By Caroline Haga, IFRC / Photos by Nina Svahn, Finnish Red Cross

Three weeks ago, on the evening of 18 September, hurricane Maria descended on the island of Dominica and destroyed everything in its path. Having unexpectedly grown from a category 1 to a category 5 hurricane in only 18 hours, it was the most devastating storm ever to have struck the island nation.

Before the hurricane Dominica was known for its nature, with pristine tropical forests, exotic flora and fauna, and beautiful waterfalls and rivers covering most of the island. But ferocious winds of up to 155 mph ripped trees out of the ground and sent branches, leaves and debris flying in every direction. It has taken weeks to clear up the blocked roads across the island.

”I cry a lot every day,” says 77-year-old Joseph Guiste, who has lived in the same neighbourhood in downtown Roseau – the capital of Dominica – his whole life. ”This is the second time I’ve seen a storm like this, but this one was much worse.” An overflowing river knocked down Guiste’s door and windows and covered his house with mud up to above waist height. Despite working hard to remove the mud, with help from his son, the living room remains caked in it.

“It was difficult and devastating, we could not sleep for a couple of days,” says Joan Barnes (48). She, her son Israel (28) and daughter Lady (20) had to run for cover, carrying her nine-month-old grandson Jerry. “We are surviving just a little bit. The mattresses got wet because the roof was blown away, all our clothes got wet. We have no food, no water, no lights. We don’t know when the water is coming, we don’t know when we are getting lights, and it’s kind of devastating.”

The force of hurricane Maria damaged 98 per cent of all roofs across Dominica. Many were ripped off completely, leaving the interiors of the houses soaking wet and destroying everything inside. As the country is prone to frequent tropical rains, materials to fix the roofs are urgently needed. Dominica Red Cross, supported by IFRC, has already distributed more than 3,000 tarpaulins to help people temporarily cover their roofs and protect their remaining belongings.  

“We heard a big bang on the house and then the roof was just gone,” says Rosa John Baptiste, 49. “Every time my mother sees the rain she’s frightened and starts to cry.” Having heard about the Red Cross tarpaulin distribution, Rosa and her daughter Vijayie Caprice, 11, decided to try to get one to calm her mother down, because “nothing beats failure but a try.”

Pamela Baron, a professional nurse, has to climb in through a window with a ladder to reach her 82-year-old mother Isadora Bellot. Isadora weathered out the hurricane in the sturdy 200-year-old house – Pamela’s childhood home – as she refused to join her daughter and great grandsons aged seven and nine on the other side of the town. “The boys who were visiting me were not scared, we sang together and then went to sleep. The first thing I did the next morning was to rush here to see that my mom was ok. My nursing clinic on the ground floor is covered in mud but I hope to start cleaning it tomorrow.”

All towns and villages in Dominica will require extensive rebuilding, from individual houses and roads, to power lines and water pipes. Three weeks after the storm the entire island remains without electricity and running water.

Yet, most people are simply glad to be alive and remain optimistic that they will eventually be able to restore their homes and nation to an even better state. Since the day after the hurricane, people have been working hard to clean the streets, repair their houses, and get their businesses back up and running.

“When I returned home after hurricane Maria, all I saw was the whole place in a mess. The TV, appliances, all the loose things got damaged and we had to throw them away. And I have no hard feelings about that. It’s not about us who got a little damage, it’s about the the people who lost their lives. What is losing a television when you think of that?” asks fisherman George Grell, 49, who is proud that his village managed to salvage their boats and have already been able to go out fishing.

“Let’s rebuild, let’s try to start to live again. We have life and strength. We have to come together, let’s bring our country back.”

In downtown Roseau, Moses Lewis empties a wheelbarrow full of mud on the side of the road for the umpteenth time. He is busy cleaning up his small bakery, which was covered in mud. “Many people are asking me if I have any bread for them. I’m hoping to get the bakery up and running in a few days.”

“It’s been rough since the hurricane struck. Our house was flooded and the windows were broken,” says Curvelle Lawrence.”We only have the little water and food we had stored before the storm, which I’m pinching out because we cannot afford to run out of it. But we are in good health – my three children, my three-year-old granddaughter Adira, and my boyfriend Bevenski.”

“I do believe that we will get through this eventually – with hard work we’ll be able to recover and come out even stronger afterwards. Any help we can get means the world to us at the moment.”

Since hurricane Maria, Dominica has lacked clean water, food and materials for reconstruction.  Dominica Red Cross staff and volunteers have been working hard to ensure that people receive the emergency aid that they need with the support of IFRC and generous donors. Red Cross Societies from neighboring islands including Grenada, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Barbados and Saint Kitts have all sent much-needed relief items, as is customary among the islands.

Dominica Red Cross has set up water purification systems to provide clean drinking water to communities. Five-year-old Keisha returns often to fill up her bottle.

Dominica Red Cross has also been helping people to connect with loved ones via satellite phones, as communications networks have been down across the island. Ethelina ”Angel” Harris, 51, hugs her youngest daughter Abigail, 15, tightly in Marigot, Dominica. They just tried to reach her elder daughter Berthlyn, 31, who works in the United States. “I wanted to tell her how much I love her, don’t worry about me, I’m ok, I’m tough. We’re staying here because Abigail needs to finish her school.”