SOUFRIÈRE, DOMINICA—Backed against the wall of their crumbling home, with nothing but a mattress between them and one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history, Simon Walsh and his wife wrestled with the reality that this could be their final night.
“Noises, horrible tearing wrenching noises and crashes came to us through the Maleficent Howl,” Walsh, a photographer, dive shop owner, and former president of the Dominica Watersports Association, writes in his account of the night Hurricane Maria made landfall in Dominica. “We could tell the house was deteriorating. We held onto that mattress with all hands, we loved that mattress, it was between us and Maria.”
It is that howl that stays with Dominicans who lived through Maria. In conversations with numerous survivors across the small Caribbean island nation, they all described that terrible noise.
Walsh lost his home, but his family survived. “There was no house above us. The wall on our right had collapsed into the room next to us….There was debris everywhere, but somehow our little corner, half a mattress in size, was not buried.”
Two and a half months later, Walsh and his fellow Dominicans are just starting to dig themselves out of the wreckage. But they’re not alone. In addition to running his business, Walsh has spent years partnering with scientists who’ve built careers doing marine biology and conservation work on the island. Those same researchers are now doing everything they can to help the communities that hosted them recover.
I had spent the last year laying the groundwork for a marine robotics program in Dominica. When one of my partners sent out a call for extra hands to help deliver aid, I volunteered. It would be my first trip to the island.
On October 16, 2017, I strapped into the jump seat of a 60-year-old Convair C-131. Loaded down with 7,000 pounds of food, generators, chainsaws, solar chargers, and tents, we island hopped, first to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then onward to St. Lucia. In St. Lucia, we sourced and loaded another 7,000 lbs of food onto a dive boat and sailed for Dominica.
The supply delivery was part of an aid mission led by Jake Levenson, a friend and marine biologist who has spent the last decade working with the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSeTCO). It was coordinated remotely by Shane Gero, a Denmark-based marine biologist with the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. A week earlier, Levenson had put out a call on Facebook, looking for volunteers to help with loading and delivery. Myself and two others responded.
Levenson and Gero both initially came to Dominica for research—DomSeTCO coordinates sea turtle research, conservation and ecotourism in Dominica, while the Dominica Sperm Whale Project studies sperm whales and establishes guidelines for responsible whale watching on the island. Both scientists quickly became embedded in the community.
“We see Dominica as our other home and family,” Gero told me.
The two biologists watched from afar as Hurricane Maria spun up in the Atlantic. It roared to a Category 5 so fast that few on the island had a chance to prepare. “I was texting everyone [I knew] in Dominica,” said Levenson. “A few told me not to worry, everything is fine, but I don’t think they were seeing the weather radar I was looking at.” His last message to Dominica was to Walsh, with whom he was collaborating with on an invasive lionfish research project.
As communications with Dominica returned in the weeks following Maria, Levenson and Gero set to work fundraising for their colleagues on the island. Within a month, they were able to raise nearly $200,000. While a large portion of those funds were committed directly to aid supplies, much of the money was needed to transport supplies to the island, which at the time was suffering from power-failure, inconsistent access to the airport, and severe damage to its main roads.
This is how we found ourselves flying a cargo plane to St. Lucia, transferring everything to a Dominican dive boat, and sailing 100 miles north.
Levenson and Gero’s plan from the outset was to not only deliver supplies, but, whenever possible, hire Dominicans for the final delivery. The dive boat, Stingray II, captained by Francis Charles, is Dominican-owned, and one of the few large vessels that survived the hurricane. With the massive expense of long-term rebuilding looming, our goal was not only to bring needed equipment to the island, but to help get cash flowing back into the Dominican economy.
By most estimates, it will be at least a decade before Dominica returns to its pre-Maria state, and that’s only if the next ten years are free of major storms. Over 90 percent of the buildings on the island lost their roofs. Mud slides triggered by torrential rains created new ravines and buried settlements under meters of mud.
Leveson’s research projects, which include monitoring sea-turtle nesting beaches and surveying lionfish population expansion, are completely dependent on the support of the local communities. Driving around Dominica with Levenson, making deliveries to many of his friends, co-workers, and collaborators, I saw the sheer magnitude of destruction following Maria, and witnessed how meaningful his efforts were to those still trying to dig their lives out of the debris.
With Walsh, I toured the town of Soufrière, assisting in site assessments for new potable wells, and talking with community leaders to get a better idea of what resources they still need and how best to get them there. Dominica is a nation of fishers, yet nearly every fishing boat was damaged or destroyed in the storm. Without working boats, the country loses its main source of food security.
Levenson already has plans for a next series of aid shipments—much less complicated now that regular cargo services have returned to normal—and to rebuild the sea turtle nesting beach monitoring program, which employs Dominican beach patrollers and supports education programs in Dominican schools.
“This year’s turtle season is going to be tough,” Levenson told me. More leatherback turtles will arrive on the nesting beaches than in previous years, a testament to the success of DomSeTCO’s work. “We really need to be ready before that first turtle shows up. Our plan is still the same, get to a point where communities see that turtles are worth way more alive than dead.”
With Walsh and many others, Levenson and I are also working to establish a marine training and monitoring program in partnership with an underwater robotics company. Levenson and Walsh are continuing to fundraise to help rebuild schools in Soufriere, La Plaine and other villages along the more rural east coast of Dominica, and to help restart a floating classrooms program that both Levenson and Gero have supported for the last decade.
In the wake of these storms, scientists and conservation groups are discovering that there is a greater responsibility within the communities where we work, one that extends beyond collecting data. The process of rebuilding devastated communities will continue long after emergency disaster relief organizations have left. Researchers with established, place-based programs that not only build connections, but can support communities, have a role to play in those efforts.
“My commitment to the island, my friends and colleagues there, and of course the whales is long term,” Gero told me, adding that he plans to return for research in 2018, “and hopefully our science mission can bring with it the attention of a wider audience to share Dominica’s story, the resilience of its natural heritage, and its people.”
“The last thing we want is to abandon our friends when everything else is gone.”
Disclosure: Jake Levenson is a personal friend of the author. While this was a wholly volunteer mission, a portion of Thaler’s travel costs were covered by Levenson.
Andrew Thaler is a deep-sea ecologist and conservationist that works at the intersection of science, technology, and policy in the ocean.