Cat 5 Hurricane Maria Destroys our Little Island of Dominica

 

Photo credit Haris Rana

Monday Night

Right before losing phone service and power, we managed to make some dinner. We then got news that hurricane Maria had been upgraded to a category 5. Neither of us are from a place that experiences hurricanes (Denzel is from Austin and I am from Denver), so we didn’t know what to expect. But we were as prepared as we could be. After we lost phone service and power, we tried to just stay calm and watch TV shows we had downloaded. Around 11 it started to get really bad outside. We went to check if the front door was still there and the wind was so strong that water was coming in through the window seals. We had already picked up everything off the floor so we just closed the bedroom door and tried to block the bottom with dirty clothes and towels. It was dark so we couldn’t see much but you could hear cinderblocks and metal flying and hitting things. We were afraid the windows would shatter from debris or pressure so we set up a little “shelter” in the bathroom. It was so hot and uncomfortable, we waited until there was a “calm” period and tried to just go to sleep. We fell asleep with our flashlights in hand at 12 and I kept having nightmares about the hurricane. It was so loud and scary.

Tuesday

We woke up around 5. There was mud and leaves that had blown in, all through the doors and windows. As soon as we woke up we looked outside, hoping for the best, but realized the hurricane had completely destroyed our island.

The trees were gone from the mountains and houses were either completely destroyed or had their roofs torn off. We decided to go walk around the community to assess the damage. The tank for the backup water supply that had flown to the neighbors yard 100 feet away. Our house was wrapped in many different roof tops. There was huge pieces of wood debris around and fallen trees that had been uprooted.

Several people from the community were walking on the streets with little clothing and small bags, I didn’t know if they were assessing the damage or if they had lost their homes to the storm. Every power line and pole had been tore down. There were power lines running up and down the streets. There were roof tops wrapped around the power lines. No tree had leaves, every single tree in the mountains looked like they had been given a haircut. We saw many fellow students homes whose roofs had caved in or blown away. Windows were shattered and fences were dismantled. We first saw the annex building (part of Ross). It was damaged, the roof, the trailer, the security desk, all blown over.

As we neared the school several students were rolling a suitcase to the school and everyone, whether they knew each other or not, was hugging and asking each other if they were safe and if they had lost their homes. 60% of the people we came too lost their home and every other student home had been flooded. The grocery store had a wall gone, the churches doors had shattered and the inside was a mess, the community looked like what we imagined the apocalypse would look like.

We got to school and somehow the student center stood unharmed and had the backup generator running to supply electricity. It was FULL of students, pets, EMS volunteer students and muddy water. The water wasn’t working which meant toilets that couldn’t flush. Students were sleeping on the floor. The third floor was designated as a food and water ration center and as a makeshift emergency room.

We walked around school to find:

– Old library with a hole in the roof

– Large learning lab a complete disaster. The roof dismantled and the doors blown off.

– The hospitals roof caved in.

– The security office walls, doors and windows gone.

– All the trees on campus had fallen blocking off the stairs to the CAC, our favorite building with a gym that’s roof was half gone.

Every building was damaged, some worse than others. This is when we realized things were bad, we had friends in St Maarten who had just the week before experienced cat 5 hurricane Irma who had to be evacuated by the American military. We wondered what the plan would be.

We packed a small bag of the necessities like food, clothes, and our passports. We helped local people clean up their homes that had been damaged. We tried to have a little fun and listened to music.

The school told us to meet in St James (a classroom) at 3 pm. We got there and it was packed and hot and everyone was flustered. We quieted down to hear the message they had:

  1. There is no evacuation plan because we didn’t anticipate it being this bad
  2. We have lost our satellite phones to contact the embassy to make an evacuation plan
  3. Only come to the doctor on the third floor if it is an emergency
  4. If student services has your passport stop worrying about your passport
  5. Bring your food and water to campus, enough for 3 days to ration
  6. Be prepared to be here for 2-3 weeks before evacuation
  7. The generators should last for a week
  8. The water is limited, we’re trying to catch water to use, as of now the toilets don’t flush so we might need to use a bucket system.
  9. Write your names down with your student ID number and passport number so we can call your emergency contact.
  10. We expect an surge of looting this evening from gangs of 10+ members. Curfew is 6pm- 8am.
  11. Meet here tomorrow at 3, you’re medical students so pull it together.

At this point people were getting frustrated and yelling at the messengers (which were ross student EMSs because our dean, leadership faculty and professors were all not in attendance since many of their homes were destroyed and the roads were blocked on the way to campus). People were talking about going to find machetes to deal with the gang members. It was chaos.

Students had questions. How could they say they had no plan when our sister school AUC just was destroyed one week ago deeming St Maarten uninhabitable? How could we get food and water when everything was destroyed?  How could they lose the satellite phones that were our only means of communication? And most important, how would life be like for 3 weeks without being evacuated in these conditions? How would life be like for the local people who weren’t going to evacuate?

We went back after charging our phones with a decision that needed to be made. After hearing about the potential surge of gang looting we were torn between staying at an apartment or coming back to the school where they said we would be protected by the limited security available. On the walk back we stopped by a locally owned convenience store and conversed with the owner. She was out fixing and cleaning up the store from the damage that was caused by the hurricane. We talked with her in hopes of finding comfort in the decision of staying at the apartment. She made light of the situation by joking about the gang members “how are you going to watch tv or use these stolen laptops with no power or roof over ya heads”. After a moment of laughter from her statement she pointed out that there were police officers who stayed across the street from us and that no one would try to break in.

We had a little bit of daylight left so we made dinner and gave our leftover meat to the dog butch since we couldn’t refrigerate anything. We took a “shower” with wipes and washed our face. We watched an episode of our favorite show that we had downloaded on our phone and went to sleep.

Wednesday

We slept 10 hours, which is good because we figured the more we sleep the less we eat, drink and use the bathroom. When we woke up you could hear outside a woman singing, I tried to pretend nothing had happened and we would just get back to studying but one look out the window and I was reminded it was “day 2”.

We had cereal for breakfast with boxed milk. The worst things right now are: no water for washing or the toilet, no AC or breeze because it’s hot again and no phone service to tell our families we’re safe.

This is for you Nicole:

We had pancakes for lunch and then we went with Trifina to the river to collect water for the toilet and to wash.

We drove through Portsmouth and it’s completely destroyed (https://youtu.be/FWNyY2Iv214). We didn’t see one building that was not damaged. The waves were so large and the ocean was full of debris. There was a local man fighting with a soldier about a machete. It looked like chaos. We went to school early to try and take a shower and hear the 3 o’clock meeting. We went to the local store “Uncles” that opened up and got some laundry detergent and plastic tableware for the next few days. We plan to go wash clothes and dishes in the river tomorrow.

We finally got to St James to hear the 3 pm message. The student volunteers were trying to get the entire student body to sign in with their passport number and emergency contacts so that our families could be notified that we were safe. Students were yelling at each other and cutting in line. It was a disaster so we played uno instead. Then they told us to move to the quad to hear the update from Dr. Stanley White who is the senior associate dean. His message included the following:

“Cat 5 hurricanes are exceptional weather events and in catastrophe it brings out the very best and very worst of some people. The examples I’ve seen of students volunteering and staff who live in this place. We’re trying our best to look after you. I can tell you there is an evacuation plan that has already started. The first members of the evacuation team have already moved and flown to st Lucia and should be here by boat tomorrow. This is the new meeting point everyday at 3 pm. Sam Kennedy lead figure in helping to mobilize a process. Faculty walked here, our houses were destroyed. There is even an iguana here to see you. Everyone who is paid by the school has your back and is doing everything they can in this situation. Listen to instructions. We’re going to bring some supplies from local stores and through the evacuation team. Water was not operative yesterday but it is fully operative today. We have a tank of 250,000 gallons which needs to be used wisely. Your apt is the safest place to be at this time. If you need water and supplies you’ll be given those and if you’re in dire need of shelter come to the student center. The water company is here trying to restart the water system starting tonight into tomorrow. No idea about cell networks and internet. All the communication is through satellite phones. Hopefully we will know more tomorrow about evacuation information. Don’t ask about classes and tests. That’s the good news right we canceled all the tests. Just as there has been at AUC there will be an academic recovery plan and that info will be given as fast as possible. Good job maintaining composure, unfortunately some people aren’t behaving that way. If you see anyone behaving that way, particularly criminally, alert the security immediately. You are all doctors in training, I wouldn’t want a colleague who is looting etc. I’ll be here everyday at the 3 pm meeting. I’m in regular communication via satellite phone. Thank you everyone.”

(refer to a video to get every word of this speech, I could not write it fast enough)

Photo credit Adam Awad


We found a shower at the school and just took a fast, COLD shower which was much needed. We planned to bathe in the river and we’re thankful we had a shower at least for today.

We eventually checked in at the student center together and hoped our parents would be called and hopefully in contact with each other. We just wanted them to know we’re alive and safe. We wonder what the evacuation plan will be but we’re just happy we’re safe.

Thursday
We decided to hang out with Denzel’s friends and go to the Shawerma shop that was making sandwiches. We took some board games with us since they had AC and electricity. It was nice to be around friends and just laugh a little. The boys played board games since that’s what we had and I just played candy crush. At least we get to spend the night in air conditioning for one night.

We woke up and went back to the apartment. We had PB&J bagels for breakfast. Denzel went to take the trash out and got bit by Butch the dog. We decided to go to the student EMS just incase it was infected.

***kind of gross pictures below***

He was fine, but as we left I got stung by something we weren’t sure of and I felt like I had glass or a splinter in my arm. Denzel tried to get it out but only clear liquid came out. It hurt, but it seemed ok so we figured it was another bite. We went back and we washed clothes by hand! We used river water and buckets to wash what we could.

We then went to the daily 3 o’clock meeting to hear the announcements. Dr. White told us that we would be evacuated starting tomorrow: children, elderly and ill people first, then single women, then couples and single men. We knew we would be last which was fine. They also got the water back running in part of the community, but we didn’t have water at the apartment. The plan was that we would be evacuated by boat to st. Lucia then fly to Miami to figure out the academic recovery program and fly home. We were allowed to take one 40lb suitcase then a 10lb personal item. They changed the curfew to 4pm and said if we were caught out longer then we could be arrested and that is was for safety reasons.


Biggest concerns today:
We went back and made dinner. We left 90% of our stuff; we only took food, water, and our favorite, sentimental things. It was hard, but in comparison to the community and what they had lost that we were lucky with what we had. We left everything. We then took sponge baths with the little bit of water we had and went to sleep.

Would we get on the boats tomorrow? Would they try to split us up? Are we going to run out of water? How would Trifina and Kirt be after we left?

Friday

We woke up at 6 to get to school early for the evacuation plans. They were already taking children and random students who somehow got signed up over night. People were frustrated that students who were perfectly sheltered and fed got to go on the boats first when didn’t fit the criteria (children, sick, elderly), just because they were at the student center last night. We all sat outside with our luggage and listened to periodic announcements. We got some water and Gatorade from student center and just ate the snacks we brought.

They had a satellite phone so I was able to call my mom and just let her know we were ok and evacuating. I told her to call Denzel’s mom too. I had to wait in line for one hour to use it and they told us to keep it to 30 seconds, but I knew it was what our families have been waiting for. I knew my mom would answer since it was early in the morning so we were thankful. The rest of the day it was just waiting til our boat came so we just hung out in Classroom 6 and charged our devices and watched a movie.

We finally got in line to get tickets and thankfully registered together as a couple and got tickets together (which all morning know-it-all students kept insisting wasn’t going to happen). We were numbers 704 and 705 out of 1200+ students, staff, faculty and spouses.

We played a bit of checkers (which we actually found in Dominica) that were UT themed which is Denzel’s #1 obsession.

The sting I got yesterday started getting hard and red a the size of a baseball so I went to get some Benadryl. It worked for a little but ended up getting huge and spreading around my arm so I had to get a hydrocortisone shot.

 

Then there was the 3 o’clock speech as always:

“Good afternoon everyone. The good news is that as of now we have evacuated more than 200 individuals. We also executed a medivaced a gravely ill infant who is now safe. If you haven’t checked in yet, check in. Those of you who have checked in keep your damn ticket. If you lose your ticket you won’t be able to get on the boat. We have had a number of questions on passports. Every nationality will go to st Lucia and we will figure it out from there. If you don’t have your passport go to the deans patio. When you get to st Lucia you’ll be flown to Miami where reception committees will help you for your next step. Academic recovery will happen within the next 2-3 weeks, it’s already in the works. You’ll be in classes in 2-3 weeks time. We have an evacuation team called Constellis. These men are all part of security team to help facilitate and help with your safety and evacuation, we are working with getting them something to wear to make them stand out.” Dean White

Mr. James

“Here is the plan, we’re waiting for the next boat which is in fact a cruise ship that holds 350 people. Going to be here around 8-11 pm. They are trying to not put holes in the boat. (Floating debris from the storm in water) We have pre-cleared with police to move after curfew. There is a number of things we need to review to get on the boat safely. If we can’t run it tonight we will do it first thing in the morning. There is several navy officials on the boat so they know plenty of loading people onto a boat. The 350 people that are on that boat we need them to stay on campus, they hopefully will be on the boat tonight or leave at first light. Numbers 222-565 will be getting on this boat. In the morning smaller ferry boats will be here (we had 4 smaller ferrys this morning) this cruise ship has committed to help us the next few days.”

Commander from the evacuation team Will:

“Our tasks is to get you on boats and to allocate water and gas rations. When we ask you to do something we’re not being jerks or difficult we’re just trying to get you off this island. If you have special requirements come find us and we will do best to help you.”

“I’m the original director for security of the Caribbean, the airport route is open. Hopefully everyone will be off island by Monday or Tuesday.”

We assumed we would be on the ferrys tomorrow morning according to our ticket numbers so we decided to go home. Since we didn’t get to say goodbye to Trifina we were actually thankful for that. We made dinner for us and for all of Trifina’s family since they had no food.

Things we heard today:

– Only 5 communities in all of Dominica survived this hurricane

– This was the worst storm they have ever seen in their time

– There were hundreds of fatalities

– That there is no food left for the local people

– Almost all the local convenience store owners who are Asian and Syrian are fleeing, but first they sold everything in their store

We took another sponge bath and watched a movie that we had downloaded before bed. At least there was a little bit of breeze tonight so maybe it will be a nice sleep. This is probably our last night in Dominica, which made us feel sad because we weren’t quite ready to leave, but we know we have many adventures to come together.

Saturday

Last night was extremely hot until 2am so our sleep was terrible. I was up by 3:00 am and I just hope that means I’ll sleep on the boat. Today should be the day we leave. We should hear about the plans for academic recovery within the next few days so we will have to prepare for another move. We also have to figure out how to replace everything we have to leave in Dominica, hopefully once we figure out where we’re going from here then things will fall into place. We decided depending on the plan for academic recovery that maybe we could go on a little vacation. All we know for sure this morning is, we just want to be on the boats today!

We got to school at 5 am after saying goodbye to Trifina and Kirt which was heartbreaking. We will miss them! We got together a team of people to clean up the outside and inside of the student center because there was trash everywhere. Many people weren’t interested in helping but we got a good little crew together.

There was a 7 am meeting today where the US state department addressed the community. The US military arrived by helicopter and military plane last night when we were at home. They said the following:

– That our community was one of the lucky ones and had the most infrastructure still standing enough to dock boats and that we can be thankful that we have running water, electricity and food and drinking water at the school.

– As they flew over Dominica coming in it was apparent everything was completely destroyed in the majority of the island and that no trees had any leaves left

They had two options for us:

  1.  We could go with the Ross evacuation plan that would be covered financially but they would only get about 520 out of Dominica per day (which is apparently a lot of people and quick for a typical evacuation).
  2. American citizens were offered the option to evacuate by helicopter with the US state department and would be responsible for paying for the entirety of their evacuation and could only bring a personal item or carry on bag.

Since we were numbers 704 and 705 we knew we would be leaving today so we weren’t concerned with rushing off on a helicopter flight. Especially since there were other students in much greater need and we were doing fine with each other’s support.

We ended up being one of 190 people chosen to get off on ferrys today. We said our goodbyes to our friends and our school and got in line to be shipped off.

We were taken at 11 to the dock to wait for the boats which they said the day before would be there at 7:30 am, then 11:00 am, then it got pushed to 2:30 pm but by 3 only the first 100 had left so we were next and we hoped it would be here soon. People were doing anything to pass the time:

– Taking naps

– Tossing balls

– Playing cards

– Watching movies

– Making music

We even got to meet our rescue team who told us they would be in Dominica for 180 days to secure the campus.

(Evacuation Team from Constellis)

We talked to one of our professors who would be on the boat with us who told us the school is considering another Caribbean island and Miramar, Florida for our academic recovery. We just hope and pray they choose Florida for 4X and 5C because it’s our last semester. It would be very difficult to buy all new things and find an apartment in another Caribbean island just to come back again in 3 months. Whatever they decide we will find out soon.

The boat finally got there and true to rumor it was literally a pirate ship. We took our sea sickness medicine and we’re on our way to our next adventure. A lot of guilt came with leaving our beautiful second home of Dominica. We have deep love and respect for many Dominican citizens that have become our friends and family during our time here. It was hard to leave knowing the conditions the people and the country were in.

Somehow we got phone service on the first hours of the trip so we were able to call our parents and actually talk to them. That was the biggest relief to know that they finally knew that we were safe.

Things we heard today:

– 33 ross students were still missing

– We might have school reconvene in St. Kitts or Miami (we don’t know what’s true so we don’t care much)

Sunday

After a rocky, 11 hour boat trip to St. Lucia we arrived at 4 am to a big welcome team who processed us quickly. We had all our bags and we were being sent to a hotel for the night. We were told we would be on flights out tomorrow evening to Miami and that Ross would be taking care of us all the way there. The hotel we arrived at is called St. James Marina Bay. We checked in and got tickets to leave today around 6 pm to go back to the US. They fed us some chicken and sandwiches which was wonderful after eating crackers and beef jerky for the past two days.

They sent us to stay at “The Rex” hotel where we were finally able to shower and eat a nice breakfast buffet.

We left on our way to the airport on a two hour bus trip and we waited in line to get on a flight. We boarded around 6:30 pm and arrived to Miami on a Ross chartered plane. Greeting us were many Ross faculty including the Dean Dr. William Owen.

They gave us water and food and a wonderful welcome home. We stayed at the Hyatt and at 2 am we got phone calls about our flights home. We are thankful to be safe and home now on Monday, a week after the hurricane hit. 

We are praying for everyone who is still in Dominica at Ross for a safe evacuation and for all of the local people who will struggle to rebuild the beautiful nature island that has been destroyed.

If you are interested in helping Dominica, please contact us or our parents as you please. Our families will be putting together assistance for Kirt and Trifina and their three daughters, who are our landlords. They have housed and taken care of us as part of their family for the past two years. They are in dire need of assistance as their food and water sources are running out. Their family need more help than we do in this time. Denzel and I are committed to helping the island in any way we can now and in the future and plan to return to the island as time and conditions permit. This was our second home, this is where we met and started our story together, and we love the people and the country of Dominica. Please help us assist in anyway you are able to. Thank you and feel free to share.

(Any quoted script in this blog was the words we were able to write down that we heard during the events that occurred, it does not contain the entirety of the speeches as we were unable to type quick enough to get every detail. All information in this blog was what we personally experienced and what we had heard from other students/faculty during this time. We are aware many pieces of information that were spread around campus were inaccurate. This blog is what WE heard and experienced, not what is confirmed to be accurate.) 

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