Dominica: After Storm Erika

Dominica is used to rain. Lots of it. One of the Windward Isles, it receives over 300 inches of rainfall per year, has 365 rivers and is known as “Nature’s Island”. But when Tropical Storm Erika settled over the island on 27 August 2015, Dominica wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented amount of rain that would fall. In some parts of the island, 26 inches arrived in barely seven hours. It wasn’t a hurricane because there was no wind. This made it worse, for wind would have dispersed the rain more quickly. The storm settled so well that neighbouring islands such as Antigua, Guadeloupe and Martinique were unaffected.

This amount of rainfall, on a mountainous, forested island, caused unheard-of damage. Trees were uprooted, boulders moved, mudslides were triggered that began in the mountains and ended in the Atlantic Ocean. Rivers swelled to bursting, bridges were washed away, roads blocked and where there were previously small culverts, ravines were created. The capital, Roseau, was flooded. Dominica received a little international help but the event quickly lost its news value, despite the fact that 35 people lost their lives.

This is the story of our visit to Dominica in February 2016, 5 months after the devastating events.

“That’s where my house stood,” said the man from Petite Savanne (a village on the east coast).
“In the morning I went down to the village and when I came back my house, my garden and my Kubuli beer shack, my livelihood, were all gone.” He continued, “But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still alive”.

We had booked flights to, and accommodation in, Dominica in May 2015, on the strength of a successful visit the previous January, but Storm Erika in August had threatened the whole venture. Having been assured that we could still get there (the airport suffered major structural damage in the storm), and that the Zandoli Inn could accommodate us, we set off, somewhat apprehensively.

Dominca Hotel

Would the roads, hazardous at the best of times, now actually have become truly dangerous? Would the Zandoli Inn be up to scratch? It had been close to the centre of storm damage and a huge amount of work would need to have been done to make it even habitable. If we were unable to get out and about, would we be spending more time than usual just resting and reading? And, would our motives for the trip – you need our money, of course we’ll come – be misguided. Surely not all of the guests who had cancelled could be wrong?

We had arrived at the airport in the north and had driven anti-clockwise round the island, through Roseau and across the mountains to the Zandoli Inn on the south-eastern tip. On this initial journey we had seen some signs of damage: cracked tarmac at the airport and a couple of smashed roads over rivers, now traversed by Bailey bridges. But the closer we got to the Inn, the more apparent the damage became: wide rivers where in January 2015 we’d seen small streams, successive roads broken and the rivers crossed by rutted dirt tracks, on which the hire car’s exhaust bumped and ground every time.

The Zandoli Inn itself had suffered a mud-slide. From the road opposite, down the 100 yard long drive, the owner’s car blocking the path of a tree and then the tree itself blocking more debris, but not the oozing mud. Two foot deep. The mud had raced across the garden, through the air vents and into the bar and the kitchen, covering the patio and filling the small swimming pool.

“We were without electricity for three and a half weeks, without running water for over three months, without mobile phone signals for a fortnight and without the internet for three months,” said Jenn, the owner. “We have lost over $100,000 worth of business.”

Broken Road Dominica

But one look told us that Jenn and staff had worked miracles. The Zandoli Inn was as good as new. The views over Grand Bay still a dream. Canadian Jenn is a former Toronto restaurant owner and her food is simply delicious. Fresh Lobster, Mahimahi, Kingfish. Chocolate fondants. Even tne porridge – complete with island fruit and chocolate shavings – made for a delightful breakfast. The mouth waters at the thought of each night’s meal. Now Jenn has started to serve home-made grapefruit wine, so strong it needs to be drunk as a spritzer and mango and passionfruit wine make a change from her wonderful rum punches.

Before we could get carried away with such comforts, we took a trip north, along the Atlantic coast of Dominica. We didn’t get very far. The village of Petite Savanne, only six miles on, had borne the brunt of the storm. There the road halts. A chasm has opened in the village and is not yet bridged. North of the chasm, the onward road to the next village, Delices, was still blocked by rubble.

As we walked along the cracked road, the villagers came out, keen to tell their stories:

“It was lucky the mud-slides came at 8 am, for there’d have been more loss of life if we’d all been asleep.”

“My house was spared. The government say I should move but I’m 83 and I’ve nowhere else to go.”

“That pile of rubble used to be the church.”

“In that house, six people died. Two of them are buried behind it.”

“One guy woke up on his mattress in the sea.”

“Another came home to find that his house, with his family in it, had ridden a mud slide and now stood on the opposite side of the river.”

“We think maybe there was a small earth tremor because it seems coincidental that so many different mud slides occurred all at the same time.”

Jenn also told us that her housekeeper, Merle, had lived in Petite Savanne. There was one mud slide to the right of her house, another to the left and one in front. Merle and her kids miraculously survived but she’s had to move to the other side of the island and can’t get to work.

Storm Damage Dominica

As the villagers told their tales, they still seemed to be dumbfounded, even shell-shocked, by the events. They were still fearful – the Government has done little to repair the damage. Everyone fears further problems in the coming rainy season.

Sobered by these personal tales and the obvious damage all around, we returned to the Zandoli Inn to plot our next move. Dominica, being mountainous, forested and volcanic – there are nine active volcanoes on the 29 mile long by 18 mile wide island – is a hiker’s dream and so we plotted walks to some of the 12 substantial waterfalls. First the Emerald Pool, the most photographed site on the island but mainly because it’s a favoured destination of cruise ship passengers. The easy one mile walk through the forest had been unaffected by the storm so we tried something a little more challenging.

The Dernier Falls, which would have been a steady 45 minute drive along the east coast, but since this road no longer exists in its totality, is now a tortuous 80 mile round trip. According to the guide book: “a short but steep path down to the falls, it takes 15-20 minutes and there are steps all the way down”.

Waterfall Dominica

Unfortunately there are no books which update the walks to take account of the post-storm landscape. There are no longer any discernible “steps”, just a strenuous hour or so of steep mud, tree roots and rocks. Leading to an exquisite waterfall in a secluded cove.

A third walk, to the Victoria Falls… according to the guide book, “negotiating the white river can be difficult. The trail is not particularly obvious. If possible, you should hire a guide”. So hire a guide we did, which made the walk less stressful. Less stressful? Well it was until we reached a pool in the white river. As the guide hadn’t done the hike since the storm, he had no idea of the depth of water in the pool and we had to feel our way gingerly across the edge using a steep wall to the left as a sort of mountain goat “path”. The reward was spectacular though – a rushing, noisy, 40 metre drop of a waterfall with a swimmable basin at the bottom of it.

On the return journey, the non-existent “ledge” lacked appeal and so we just waded across the pool. It turned out to be between four and five feet deep and, were it not for cameras and phones, we would have been better off swimming it. Some hike!

Rastarant Restaurant Dominica

The guide had parked in a small area at the start of the trail and this and surrounding land belongs to Moses, an amiable Rastafarian. Moses lives and works the land in this remote location, producing organic food and running a simple, vegan “Rastarant”. Our guide had ordered a meal with Moses at the end of our hike and this turned out to be a simple but delicious lentil curry.

Dominica Carnival

But we hadn’t booked this trip just for the walking. Once a year, Dominicans like to cast away their worries and party, with a long Carnival, the highlight of which was a superbly colourful parade, with kids dressed as minions, stilt-walkers, hairy “Chewbacca-like” costumes, monster masks and calypso bands encouraging by-standers to sway to the beat. Roseau rocked that day. All thoughts of storms banished.

After the carnival, we resumed other activities for which Dominica is renowned: snorkelling, whale watching (we saw three sperm whales), bird watching and bathing in the hot sulphur pools at Wotten Waven were once again first class activities, unaffected by Storm Erika.

Carinval Fun Dominica

After 12 days it was time to come home. Our initial worries had proved to be groundless. The roads are still passable and not really dangerous. The only “inconvenience” had been the inability to drive the east coast and having to make long detours. The Zandoli Inn is, once again, a serene and superb base. The people are, slowly, recovering.

And to those people who’d cancelled their trip – well you’ve missed an opportunity. An opportunity to have whatever kind of holiday you want. If you want to have a restful time, you can. The Zandoli Inn is in as peaceful and quiet a location as you could find. We even took part in a refreshing yoga session there! If you want to have an adventure, you can. If you want to see and do something different, you can.

But much more importantly, you have missed the opportunity to really help a community badly in need of some tourist income.