One year ago, on 18 September 2017 Dominica weathered the most brutal storm in its history. With recorded wind speeds of up to 220mph, Hurricane Maria uprooted poles, tore off thousands of roofs, decimated agriculture and the rainforests. The heavy rainfall resulted in flooded homes and businesses, broken roads and bridges, hundreds of landslides across the length and breadth of the island. The Dominica Police Force has confirmed that 31 lives were lost and 34 people are still missing; no community was spared. The scenes of the days and weeks to follow can only modestly be described as chaotic; thousands of families poured out of the battered island and the government was thrust into a nearly impossible journey to restore millions worth of damages, the island’s economy, and people´s lives.
In a matter of days, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit suited up and headed to the United Nations to let the world know what had happened. In a stirring speech he confirmed: “Eden is broken” and called on the rest of the world to help Dominica obtain the ambitious objective of becoming “the first climate resilient nation”. According to official reports, over 90% of buildings on the island were damaged. In all, the damage was estimated at 225% of the national GDP.
A few days after the hurricane, the UN Migration Agency IOM was on the ground distributing tarpaulins, solar lights, hygiene kits and other non-food items to affected families, and tracking the status of displaced people in emergency shelters around the island using the DTM tool. Data collected by the DTM team one month after the hurricane gives an idea of the scope of the disaster – 1,862 people were still living in 63 emergency shelters. 9 shelters on the northeast could not be assessed due to bad weather.
IOM also assumed the early role of coordinating the humanitarian efforts to assist in housing recovery – over 90% of Dominica´s housing stock was damaged by the Category 5 Maria, while also setting up operations and a team to kick-start its own “Shelter recovery” programs, with funding from the UK government (UK Aid), the European Union´s humanitarian arm (ECHO) and the Australian government (Australia Aid), and with material donations from ChinaAID via the UNDP.
This, IOM Dominica Team Leader, Jan-Willem Wegdam, described as “a large challenge” but admitted that he felt privileged to work for an organization that makes a difference.
Getting the work done has not been easy. In the first 6-7 months of the program, and even now, one year later, availability of tools, materials and labour for the construction sector is a major constraint. With several other northern Caribbean islands and American states, including Puerto Rico being hit, the supply of quality building materials has been strained. IOM was also forced to engage migrant labour along with local workers to get the project moving, in collaboration with other organisations including Habitat for Humanity, Seventh Day Adventist volunteers ADRA, All Hands & Hearts, and volunteer builders from the Mennonite community.
To date, and with these collaborations, IOM has assisted approximately 655 families with resilient roof repairs and have provided nine others with core-house solutions; construction of dozens of other houses has already commenced. Over 100 Dominican men and women have been trained in basic carpentry guided by the “Dominica Building Standards”. In collaboration with the Office of Disaster Management, 83 managers of emergency shelters were trained and certified in camp management strategies.
These and other accomplishments, Wegdam said are because: “I’m working here with a great team. It is the team that goes, that takes initiatives, solves things – works hard, I don’t have to ask them to work in the weekend or to get things done. In the meantime they are learning new things very fast.”
Community meetings have been held in many villages. There, community members were informed about the IOM programme of humanitarian assistance, given an opportunity to understand the process, and to assist IOM with selecting the most in need to receive help from the Shelter Recovery Programme. The basics of the Dominica Building Standards were also demonstrated and copies of the simplified Building Code distributed to at least 1500 people across the 12 villages. “Our aim as a humanitarian agency,” IOM Community Engagement Officer, Maxine Alleyne-Esprit affirmed, “is to involve the communities as much as possible in the process, to be open and transparent, and to increase community knowledge. So, as we rebuild, and we rebuild better; we work together to rebuild not just better homes, but better communities and better lives.”
Apart from the community meetings, shelter manager trainings and housing repairs, IOM has employed over 100 Dominicans and has pumped millions of dollars directly into the economy.
One year later, the wounds are still raw.
“I wish we could do more” Wegdam stated. “We put plasters on some of the people, we give them a house, but that doesn’t mean that they have food or that they get psychosocial support. I find it that the humanitarian community in collaboration with the government could benefit from a more integrated approach to support communities. Maria hit more than only the roof, so we should ideally have a programme where we can spend our money on much broader range of improvements.”
Today, one year later there have been many accomplishments – all schools have resumed, many businesses have re-opened, and electricity has been restored across over 95% of the island. Mobile telecommunications have been somewhat restored. People have self-repaired, government has assisted thousands to re-roof and repair, and millions have been committed to housing recovery. IOM and the other humanitarian agencies have assisted hundreds of households to recover their housing. On the other hand, an estimated 5,000 families are still living under tarpaulins, damaged roofs, or with friends and families, and close to 150 people are still living in shelters. Nevertheless, the IOM Team Leader is optimistic “the recovery here [is going] incredibly fast” he observed. “The government, although being hit very hard is doing whatever is in their capacity and is taking the lead in the recovery efforts. And you do see that people are being helped, the roads are getting better, that it’s being cleaned up and, they (the government and people) allow organizations like IOM to work. And that makes a huge difference.”
Ultimately, the team leader hopes that Dominica can make a quick recovery and urged Dominicans to figure out how they each can contribute to building the resilience of Dominica.