Dominica revives

Dominica revives

The first glimpse of Dominica from the air, nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, is at once dramatic and ominous. A dark, northern headland rises sharply out of the Caribbean Sea then ascends some 2,800 feet over steep ravines and corrugated ridges to form Morne aux Diables (Devils’ Peak), one of Dominica’s nine active volcanoes, its summit shrouded in gray clouds.

As the small plane descends, skirting the rugged coastline, rays of sun pierce the gloom and reveal a surreal scene; what remains standing of Dominica’s windward woodland are great swaths of pale, naked trees, a few showing fringes of new growth in their tops, dark green creepers encircling the graying trunks. Here and there a coconut palm stands proudly with crown intact. All else lies felled across the mountainside, like matchsticks violently scattered by a giant hand. Beneath the broken and uprooted trees the ground is lush and green with new life. Mostly, though, there is only the eerie sight of nature’s defoliation on a massive scale.

Dominica’s woodlands and forests are slowly recovering.
Dominica’s woodlands and forests are slowly recovering.

Soon, signs of human habitation appear along the ridgeline and in verdant valleys as a patchwork of green plots and brilliant blue plastic tarpaulins. Where there is no blue, there are just sections of walls, concrete foundations, and piles of jagged debris; a stark reminder that with the start of hurricane season less than a month away roofs ripped off by Maria’s winds remain to be repaired or replaced, and that for most of Dominica’s 74,000 people life has not returned to normal.

This remote area of the country’s northeast coast was the last to be hit by the September 18, 2017 hurricane before it spun northward toward Guadeloupe. Maria made actual landfall at 9:35 p.m. on the southern tip of the island, 30 miles away at Scotts Head, a tiny fishing village (and in better times, a popular diving destination) of about 700 people. After sparing the French island of Martinique, Maria roared over Scotts Head into Soufriere Bay claiming its first victim, Lucy Thomas. Mrs. Thomas, 74, was pulled from her husband’s grasp and swept into the sea when the storm surge smashed into their concrete beachside home undermining the foundation and collapsing the living room floor.

The small village of Scotts Head on the southern tip of Dominica where Maria first made landfall on September 18, 2017.
The small village of Scotts Head on the southern tip of Dominica where Maria first made landfall on September 18, 2017.

“We were prepared for a Category 2 and 3 hurricane – as a Category 2 or a 3,” says Cecil Shillingford, disaster risk management specialist at Dominica’s Office of Disaster Management, “but we’ve never had one increase in just three hours from a Category 2 to a Category 5-plus.” Mr. Shillingford, who created and directed the office from 1995-2008, has weathered his share of major hurricanes in the Caribbean. Maria, he says, was extraordinary in its intensity, scope, and catastrophic consequences.

“We had 185-mile-an-hour sustained winds gusting to 225 mph; the entire country – 95 sectors across 290 square miles – was affected, not just severe flooding in a few sectors that we had with [Tropical Storm] Erika in 2015,” he points out. We’ve never had to deal with anything this big. How do you do that?”

On it churned up the coast taking lives, roofs, and property, from Soufriere to Pointe Michel, Loubiere, and Roseau, Dominica’s capital, where a raging Roseau River burst its banks to flood or destroy homes built too close to the river. Warren St. Jean, a Pentecostal pastor and former police officer, says his concrete home of 30 years was lifted off its foundation and washed away by the fury of a 20-foot wall of water and debris. He and his wife eventually managed to find their way to higher ground, but “everything was lost, all the rooms sunk, the walls completely cracked, and everything, freezer, fridges, possessions, all gone.

“Our loss was great, but we have life, and try to stay focused. It would have been worse if I had lost my family, so there is consolation and gratitude for that and I’m not complaining. But life is not really improving, I have to pay bills, I’m getting older, and bit-by-bit, I’m stocking supplies until I can start doing something, but my wife doesn’t want to go back to our house near the river. Like so many people, she’s traumatized now when it rains and can’t sleep, worrying about mudslides.”

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Further down, government buildings were inundated, bridges and sewage lines smashed, and the wide channel running through town became a turbid torrent of logs, coconuts, and silt, even vehicles.

For three hours the eye of the storm stalled directly over the country drenching the central mountains with torrential rain, lashing villages and forests with winds Mr. Shillingford estimates were “likely off the charts.” Maria sent flash floods, landslides, and giant boulders hurtling down mountainsides into riverbeds and communities as Maria reached across to La Plaine, Rosalie, and Saint Sauveur on the windward coast and beyond into Kalinago Territory, a district in St. David Parish created for the indigenous Carib people who inhabited Dominica prior to French and British colonization – and whose ancient god of evil, Hurrican, more than lived up to its name that night.

By the time Maria finally passed over the northwest coast of the island and out to sea, the human toll from the storm was 30 dead with 34 missing, according to the Dominican government’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA). Some 65,000 people were affected, or nearly 80 percent of the country’s population. An estimated 90 percent of the island’s homes and buildings sustained damaged or destroyed roofs. Hardest hit in terms of housing was the Kalinago Territory where 69 percent of homes were destroyed.

Across the country livelihoods were wiped out in a matter of hours along with nearly all crops, livestock, fishing boats, and infrastructure. Dominica’s precious outdoors-oriented tourism industry, which for years has banked on its moniker as the Nature Island of the Caribbean, was dealt a massive blow, its network of hiking trails and access to waterfalls, lakes, volcanic hot springs, and other natural attractions choked off. Roads were blocked by downed power lines and poles, boulders, fallen trees, and debris; strategic bridges were undermined or washed away, the island’s lush rainforest – a UNESCO World Heritage site – denuded along with coastal woodlands. Overall damages amounted to $931 million with losses estimated at $380 million, or 226 percent of the country’s 2016 Gross Domestic Product. The PDNA also identified some $1.37 billion in recovery needs for reconstruction and climate resilience in “Building Back Better.”

The international humanitarian response was swift and as robust as possible given the logistics, difficult terrain, and scope of the damage. Mr. Shillingford and his Office of Disaster Management colleagues scrambled to get to work without power, water, or internet; soon specialized international teams were mobilized to set up emergency communications, medical services, water treatment systems, and food distribution, while military and police from Barbados, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, and Grenada were deployed to provide security and prevent looting. At the peak of the response, a total of eight United Nations agencies, 17 Non-Governmental Organizations, as well as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), were present in Dominica providing humanitarian assistance.

By December 2017, the humanitarian agencies had begun to transition from relief to recovery and preparedness activities and the Dominican Ministry of Planning took over multi-sector coordination from the Emergency Operations Centre with close support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Six other UN agencies have remained in Dominica providing humanitarian support during the recovery phase – UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Food Programme, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Among the NGOs still on the ground supporting the government’s recovery efforts are Caritas, IsraAID, Samaritan’s Purse, and the IFRC.

Despite best intentions and herculean efforts, however, the recovery phase has been inevitably slow. With hurricane season fast approaching, many Dominicans now find themselves in an even more vulnerable position than before Maria, especially in remote areas of the countryside where villages remain without electricity, tarpaulins, water, or regular access to information. Over 300 displaced people still are living in 25 collective shelters, according to the IOM’s Housing and Settlements Working Group. Government and humanitarian housing programs have built less than 160 units built out of the more than 7,000 projected. Unemployment remains a major concern and deep psychological scars have yet to heal; in communities with unstable hillsides the slightest breeze or hint of precipitation creates anxiety among children and adults who associate wind and rain with Maria’s ferocity and nightmarish landslides.

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The September hurricane also laid bare long-simmering political and social rifts across the island, largely because of inadequate communications and messaging coordination that appears to have continued into the recovery phase, heightening perceptions among Dominicans that the delivery of aid has not always been fair, that political affiliations often determine who gets what, and that building supplies and other assistance is not going to those who need it most. Eight months in, frustration in many cases, seems to have given way to resignation.

These views are based on recent interviews with public officials, residents across the country, and four rounds of surveys of some 1,640 citizens directly impacted by the hurricane, conducted between October 2017 and April 2018 by Ground Truth Solutions (GTS), an international non-governmental organization based in Vienna and one of four humanitarian-to-humanitarian (H2H) groups tasked with gathering and disseminating information about the relief effort.

The government, for its part, says it is trying to do its best to rebuild and prepare for the next hurricane season under trying circumstances and working against a running clock. But officials admit they are unprepared, especially since so many collective centres were impacted – schools, public buildings, and churches.

Some communities are still without collective shelters and the trauma faced by those who know something is coming but have nowhere to go, especially children, is a big concern. A recently completed, and now mainstreamed UNICEF “Return to Happiness” programme, however, helped nearly 5,000 school children deal with storm-related trauma through art and music. The continued need and high demand for such psycho-social support is one of the more notable findings to come out of the latest Ground Truth survey in Dominica.

Roofing scraps and debris behind Soufriere's primary school.
Roofing scraps and debris behind Soufriere’s primary school.

One of the biggest challenges for Dominica is getting hold of building materials, especially ties and screws. Another concern is the amount of zinc roofing on hillsides and in dumps that instantly become lethal projectiles in high wind and, in the meantime, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The government is still reviewing proposals from several companies to dispose of the masses of waste zinc and galvanized roofing materials.

The Dominican government recently launched the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD) which it hopes will lead the country to becoming the first climate resilient nation in the world. If approved by Parliament, CREAD is expected to come on line as an independent government agency by mid-summer and focus on reconstruction, climate resilient systems in energy, food production, and transport. Already telecommunication cables knocked down in the hurricane are being undergrounded along with other utilities as a first step in this process.

The urgent need to shelter Dominicans is paramount for Joseph Isaac, the newly appointed Minister for the Environment, Climate Resilience, Disaster Management, and Urban Renewal in the Dominica Labour Party administration of Roosevelt Skerrit, who has served as prime minister since 2004.

“Our first priority is to help with putting roofs over the heads of people,” Mr. Isaac says, “then we must look at our national image, clean up the debris, spur tourism again, and spread the word that the country is back. But above all, livelihoods and housing are the main priorities.

“Right now we need performance and delivery so that people begin to see the vision and we get all hands on deck without the political tribalism.”

“There are still a lot of compromised properties,” Isaac continues, “and six months from now we’ll be in a very different position. But right now we don’t have the capacity we need. We don’t have enough carpenters, masons, and contractors to rebuild. So as far as preparedness, we are in a very vulnerable position.”

Mr. Isaac, a former parliamentary representative from the opposition United Workers Party, in late March 2018 declared he was “tired of tribal politics” and announced he would become an independent. When he crossed the floor a week later to accept the plum Cabinet position, the move was greeted with derision by members of his former party who characterized it as self-serving at best.

Mr. Isaac shrugs off the criticism. “Right now we need performance and delivery so that people begin to see the vision and we get all hands on deck without the political tribalism,” he says. “The goal must be country first.  We’re trying to focus on the work ahead. But even when you have a vision, not everyone comes on board. Unfortunately, when the level of tribalism is high, people make politics out of everything.”

The Imperial Road climbs past lowland farming communities along the Pagua River.
The Imperial Road climbs past lowland farming communities along the Pagua River.

From the international airport near Marigot in the north, the fastest route to Roseau, the capital some 25 miles away is an hour-long drive along the Imperial Road that bisects the 18-mile-wide island. The road, dangerous in the best of times, today is susceptible to landslides or complete collapse with any measure of rain, forcing lane closures and road diversions until highway construction crews, already stretched thin, can clear or shore up the roadway.

Lane closures and road diversions are a common sight these days.
Lane closures and road diversions are a common sight these days.

After Marigot, a village of 2,500 in Saint Andrew Parish that sustained widespread damage in the hurricane, the route climbs past lowland farming communities along the Pagua River, its watercourse still clogged in places with Maria’s detritus — massive tree trunks stripped of bark, tangles of branches, and always, the ubiquitous, gigantic boulders that seem to have rolled out of nowhere. Roadside snackettes sell drinks and snacks. An egg farmer calls out from her front porch to say she finally has a few eggs to sell; after losing her laying hens and coops in the hurricane, the farm is slowly coming back.

Plantains, like bananas, needing nine months to regenerate, are only just coming back in and people’s eyes grow wide at the sight of a hand of green bananas (or “figs” as they are called here) for sale in shops or the open air markets; the perennials like mango, avocado, coconut, citrus and breadfruit trees, were toppled or uprooted and will take years to replant and reach pre-Maria production levels. Small farmers’ tuber crops such as dasheen, yam, tannia, cassava, and sweet potato were almost universally buried by mud, silt, and debris; plantings since the storm only now are returning to markets, but there are challenges here as well.

Green “figs” are slowly making their way back into markets, the first since last September.

Gerald George, a farmer still living in his tarpaulin-covered kitchen on a high ridge above the nearby village of Calibishie, says he has barely been able to eke out a living since the storm. Just when thought he had turned the corner with potatoes and yams ready for digging and taking to market, he has had to battle hungry Agoutis, a small rabbit-sized mammal related to the guinea pig, that raid his small plot of leased land. “They come down from the forests and now there are more than ever before,” he says. “I have no way to keep them out.”

Homes on the hillside above Canefield.
Homes on the hillside above Canefield.

As the narrow, winding road rises into the mountain forests of the Central Reserve, the air becomes cool and clean, green embankments glisten with miniature waterfalls from a recent rain or reveal great scars of red earth where the land has let go. The only thing to mar such beauty is the occasional impatient driver who overtakes and passes, often on dangerous curves. The descent toward the Caribbean Sea winds through tiny villages like Pont Cassé with homes in various states of repair, past yellow daisies and flame-red flamboyant trees that survived in protected valleys, lush ground vegetation, and on into the town of Canefield and finally Roseau on the drier, west side of the country. Home after home along this route is either leveled or seemingly stalled in a slow restoration process.  

In the streets of Roseau, shirtless young men stand around smoking cigarettes or drinking Kubuli, the local beer (being brewed in Grenada since Maria), but no one seems to be doing much in the middle of the afternoon. About 45 percent of businesses were destroyed or shuttered, and with unemployment at 23 percent before Maria, joblessness is a major concern for the government as without steady income, few can invest in rebuilding roofs and homes. One response during the relief phase was to launch an Emergency National Employment Programme; by the end of 2017 it had provided jobs for 350 workers from 15 communities tasked with clearing and removing debris. The government also recently rescinded some layoff notices and pledged to help rehire and pay salaries for 1,100 more. A new emergency employment programme is expected to provide jobs for an additional 1,200 workers in four more communities through the end of 2018 to help clear touristic, agricultural, and educational facilities.

Eddie Linton, a former police officer and taxi driver, says that he and his wife were lucky.  “For every dollar I made, we ate only 75 cents, so we had money saved to be able to buy lumber and nails to rebuild our roof. Some people don’t have money to spend on new roofs. Without money or livelihoods, the only option is to move away. There’s lots of people who will never come back,” he adds.

Lumber is available, but screws are nearly impossible to secure.
Lumber is available, but screws are nearly impossible to secure.

The government recently extended the waiver of duty free tax to allow free importation of building material. But boats are in high demand to bring in supplies to other islands as well, resulting in a shipping bottleneck. Ten pre-fabricated concrete houses meant to be delivered to Pointe Michele on the southwest coast, for example, are held up in Barbados. Roofing screws, structural straps, and other needed building supplies are also slowed down in procurement channels or simply sitting in containers in the antiquated sea port, causing delays in reconstruction, such as the $3 million roofing programme funded by the Chinese government through the UNDP and contracted out to international agencies like the IOM, IsraAID, and Caritas.

Early on, Mr. Linton sent away to St. Lucia for supplies, had them brought in by boat, and was able to hire a local contractor to do the work. Unfortunately, he now will have to retrofit his roof as the work was completed prior to the May 2018 publication of the government’s Guide to Dominica’s Housing Standards.

The booklet, developed by Ministry of Planning, the UNDP, Engineers Without Borders (an international NGO) and the World Bank, with funding from the People’s Republic of China, describes in straightforward text and simple illustrations how natural forces affect buildings, provides optimal house, roof, and foundation design including steeper roof angles to better withstand wind, the use of screws instead of nails to hold down roofing materials, as well as information about site planning, reinforcement, walls, and materials.

Environment Minister Isaac says the government and UNDP continue to make assessments of nearly 30,000 homes, often going on foot into the hardest-hit areas, based on information provided by village councils, and getting the word out with information about rebuilding through the councils and community meetings so that people become aware of how and what to retrofit and to ensure homes are being rebuilt to code.

This is vital, he says, because “the old building specs just won’t do anymore. Our biggest challenge is to make people understand that ‘Build Back Better’ is not just a cliché but something being put into practice. They just do what they are accustomed to doing and the cycle repeats itself with patched roofs and nails, for example. People are either impatient or don’t understand because everything is so politicized.

“I think the government is on the right track to ensure that rebuilding is going the right way and creating awareness. But we need to document this and demonstrate how it is working, and to make a bigger distribution of informational [building guide] brochures.

“We have some resources – from the World Bank, European Union, the Chinese government, Caricom, and even help from Cuba in teams of workers, but we will need significantly more to build back better. The biggest problem is that unlike a crisis that hits one area of a big country, Maria impacted the entire country,” Isaac adds.

One of the more novel, hands-on approaches used in Dominica to complement the building guide, is a model roof built by the UNDP to highlight best practices for “Building Back Better.” The scale model has appropriately spaced rafters, 24-gauge galvanized roofing material, and five-inch screws to connect it instead of nails.

The model was part of a Carnival parade float in February and since then has been transported in the bed of a pickup truck and displayed at several hardware stores and technical assistance centres around the country and at training sessions and community meetings hosted by the UNDP and the IOM. “It’s a simple form of messaging,” says Ian King, UNDP head of office in Dominica and recovery advisor, “but it reaches hundreds of people at a time – and the lights go on.”

The IOM held its first shelter-related community meeting in Calibishie, in the north of the country in early May. The driver who brought the model to Calibishie for the meeting explains how it displays two nails driven toward each other at 45 degrees instead of the five-inch screws, as mandated in the new guidelines. “We can get supplies of wood, but we can’t show people the screws because they aren’t available. So that’s why there are nails. It’s crazy,” he says. “Dominica is as crazy as it is beautiful,” he laughs.

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As one of the international agencies partnering with the UNDP to help with housing assessments and beneficiary selection for housing assistance, the IOM contracted to perform roof repairs or replace badly damaged homes with climate resilient “Core” shelters – small, basic structures built according to the new building guidelines and designed to be expanded as needed. The IOM has the responsibility for 12 communities: Marigot, Wesley, Woodfordhill, Calibishie, Bense, Anse de Mai in the Northeast, and in Salisbury, St. Joseph, Layou Park, Morne Rachette, Colihaut, Dublanc, and Bioche on Dominica’s west coast.

So far, with funding by the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia, the EU, and ChinaAID’s partnership with the UNDP, the IOM has completed 57 roof repairs in Woodford Hill, Marigot, Morne Rachette, and Colihaut. The plan is for 750 roofs and 80 Core shelters across all 12 communities, though the June 30 target date for completion has been significantly set back by lack of supplies due to continued shipping delays.

Climate resilient “Core” house in Paix Bouche.
Climate resilient “Core” house in Paix Bouche.

The IOM (along with IsraAID and Caritas in other areas of the country) work with parish village councils to create comprehensive listings of each household in every community. Since funds and time are limited and not all households can be assisted, the lists are based on those considered the most vulnerable and in need. The names for potential beneficiaries come from the village council list, a Vulnerability Needs Assessment conducted by the local government with help from the WFP, UNICEF, and IOM following the hurricane, and a Building Damage Assessment carried out by the Ministry of Housing, with help from the UNDP.

After an hour or more of cross-checking attendees names from the master list, Maxine Alleyne-Esprit, an IOM community engagement assistant, speaks to some 100 Calibishie residents gathered under a tent on the playing field behind the village primary school.

“We don’t only want to build back better homes, we want to build back better a community,” she tells the crowd. She asks those in attendance to look out not just for themselves, but for their neighbors who might be worse off, “is there anyone not here who should be here, for whatever reason, who might be too old or too sick to come, but whose house is badly damaged or needs a roof?”

She goes through the criteria of how the most vulnerable are selected – the elderly, pregnant and lactating women, those with disabilities or illness, single male or female-headed households, large households with many children who cannot work, poor households living in unsafe structures, and uninhabitable homes. For many, this is the first time such information about eligibility has reached them. Ms. Alleyne-Esprit makes it very clear that the IOM cannot make any promises, and is not able to help everybody, but instead must try to find and propose those who need help most.

Ms. Alleyne-Esprit also informs the crowd that as they were preparing to present the final list for the meeting, “we were surprised and concerned to find 61 households on the first parish list after assessments had been made; now we have to go back and attempt to make it transparent and fair, so I cannot promise it will be the best list.” She asks those at meeting to let her know if a name is not on the list or if a name should come off.

Away from the crowd Ms. Alleyne-Esprit laments, “The recovery has become increasingly political. We are expecting this type of thing more and more these days,” she says, “and we have to be neutral, so it’s very tough and hard to get it right.”

Back in Roseau, Diane Robinson of Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, says the recovery stage is proving harder for her group doing similar roofing and shelter work on homes in Grand Bay in the south. “We are facing the same problems of getting our hands on materials that are held up in port and labor shortages, all of which sets us behind.”

She also speaks to the political meddling that is taking place with names being switched on the beneficiary list after it was shared with the parliamentarian and after the assessments have been made. “We have to be just,” she says. “Everyone is frustrated and just wants to get on with the work and do their job.”

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Downtown Roseau is a warren of one-way streets and narrow, concrete sidewalks, some with old cobblestones showing through. Open drains carry muddy runoff from the mountains to the sea; pedestrians hop from sidewalk to road and back, dodging cars, bicycles, and mud. Its architecture is a mix of non-descript modern structures like the six-storey financial center that houses several government offices and older, pastel-colored colonial buildings in various states of repair, as well as ancient wooden structures with timber stairwells and gingerbread fretwork that have survived many storms, including Maria. Many others are boarded up and abandoned. Damaged roofs in Roseau are still patched with shards of tin scrap but more often with the ubiquitous, heavy-duty blue shelter plastic branded with the Samaritan’s Purse logo. Roofers can be seen among the rafters of some buildings, making slow but steady progress. Everywhere, black insulated telephone wires and power lines are coiled like tangled fishing line on poles and buildings, with exposed strands often dangling down, head-high, above the sidewalks.

On the third floor of a pastel office building on Roseau’s Kennedy Avenue, the UNDP’s Ian King manages the UN’s programmes and is the UN country security focal point. Like his government counterparts, Mr. King weighs in on the country’s preparedness:

“Basic needs are being met,” he says, “but people are still using tarpaulins on roofs, there is no electricity in some areas, and homes are still running on generators…  Dominicans are acutely aware that they are not prepared for another storm and there is uncertainty about where to go and what to do in the event of another hurricane.”

Mr. King believes improved communications is critical at this stage of the recovery, particularly in relation to housing. While the Ministry of Planning has assumed some responsibility in this regard, “it remains an area for further attention both in terms of messaging and strategy,” he says.

Without clear and regular messaging, and more importantly, a consistent means to reach the population, he points out, the cash support provided in late 2017 and early 2018 appears to have not been fully understood. Many of the 25,000 Dominicans who have received building supplies or cash vouchers from the WFP, Red Cross, or UNICEF to buy food or household necessities do not appear to know who or where it came from or how agencies determined who received support as illustrated by the latest GTS survey in which 86 percent of Dominicans interviewed did not understand eligibility criteria and had no idea they would have been able to get help.

“The government is trying to cut off hand outs, but the recovery phase has not caught up and has not reached the expectations of the public. People cannot differentiate between cash programmes and as a result there is no clarity in cash distribution. We need a media strategy to reach the public and the government continues to struggle with the response. The means of communicating to the public is a constant challenge; there must be a mechanism to get the messaging right.” Mr. King says he and his colleagues in the humanitarian community often talk about what would have been the best way to get information out during the relief phase and what would work well now in recovery.

Similar themes emerged from Ground Truth Solutions’ surveys of Dominicans between October 2017 and April 2018 about the need to provide communities with clearer, more timely, and more systematic information about recovery plans, especially what people can expect, when they can expect it, and who is eligible for what type of support and for how long. Those interviewed say they prefer information shared face-to-face and broadcast via radio. Hotlines are useful to receive incoming information – if there is cellular service and electricity – but they are not the best way to get information out to people; posters are another answer but they are not always understood or effective.

“In the meantime,” King says, in the absence of a strong communications system “people begin to make assumptions about the delivery of aid and beneficiary selection, and there comes an automatic perception that there is a connection through favouritism. It’s already a highly politicized environment and the message about beneficiary selection clearly is not getting through.”

Government officials concede they still have many things to do to improve communications during recovery, especially when it comes to coordinating meetings and messages. With so many different personnel from the international agencies showing up to help and to deal with sensitive issues like resettlement – moving people out of vulnerable areas – it can become difficult, and the government has urged international partners to be sensitive to the needs of people but not give out incorrect information.

Much of the communications challenge will become easier when electricity is fully restored and the government is working with Microsoft and Google to set up internet hubs via satellite in towns and cities like Portsmouth, on the northern end of the island.

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Emerline Anselm, who teaches social studies and business at Portsmouth Secondary School, however, says although life is improving, the pace is slow. She and her family survived the harrowing storm but lost their roof, windows, and belongings. She received a call in late April inquiring about her housing needs and status, but it was the first time anyone had made contact.

“Some homes have water, but still no electricity in others, and we have no idea who gets it or not. There’s no feedback, and we end up having to use connections to get things done,” she complains. “As a result, people keep taking things from abandoned home to fix their homes and rebuilding is being done willy-nilly…. So many homes were destroyed, they came in to do surveys more than once, but we’ve got nothing since, not even food. It never came through.”

Ms. Anselm and her colleagues, gathered on a balcony overlooking the schoolyard, agree the main problem is communication about where to get assistance and where to get things. “By the time you get the message about distribution they have already closed down,” another teacher says. “With few cars, poor electricity and phone service, why are they putting out messages on Facebook and Internet addresses on posters when we have no access?”

Nalda Jubenot, the district development officer for Portsmouth, whose job is to share information about the recovery process, says she tries to keep people apprised of available assistance, but often has no positive information to deliver. “Now that relief has turned to recovery, people get angry when I come back to them empty handed, it’s most difficult when they see you as a ray of hope. But my hands are tied, I can’t make promises.”

“Right now, our first concern is shelter,” she says. “Some people have nowhere to go in the event of another hurricane. We have six families who were left with only a foundation and have not been able to rebuild, and an elderly man who cannot afford to rebuild…”

As a result Ms. Jubenot is keeping close tabs on the progress of rebuilding and retrofitting the Paix Bouche Primary School about six miles to the north in the strikingly beautiful, emerald green mountains 1,500 ft. above Portsmouth. Twice weekly she negotiates the steep, narrow road in her hurricane-battered car, its visibility severely reduced by a smashed windshield, to the mountaintop school. Built in 1963, the two-story schoolhouse appears to have imploded during Maria. Today the school is a hive of activity as a team of volunteers from All Hands and Hearts, an American-based disaster relief organization, have taken over the former government project, and energetically mix concrete, reinforce pillars, and shore up the building’s floors and foundation.

Soon, Paix Bouche will join other school facilities that have reopened since the hurricane. Since the end of 2017, approximately 94 percent of the country’s schools have reopened – 15 secondary schools, 52 primary schools, and 35 pre-kindergarten facilities – with total attendance at about 75 percent for primary and secondary schools, and 50 percent at the pre-kindergarten level. UNICEF is supporting Dominica’s Ministry of Education by providing furniture (some 4,500 chairs and desks), as well as 11,000 textbooks, 11,000 workbooks for mathematics, science, arts, language, and social studies. Twenty primary schools have been supplied with full libraries and encyclopedias.

The status of other schools, like the Soufriere Primary School, is unclear. Despite a commitment by the Digicel Foundation through the Clinton Global Initiative to rebuild the school by June, the schoolhouse sits empty with a shredded blue tarpaulin instead of a roof, puddles of rainwater on classroom floors, and a large pile of debris in the schoolyard.

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On the road from Roseau south to Soufriere, school children in colorful uniforms laugh and jostle each other as they walk home, men in navy aprons and black rubber boots pour a new concrete slab along the side of the road, dump trucks pass carrying cinderblocks and bags of cement or overflowing loads of zinc scrap headed for a landfill. Scaffolding is set up around home after home with workers patching ceilings, repairing walls and roofs – sure and positive signs that recovery is well underway. Further on, construction workers trudge homeward down the steep hill to Soufriere, another collection of tiny, colorful homes where women chat through open windows across the narrow street. St. Mark’s Catholic Church, an imposing, stone pile, stands tall on the oceanfront. A young girl happily swings on a knot of wires strung between the church schoolhouse and a telephone pole until a teacher shoos her away.

More school children in purple uniforms crowd into a black mini-van that turns down the wide, recently constructed, concrete highway along the beach toward Scotts Head and negotiates the detour around a huge section of road that was washed out, huge, broken slabs now lying on the rocky beach.

Scotts Head, the small, impoverished fishing village at the end of the island that bore the first brunt of Maria, is peaceful on a sunny afternoon, Soufriere Bay calm and inviting. A handful of wood and fiberglass fishing boats line the beach as a lone fisherman carries his haul of four small dolphin to the road.

The homes along the waterfront, however tell a different story. Some are still inhabited despite missing windows, roofs, and floors, others are abandoned, like the Thomas home with a gaping hole in its side, flooring hanging from what was the living room. Across the street a contractor with a badly injured leg, struggles to patch holes in the ceiling of an outdoor porch, while further down, an elderly woman sits on stone steps – all that is left of her former home – in the shadow of a tarpaulin, two large blue plastic water canisters and a pile of belongings at her feet. In the distance, a solitary man dressed only in a pair of ragged shorts wanders the rocky spit between the village and the Cachacrou Peninsula, a steep headland above the bay that is actually the exposed rim of a collapsed submarine caldera and a vibrant marine reserve treasured by divers from around the world.

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Pascal, a fisherman in a navy T-shirt and tattered gray shorts, lost both his boat and his house in the hurricane, but like so many others says, “I’m lucky to be alive.” He pauses in the middle of the deserted street to watch Domlec workers direct a truck backwards down the hill after reestablishing electricity to some of the village’s upper homes, then points to the foundations of a home destroyed by waves. “One after another they pounded the house until it was gone, the waves came right up to there,” he says, pointing to the third-story balcony of the house next door.

From mid-September until early May, Pascal was living outdoors under a tarpaulin strung from a neighboring house. Now he has a small, temporary room in a nearby rooming house that somehow survived the storm. Without his boat, though, he’s unable to fish for his living. “The government gave me money to rebuild my home,” he says, “but I need to eat.” So everything he has goes for food. And no, he says, he will not be prepared if there are more storms this summer. He is not alone.

                               – Reported by Jeffrey J. Carmel