Remembering

Scenes from Hurricane David on August 29, 1979

The interim Government was barely two months old when one of the three most destructive hurricanes ever know to hit Dominica, lashed its shores, stripped trees from its mountains and tore the fragile homes of its people apart. Only twice previously had such severe hurricanes struck the island In the 1806 hurricane 131 people died mainly as a result of the Roseau river shifting its course and flooding the capital, and in the 'Great Hurricane" 10 September 1834, widely acknowledged as the worst of all, over 200 live were lost.
At first expected to hit Barbados, the hurricane, code-named David, shot across the southern section of Dominica on 29 August. There was little local radio warning and no operational systems for disaster preparedness. With swirling 150 mile-an-hour winds, David pounded Dominica for six hours from about 9.00 am. Thirty-seven people were killed and an estimated 5,000 injured, some requiring amputation of limbs. Three-quarters of the 75,000 population were left homeless with many others temporarily so, sleeping under rough cover in the open or huddled into the homes of more fortunate friends for weeks and months after the storm.
The Dominican economy was almost totally destroyed resulting in disastrous social and economic after effects. Roads and bridges were blocked and swept away. There was no electric power or piped water. The only contact with the outside world was Fred White's battery operated ham radio until other links were restored. The Commander of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Fife, which arrived through mountainous waves to give relief next day, likened the scene to a bombed-out battlefield. Volunteers from the Fife began basic repairs to the hospital, worked on cleaning streets and restoring the radio and essential services. Its helicopter pilots working under dangerous conditions ferried the dead and wounded from isolated areas.
The plight of the Dominicans got swift attention from the region and the wider world. First medical personnel and supplies, then generating equipment, water purification apparatus, food, clothing and tents arrived mostly from the United States, Britain and Canada. Appeal and relief committees, such as the UK National Appeal for Dominica were formed by concerned West Indians and friends abroad. Caribbean countries, particularly Barbados, St Lucia and Antigua allowed temporary residence for scores of Dominicans who fled the island or who sent their children away until conditions improved. Heavy rains caused by the close passage of Hurricane Frederick on 4 September tore away what had already been loosened by the winds six days before.

The authorities grappled with restoring the island to some sort of normalcy. A food ration system was initiated. Foreign forces; contingents of the French Army, US Cee Bees and Royal Engineers set up camps here and assisted with relief efforts.

By November Prime Minister Seraphin estimated the pledges of assistance were at over US$37 million and that there was the probability of more in the long term. In addition to Canadian, American and British aid, there was assistance from the IMF, International Red Cross, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisations of American States, the EEC and Caribbean Community States among others.

As was to be expected, the distribution of relief to the thousands who needed it posed problems of control. There were accusations of gross irregularity and hoarding of materials particularly in the case of galvanised roofing sent by the US. After the initial tension of the first six months wore off, there was more intense manipulation of these supplies. A rift developed between USAID and Seraphin's DDLP after he ordered the Defence Force to remove hundreds of sheets of galvanise from USAID storerooms and distribute it for party political purposes.
Slowly the agricultural sector tried to recover. Farmers cleared the total devastation of their banana fields. Coconuts in the south were almost completely blown down but there was minor damage in the north except for the Concorde Valley, the alignment of which had funnelled winds from the south. The citrus trees appeared to have survived the hurricane best, owing to their small stature and robust nature. Roads along the coast were everely eroded and a major sea defence programme commenced. For nonths the island echoed with the sounds of chain saw, hammering and electric generators as the people attempted to rehabilitate themselves.
Notes: The Dominica Story by Lennox Honeychurch.

EXIT