The people of Dominica would be surprised to hear that they are the subject of political debate in Trinidad. Pelted far beyond the world in which they lived when Maria came calling on the night of Monday September 18th, they now exist in a hurri-scape where the co-ordinates of life are defined by the longitude of desperation and the latitude of survival.
Inside that world, Trinidad and Tobago is not a place. It is the calming presence and quiet authority of Colonel Roger Carter and the 55 members of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force who might somehow find them, either by foot or by helicopter, inside this bizarre new landscape concocted out of collapsed mountainsides, broken buildings, twisted steel and fallen forests.
Overnight, this small island has became a continent to cross. Stranded on the other side of help, their options are to stay put and hope to be found before they are completely lost, or to brave the unknown dangers of an unfamiliar world. If only they can find or be found, their reward will be the water, food, baby milk, medicine, clothes, and the bounty of other things sent with love from T&T and other neighbours of the Caribbean. If the doors of Trinidad and Tobago are now open to Dominicans, most would have no way of knowing, so distant are they from any form of communication.
In Tortola, north of Dominica, where lives and the ordered beauty of that tourist paradise were splintered inside the vortex of Irma’s tornado wind force of close to 200 mph, another TTDF veteran, Colonel Kester Weekes of the Engineer Battalion, is the point person for the Caribbean Disaster Relief Unit (CDRU). Summoned to duty in the cataclysmic double-whammy of Category 5 hurricanes, their task is to impose order and efficiency upon disorder and collapse to save lives and stabilize a nation.
On Sunday morning, the Ministry of National Security and Caribbean Airlines mounted another humanitarian mission to Dominica and Tortola piloted by Capt Richard Jacelon with Flight Officer Capt Raphael Rose with warm support from flight attendants Taselle Julien and Sherise Escayg. On board with Ministry representative Marcia Hope was a complement of TTDF soldiers including Flight Lieutenant Monique Sprott (Airguard) of the TTDF Public Affairs Unit, two immigration officers, a medical team headed by Dr Gemma Malchan-Benny and her team of nurses of the NGO ‘Is There Not A Cause’, Reuter photographer Andrea De Silva and this writer.
Squeezed into every available space were bottles of water along with a cargo of food, medicine, tools, clothes, household items – even dog chow. The cargo had been sorted just before take-off by CAL staffers who spent their Sunday morning separating bags and bags of public donations into large clear bags with labels categorized for easy distribution.
On the approach to Dominica, the sunny morning that had spun rainbows over St Vincent and St Lucia gave way to heavy clouds, making the island as impenetrable from the air as it was on the ground.
With the main Canefield Airport in Roseau seriously damaged, air traffic is being directed to the smaller Douglas-Charles Airport, still referred to as Melville Hall, at the north eastern tip of the island. As in the case of Terrence B. Lettsome Airport in Tortola, hurricane damage has stripped the islands’ airports of the international civil aviation rating required for commercial flights. Until fences are repaired and all relevant electrical and control tower operations are restored to international standards, air access is limited to humanitarian, military and private flights willing to go in and out at their own risk.
For most people anxious to get in and out of Dominica, the sea routes to and from St Lucia and Antigua are the option.
On the ground on both islands, North American and European military units bringing urgent supplies face the same daunting challenges as the TTDF’s CDRU team of negotiating the hurricane-hit terrain. While the TTDF-CDRU priority is Dominica and all its people as a CARICOM country, the first priority of other countries are their own nationals.
On Sunday, with airport administration non-existent, US military personnel were processing US visa holders at a make-shift immigration desk outfitted with cardboard signs at the back of the airport building, a few feet from where heavy machinery were clearing mud. Once processed, visa holders boarded a military plane to Martinique from where they would be oput on a flight to New York.
Dominican relatives there to see them off were hearing for hearing for the first time about T&T’s offer of a 6-month stay.
In the end, only one person, a young Trinidadian student from Sangre Grande who had gone to Dominica on an internship in clinical psychology, boarded BW 3411 for home. On the plane, she described how scared she had been and how she had rationed her food, fearful of it running out before she could be rescued. She had made her way to Canefield Airport from where she was picked up by an NHS helicopter and brought to Douglas-Charles where she was quickly processed by the T&T immigration officers before boarding the flight.
In Tortola, perhaps due to its less daunting terrain, 26 persons, including a 5-month old baby and two other children, were processed for the flight back to Trinidad while supplies were taken off the place. Twenty were destined for Trinidad and Tobago, four to Guyana and two to the British Virgin Islands
One Trinidadian woman who had come to the airport to see them off, had sent a teenaged niece to relatives in Arima to continue her education. But she was worried, having heard on the grapevine that T&T’s assistance is for Dominicans only and that the girl would be on her own in finding a school. While she has been living in Tortola for 30 years, she wants T&T to recognise her own right to be helped in her time of trouble. “I am a Trini”, she declared.
As they buckled up for the flight home, Col Weekes made a fatherly appearance to wish them well and to encourage the children to do their school work, promising to follow their performance
Unlike the Trinidadian student whose only thought was of home, those from Tortola were anxious to unburden their hearts. The young mother with the baby, who was heading to Tobago on the basis of a church arrangement, described the horror of seven people, including the baby, jammed inside a toilet for a nightmarish seven hours while Hurricane Irma stormed and screamed through its way through their house. Miraculously, the baby had slept right through it.
Her eyes, stretched and glazed as if it had seen too much and slept too little, were expressionless as she told her story of a Cat 5 hurricane punctuated by as many as 18 tornadoes, by her count. It was the tornadoes that had splintered roofs and walls and strewn them about like bits of paper, wrapped a cell tower around itself and forced it to kneel on the ground outside the airport, broken a light plane into three and tossed its torso onto a car, and jumbled scores of sailboats like tins of sardines along the shoreline. Five people lost their lives that day. In Dominica the toll is now 27 and likely to rise. Those who survived Hurricane Irma could not imagine that less than two weeks later, they would be asked to endure the second horror of Hurricane Maria.
These were people who needed to talk and, as their stories spilled out, it became too much even for the flight attendant who had to walk away to compose herself. The someone asked, “So are you planning to go back when your home is fixed?”
With the same vacant look, the young mother replied without expression: “What home? There is no home.”
Beside her, her friend kept her eyes glued to the vista through the window as BW 3411 rose into the air and Tortola fell away beneath her feet.
Photos courtesy of the Ministry of National Security Trinidad and Tobago and Andrea De Silva.