David's destructive force
On August 29, 1979 Dominica was brought to a complete standstill by one of the most destructive forces in nature.
Merciless and unstoppable, Hurricane David scourged the island with unforgettable brutality— 150 MPH winds wantonly stripping, scattering, demolishing, hurting and killing.
The devastation and destruction by the massive storm laid bare the urgent need for something many persons of that era were not much concerned about— preparing for and managing disasters.
Ronald Charles was just about 19 years old, fresh out of high school and employed at the Forestry Division when Hurricane David stuck.
Charles recalled that on the eve of the hurricane, there was word on the radio that a storm was expected to hit the island on the following day.
"People were not so hurricane conscious at the time… the information they had was that the hurricane had taken a turn and would be impacting Dominica directly," Charles said.
Early on the fateful day, the Ministry of Home Affairs urged Dominicans to take precautions. At that time, few had the means to protect their properties or themselves effectively.
It was around 6:30am when Charles' grandmother heard this warning and sent him and his sister from their Loubierre home to gather what they could from their kitchen garden at Fond Baron.
There was light rain and it was already a bit windy when they left. The siblings collected what they could from the farm and returned home.
The rainfall was heavier by then and the family prepared a meal and settled down to wait the storm out.
Charles went to a neighbour's house intending to return home later, but he was unable to do so because the rising intensity of the winds made it too risky.
When the winds reached hurricane force, he was still at the neighbour's house and they could see some of the destruction unfold.
"We could see trees falling all around us. At one point we heard a huge noise, which we found later to have been the telephone post that broke from its perch."
Periodically, the winds would calm down allowing them to look out and see new scenes of destruction— like a huge 'kenip' tree downed in another villager's yard.
It was not until several hours later, between 3:00pm and 4:00pm that the winds subsided enough for people to venture outside.
"What we saw was just disaster all around us; everywhere was brown," Charles remembered.
Bountiful greenery had been reduced to a desolate wasteland of torn leaves, broken branches, uprooted trees from which even the moss had been ripped, along with fragments of galvanized roofing.
Every dry, seemingly harmless ravines had been transformed into gushing waterways and two previously gentle nearby rivers had burst their banks to become one raging force.
The roof of Charles' family house was intact, but most others were not so lucky. He recalled people crying and comforting each other.
Many had no idea where they would sleep that night as there were no hurricane shelters at that time.
"Dry clothing was a premium because everywhere was wet," he said. Even if your roof had not gone maybe a window was knocked through or [rain] came through the eves…"
Nobody could sleep that night and some walked to Roseau the following morning.
"I recalled walking through La Le Cocoa [which] before Hurricane David had a lot of coconut trees growing on both sides of the road…" Charles said.
"But on the day after Hurricane David, every coconut tree seemed to have fallen down and lay across the road, so it was a real challenge going through … it was a tremendous experience."
At Castle Comfort, Charles saw the extensive damage the river had done and people were trying to recover what they could. At Newtown, houses had collapsed onto the streets.
He could see people trying to clean up and regain some semblance of order. Finally, he got to Roseau only to encounter devastation everywhere.
Charles tried to get what supplies he could find in Roseau and returned to Loubiere where his neighbours were in a salvaging frenzy.
He recalled that there were incidents of looting in Fond Cole and he saw people making off with refrigerators and other electronic equipment.
Charles wasn't sure his job at the Forestry Division was still available after the storm, so he went Guadeloupe for two months.
However, when he returned the Forestry Division welcomed him back and put him in a team working to restore the forests.
Charles was part of a general restoration effort with help from the international community. Emergency relief supplies shipped to Dominica kept the island going for over a year.
He also remembered that, as part of the recovery effort, residents cleared their kitchen gardens and began planting root crops in particular.
According to him, Hurricane David brought extreme hardship and taught people by bitter experiences to adopt better construction practices, plan better, build better and support each other.
"I really don't want to experience another hurricane….it is something you really do not want to see twice in a lifetime," Charles said.