthened explosively, reaching nightmarish Category 5 level on Monday evening. By that time, Maria’s wind speeds had doubled from 80 to 160 mph.

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Impact

Hurricane Maria made landfall on the mountainous Caribbean island of Dominica at 915 pm EST on 9/18, the first Category Five hurricane to strike the island nation in recorded history. As the hurricane’s eye tracked north by northwest at nine miles per hour, the storm’s fury raked the island clean, transforming villages and towns into debris fields, leaving no structure undamaged. Maria vented her wrath on the island’s volcanic peaks, shattering Dominica’s rainforest and defoliating every tree left standing. Throughout the night, the storm howled, sounding to terrified residents like the voice of a demented spirit.

At ground zero, the island’s 72,000 residents were held captive by Maria, many seeking shelter in cupboards, wardrobes, basements, anywhere safe. People created impromptu bomb shelters from kitchen refrigerators, ripping out the shelves to seek refuge inside. The utter darkness of night intensified the horror. In the blind maelstrom that had enveloped the island, Maria’s screams were answered by the sound of paradise in agony. As thousands huddled in the dark, their homes, churches, schools, businesses were ripped apart around them, splintering in the wind. The noise was like the collision of speeding locomotives. Huge trees snapped and were hurled as Poseidon missiles by the storm. Rivers widened tens times their normal course or changed courses altogether, their familiar loveliness transformed into whitewater torrents that washed away everything in their path. Only the passage of Maria’s silent eye offered temporary respite from the crashes—and the screams.

Huddled beneath a mattress in the basement of his official residence, Dominica’s Prime Minister tweeted a series of increasingly alarming messages as the nightmare unfolded:

” The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God!”

“ We do not know what is happening outside. We not dare look out. All we are hearing is the sound of galvanize flying. The sound of the fury of the wind. As we pray for its end!”

“My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.”

“ I am being rescued.”

Many of His Excellency’s fellow Dominicans had taken early warnings seriously and were riding out the worst in shelters across the island. Others less fortunate were forced to flee their homes as houses flooded, or roofs and walls gave way. Escaping into the night as safety collapsed around them, islanders ran blind into the dark. Exposed to the elemental power of the storm, the unlucky were swept away in the raging floods and mudslides. Others were crushed inside their homes.

Respite would soon come for the traumatized survivors. Having spent a portion of her fury pounding Dominica’s mountain forests into pulp, Maria roared away into the night as a Category 4. The shrieking winds died, the pelting rains softened, as she loosened her grip on the island. Setting her sights on Puerto Rico, Maria tracked north by northwest, gathering strength from the warmth of the deep. As dawn finally penetrated the shocked stillness of aftermath, daybreak over Dominica revealed a paradise transformed.

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Maria takes aim at Puerto Rico

Parrots of the Caribbean

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AARGH! Not pirates, matey– parrots! I’ll discuss the fascinating folklore of the buccaneers of old and their foul-mouthed familiars in a later post. First, let’s take ye a look at the amazing diversity of Caribbean parrots. The Caribbean region is home to many endemic species of psittacines: living, extinct, and… hypothetical.

Of course, by endemic, I mean: found nowhere else on earth, a species unique to one place. The Caribbean region is a biodiversity hotspot, teeming with unique animals and plants. And yet the amazing biodiversity of the region and the special services that Caribbean nature provides are highly threatened. Historically, islands have also been hotbeds of extinction.

All four islands of the Greater Antilles– Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico– are home to endemic parrots.  Each species is under threat due to increasing pressure from ever-growing human populations, as well as from the increasing power and frequency of hurricanes. Of the five Greater Antillean amazon parrots, the Puerto Rican species is closest to extinction.

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The Bahamas and Cayman Islands each host a special race of the Cuban amazon.

Three of the Lesser Antilles islands are home to endemic amazon parrots: St. Lucia (one glorious species), St. Vincent (one, a gem like no other), and Dominica (two unique species!) All are threatened with extinction.

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Hurricane Maria has severely jeopardized the future of the two Dominican species, especially the critically-endangered Imperial amazon. Maria also struck a devastating blow to conservation efforts to save the Puerto Rican amazon. I will continue to monitor the status of each imperiled Caribbean species in this crucial recovery period– and report back to you here.

While many Caribbean parrots are threatened with oblivion today, many others that once lived across the West Indies are now extinct, including several amazons and macaws for which we have no museum specimens, thus no empirical evidence. These lost species exist only in the accounts of early travelers, making these once-vibrant island jewels, sadly, hypothetical. Centuries removed today from the living reality of these birds, we will never have a chance to know for sure what they were really like, even down to their basic color patterns.

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The hypothetical Jamaican red macaw (Ara gossei)

I can think of only one thing worse than extinction —and that is total erasure.

So peruse this list of the Caribbean’s endemic parrot species, living, extinct, and erased. Consider the wonder of the region’s unique tropic isles, still graced with so much beauty. Remember the threats that each unique species faces in this imperiled realm of endemism. Dream of the glories that we will see no more.

Cuba

Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops) Vulnerable. Extirpated from the Isla de la Juventud.

Cuban Amazon (Amazona leucocephala) Nominate race.

Cuban Red Macaw (Ara tricolor) Extinct late 19th century. Museum specimens extant.

Jamaica

Yellow-billed Amazon (Amazona collaria) Vulnerable

Black-billed Amazon (Amazona agilis) Vulnerable

Jamaican Red Macaw (Ara gossei)—Extinct/hypothetical

Jamaican Green and Yellow Macaw (Ara  erythrocephala)—Extinct/hypothetical

Hispaniola

Hispaniolan Parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera) Vulnerable

Hispaniolan Amazon (Amazona ventralis) Vulnerable

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Amazon (Amazona vittata vittata) Nominate race. Critically Endangered

Puerto Rican Amazon (A. v. gracilipes) Culebra Island. Extinct. Museum specimens extant.

Puerto Rican Parakeet (Psittacara maugei) Isle de Mona and possibly the main island of Puerto Rico. Extinct 1880. Museum specimens extant.

Guadeloupe

Guadeloupe Amazon (Amazona violacea) Extinct/hypothetical

The Lesser Antillean macaw or Guadeloupe macaw (Ara guadeloupensis)–Extinct/hypothetical

Dominica

Imperial Parrot (Amazona imperialis) Critically endangered

Red-necked Parrot (Amazona arausiaca) Endangered

Dominica Green and Yellow Macaw aka Atwood’s Macaw (Ara atwoodi)– Extinct/ hypothetical

Martinique

Martinique Amazon (Amazona martinicana)—Extinct/hypothetical

Martinique macaw or orange-bellied macaw (Ara martinicus)—Extinct/hypothetical

St. Lucia

St. Lucia Amazon (Amazona versicolor) Vulnerable

St. Vincent

St. Vincent Amazon (Amazona guildingii) Vulnerable

Bahamas

Bahama race of the Cuban Amazon (Amazona leucocephala bahamensi)

Grand Cayman Island/Cayman Brac

Cayman race of the Cuban Amazon (Amazona leucocephala caymanensis)

Cayman Brac race of the Cuban Amazon (Amazona leucocephala hesterna)

Did you get the meaning of all of those Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct, and Hypothetical designations? They mean: man has not been kind to the Caribbean parrots. We have shot them, ate them, sold them, caged them. We’ve stolen their islands from under them and erased them from the face of earth, leaving the surviving species hanging on to the edge of existence by their zygodactyl feet.

Is it too late to save what remains of the treasures of Eden?

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In Search of Paradise Lost

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Trafalgar Falls, Dominica, Pre-Maria

Welcome to Eden Is Broken, a personal narrative devoted to the fate of Caribbean nature in the Age of the Superstorm. An exploration of island paradises past and present, this website places special emphasis on the step-by-step recovery of Dominica’s rainforest and wildlife in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

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The site is named in honor of Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. The Prime Minister’s seventeen-minute address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2017, just five days after Cat 5 Maria made landfall on the once-pristine Nature Island of the Caribbean, was delivered as an appeal for immediate disaster aid– as well as a global wake-up call in the face of catastrophic climate change. Key points of the address are excerpted here:

With physical and emotional difficulty, I have left my bleeding nation to be with you here today because these are moments for which the United Nations exist…In the case of Dominica, it has been two years since we lost lives and endured substantial physical and infrastructural damage from the ravages of the floods and mud slides of Tropical Storm Ericka.

To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks; it is to deny a truth we have just lived.

It is to mock thousands who in a few hours, without a roof over their heads, will watch the night descend on Dominica in fear of sudden mud slides and what the next hurricane may bring…

But what is our reality at this moment? Pure devastation, as Dominicans bear the brunt of climate change. We are shouldering the consequences of the actions of others. Actions that endanger our very existence and all for the enrichment of a few elsewhere…

We dug graves today in Dominica. We buried loved ones yesterday and I am sure that as I return home tomorrow, we shall discover additional fatalities, as a consequence of this encounter. Our homes are flattened. Our buildings roofless. Our water pipes smashed and road infrastructure destroyed. Our hospital is without power and schools have disappeared beneath the rubble. Our crops are uprooted. Where there was green there is now only dust and dirt.

The desolation is beyond imagination. Mr. President, fellow leaders– the stars have fallen. Eden is broken.

The nation of Dominica has come here to declare an international humanitarian emergency. One that is centered in Dominica, but also encompasses many of our neighbors, including our sister isle Antigua, which had to evacuate its citizens from Barbuda.

The time has come for the international community to make a stand and to decide whether it will be shoulder to shoulder with those suffering the ravages of climate change worldwide. Whether we can mitigate the consequences of unprecendented increases in sea temperatures and levels; whether to help us rebuild sustainable livelihoods; or whether the international community will merely show some pity now, and then flee, relieved to know that this time it was not you.

We will rebuild our Garden of Eden again for our children and for future generations.

Navy continues evacuations from Dominica
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Molina

Eden Is Broken is dedicated to everyone affected by Maria’s wrath, to the long road toward recovery of the livelihoods and ecology of the island– and to Dominica’s national bird: the Imperial amazon, a parrot species older than the island itself.

One of two parrots native to Dominica, the Imperial– known locally as the Sisserou– is the island jewel at the heart of this site, just as it comprises the center of Dominica’s national flag. The fate of the Sisserou and the ecological health of its only island home are inextricably woven with the future prosperity of Dominica’s people.

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Dominica’s flag with Sisserou as National Emblem

Please join me in search of the Caribbean’s imperiled Edens, from the time before Columbus, to the aftermath of Maria– and beyond.

Continue reading “In Search of Paradise Lost”