Al Shep Lowe, organizer of Dominica Disaster Relief Mission, returned to Dominica on a humanitarian mission a few weeks after Maria’s impact. He’s posted regular updates day-by-day, sharing his impressions of an island much-changed since his idyllic visit this past summer. I’d like to share his latest journal entry and a few of his astonishing photos here, summing up his recent odyssey across the Nature Island.
Some 14 days ago we arrived in Dominica with unknown expectations. Just two months earlier we had luxuriated in the warm waters of Bubble Beach, bathed in the Sulfur pools, swam in Titou Gorge, and scuba-dived the life-filled pinnacles of Scott’s Head. Dominica felt like a true paradise just an eyeblink ago.
Then came Maria.
Our modest attempt to raise a few dollars for disaster relief quickly blossomed into a full fledged Dominica Disaster Relief Mission! Friends, family, strangers and newfound friends came together for a single purpose: to aid those in need. Most had never met a Dominican. Some had never heard of Dominica, but that didn’t matter.
We were able to procure literally thousands and thousands of meals: 57,000 in total! We had so many donations of food, clothing, and household goods that we had to stop accepting them. We had no room left in the 20 foot shipping container.
When we approached Dominica by ferry, reality began to set in. Our memories of Dominica were those of a magnificent, green, and lush land. Now we were seeing brown mountains stripped of vegetation. The trees that remained standing had few (if any) leaves, torn bark, and obvious signs of salt burning. As our eyes and minds adjusted, we began to see structures broken, destroyed, and missing: familiar places reduced to rubble. Restaurants where we had dined on local delicacies a few weeks ago were now just a mark in the dirt.
Once we docked and debarked the ferry, we were met with clouds of dust so fine that it was the consistency of sifted flour. As automobiles passed the dust kicked up more. We found it necessary at times to lift our shirt necks above our noses to breath. No power, limited clean drinking water, heat, and mosquitoes greeted us as we passed through customs.
We were ready to meet the Dominican people. In what frame of mind would we find them?
We met a powerful people who had survived a night of hell. In spite of the shock, they had emerged from the ruins and destruction to aid their neighbors and community. A few, however, had faced the new day with an opposite mindset, creating a second storm of looting. This second storm was in some ways worse than Maria herself. The looting of surviving businesses further damaged an already fragile economy. Stores still stocked with supplies and materials– businesses prepared to reopen– now had bare shelves. Their wares stolen, many business owners were forced to close their doors and walk away. With savings tied up in now-looted inventory, these businesses were left with nothing, as insurance coverage too often refused compensation. These merchants were left with no choice but to send employees away, take down their signs, and abandon their shops.
In other areas the water washed away roads and bridges, making it nearly impossible to reach certain villages. These villages would find themselves isolated and surviving on their own for days and weeks without outside aid.
As we distributing relief supplies across the island, islanders everywhere told us stories of a life and death battle against unimaginable winds and water, landslides and flooding, and the tragic loss of loved ones.
In our time on Dominica, we witnessed the green creeping slowly back to many areas, but oddly it appeared that the return would not be quick on the mountain tops. For whatever reason, the peaks remained brown, as if in an autumn transitioning to winter.
Through it all though we discovered the people of Dominica’s inner strength, their indomitable hope and desire to see not only themselves come back to where they were pre-Maria, but to help their neighbors and community find their way back as well.In time the mountains will green up and the appearance of fall will transform to spring and summer. The people will continue their daily routines serene in their life in paradise, tourists will return, businesses will start– and in a few years the scars on the landscape left by Maria will be hidden under a canopy of life returned to the cool misty air of the Dominican rain forest.
Please contribute to Dominica Disaster Relief Mission’s ongoing aid efforts here.