In Dominica, Recovery is Still A Challenge

The Beryl Adventist Church in Dominica remains closed after Hurricane Maria destroyed the roof and compromised the structure. The church will have to be demolished and rebuilt. Thanks to Maranatha Volunteer International funds are being raised to assist in the rebuilding process on the island. Image by Julie Lee/MVI

March 7, 2018 | Roseville, California, United States, | Julie Z. Lee, Vice President of Marketing, Maranatha Volunteers International

On September 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria crashed into Dominica and devastated everything in her path. Here’s the story of what happened, what’s next, and how you can help through Maranatha Volunteers International

She thought they were going to die.

Darnelle Celestine and her husband were standing against the remaining walls of their home. Their young daughters huddled against them, cowering as the rain beat down on their heads and the water rose to their ankles. They listened in terror as the ferocious winds of Hurricane Maria screamed through their island and tore their house apart.

“The wind kept battering the house. And the roof eventually was lost to the wind, and the ceiling started imploding,” recalls Celestine. “Then the back, the walls started falling down and the hurricane came into the house.”

Some 28 Adventist Churches in Dominica will have to be rebuilt after Hurricane Maria. Image by Julie Lee/MVI

Debris began to swirl inside. Celestine watched as things slammed against each other and the walls and circled through the structure. The children started to whimper. They were cold, drenched, and exhausted. Celestine knew what was left of her house would not last, so she and her husband sketched out a plan. Across the street, there was a hospital, and it was probably their best chance of survival. However, they had to get the timing right. Running blindly into a hurricane with flying objects was a form of suicide. Celestine and her husband waited until there was a lull in the storm.

“There was still a lot of wind and rain, but we had no choice. We figured it would be the only time that we would have to leave the house. So, we ran, and we prayed. We trusted God would get us to the hospital,” says Celestine, who is a teacher at Arthur Waldron Academy, Dominica’s only Seventh-day Adventist secondary school.

Normally, the walk from the house to the hospital takes minutes. But that night, Celestine says the distance felt interminable.

“It was dark. We had the lights from our phones. There was so much debris in the yard, and we had to climb over the gate because we couldn’t open it. There was also a 40-foot container that had been moved. We had to navigate through that debris on the ground and around us.”

Finally, the family made it to the hospital and rushed through the doors. They were safe at last, and they stayed there until the storm subsided. The sun rose on a new day—and a new Dominica.

Worst Night of Their Lives

After losing everything in the storm, Darnelle
Celestine is living in a school dorm at the Arthur Waldron Academy while teaching. Her family has resettled in Barbados;
they will possibly return when Dominica is more stable. Photo by Julie Lee/MVI

The weekend before Maria pummeled the island, people were warned about a coming storm. They entered the weekend believing that a category 2 hurricane was headed their way. Later, it was upgraded to a category 5—the highest level for a hurricane and a way to predict potential disaster, but it was still just a number to the inexperienced. After all, what was a five? How could anyone have truly understood the monstrosity of such a storm?

The wind started on the evening of Monday, September 18, 2017. After that, it never stopped. Hurricane Maria sat on Dominica, gaining power as it moved slowly across the mountainous terrain. The storm howled. It screamed. It was the sound of torrential rain and 160 miles-per-hour winds, tearing the country to shreds. The storm snapped trees in half and yanked them from the earth. It pounded little houses, crumbling stucco, shattering windows, and blasting off doors. Metal roofs peeled back, like a pull-top on a can of soup, then ripped through the dark sky—a tangled sheet of shrapnel—before landing on houses, cars, trees, rivers, and oceans.

People endured this for hours, tucked in the safest space they could find. People said they screamed. Cried. Sang songs. Others sat in silence. Most prayed.

In the morning, Dominicans crawled out from their shelters to a different kind of trouble. The destruction was formidable. The island, which was blanketed by green foliage just hours before, was naked and brown. Entire buildings had blown away. Roads were impassable from the debris and mud. The electricity was out.

Celestine remembers wandering her neighborhood the next day.

“Well, first we went back to the house, and it was just terrible,” says Celestine. “We had stuff from the house on the road and in the yard. We had clothes in the rafters. Everything was just…the walls of our room had fallen on our beds. The beds were flattened.”

Her voice drops off and her eyes look downward as she pauses.

“It was terrible.”

Life After Maria

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Maria, aid organizations sent food, water, cleaning supplies, and tarps. With nothing left on the island, everything had to be shipped or flown in. Crews and volunteers began the herculean task of clearing tree trunks and trash. People patched their homes or resettled with family and friends.

In time, when some of the immediate needs were met, leaders began examining how to rebuild.

The Tarreau Adventist Church lost everything in the storm, and all that remains is the foundation. Now, they meet under a canopy for worship each week. Image by Julie Lee/MVI

This included the reconstruction of Seventh-day Adventist Churches.

“The hurricane has dealt us a tremendous blow. We have 34 congregations on the island. We also have four schools. Twenty-eight of our churches have been destroyed, either lost their roof completely or have been completely flattened and destroyed by the hurricane,” says Felix Jack, the ministerial secretary for the Adventist Church in the east Caribbean.

When an entire nation has been flattened by natural disaster, the state of church buildings may seem a secondary or even tertiary concern. However, Adventist leaders saw that people need community.

“We realized there was a great need to bring the membership together. We needed them to come together for prayer. We needed them to come together to show solidarity and to show support,” says Jack. “We devised a strategy in finding places—alternative places—for the church family to meet and to be with each other. In some places, we had to organize the churches in cell groups or in the homes of individuals so that they can have this sense of spirituality and camaraderie and solidarity with each other.”

Everyone knew the solution was temporary. Ultimately, Dominica needed to rebuild the churches, and they needed help. So, in November 2017, the Adventist Church in Inter-America, which represents Central America, the Caribbean, and sections of South America, asked Maranatha for help in areas impacted by Hurricanes Irma, which passed through the Caribbean in August, and Maria.

“There is a great need for reconstruction on islands like Dominica, Barbuda, St. Maarten, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and we want to bring Maranatha in to see how far they can help us in rebuilding properties and schools,” said Israel Leito, president of the Adventist Church in Inter-America.

After the meeting and an initial visit to the islands, Maranatha committed to help Dominica, which is among the hardest hit areas. This will be the second time Maranatha assists in reconstruction efforts in Dominica. In the 1980s, Maranatha helped to rebuild schools and homes after Hurricane David, a deadly storm, wrecked the country in 1979.

Nearly four decades later, Maranatha is coming back. In December 2017 and January 2018, Maranatha went to Dominica to assess the devastation and map out a plan.

“Our churches in Dominica have been pillars within the society, within the community. We have been serving the community—providing a place of refuge, a place of worship, a place where people can fellowship. A place where we can minister to our society. So not having the churches in these communities will be a great loss and a great travesty,” says Jack.

Homeless Congregations

Months after Hurricane Maria, most of Dominica is still without power. The streets are cleared of debris, but there are plenty of rock slides and collapsed roads. People have organized piles of twisted metal to be picked up for recycling. Almost every home is covered with blue tarp because new roofs are difficult to come by.

Members of the Beryl Church cram into the local pastor’s living and dining room. Image by Julie Lee/MVI

As for the churches, people are making do with what they have. In the case of the Beryl congregation, this means squeezing into the pastor’s home. Since the hurricane, about 70 people have been cramming into the local pastor’s living and dining rooms. Chairs flow into the kitchen, the hallways, and out the front and back doors. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s the only option they have. The Beryl Church, built in 1988, is gone. It sat atop a hilltop on the northeastern side of Dominica, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Its beautiful location left it vulnerable to the savage winds, and three out of the four concrete walls toppled over in the night.

Further north is the Woodford Hill community. Their church lost its roof, and rain ruined everything in the building, including audio-visual equipment. Ultimately, the building was compromised, and it must be torn down. Fifty people gather in the remaining basement each week, where water seeps through the ceiling and drips on the members during worship.

In the west, the Tarreau church was obliterated. What remains is a red slab. The congregation now worships under a canopy. In the south, the Boetica church lost two walls and all their pews. The small congregation has dispersed to homes for worship. In the east, the Carib Territory church is without a roof, windows, or doors. Currently, the group meets in a borrowed space, but Lester Joseph, pastor of Carib Territory, hopes it won’t be for long.

“It’s definitely very important to have a church. This is where people find relief, especially now…this is where people find encouragement to go on. Even right after the hurricane, this was the first church in the district that started up again right after the storm,” says Joseph. “We fixed it up by putting tarp over the church, but we’ve been having a lot of rain and wind, so we’ve had to move to a health center. We don’t have money to repair the church, and we’re hoping that God shows favor on us.”

Stories like this are plentiful, but at this point Maranatha cannot help them all. However, if the situation is a good fit for what Maranatha can offer, the work will start this year. Already, a volunteer group is scheduled to work on the Beryl church in May, and other teams are lining up to help.

Jesus is the Hope

Patricia Honore stands in the middle of her church, which was destroyed by the hurricane. She says thatalthough times are tough, she will never give up as “God will be there for His people.” Image by Julie Lee/MVI

In the last two years, Dominica has been going through a time of tribulation due to weather-related disasters. In August 2015, tropical storm Erica dumped an estimated 33-inches of water on land that was already saturated from previous rains. Subsequently, Dominica suffered catastrophic flooding and mudslides. Multiple people were killed. Until Maria, it was considered Dominica’s worst natural disaster in decades.

Now, Dominica faces another threat. Hurricane season, which starts in June, is looming. Many families and congregations won’t have their structures repaired by then, and the fear is causing some people to give up. Locals say thousands of people have left Dominica to live somewhere else. People have given up on the country.

Some Adventists that Maranatha spoke with have a different take. They, too, suffered loss, but they cling to a greater hope found in Jesus.

Patricia Honore is a member of the Woodford Hill Church. On the night of the hurricane, she and her family were hiding in a storeroom under her house. It had no door, only a tarp. They were battered by rain and wind, and Patricia spent the terrifying night gripping a wooden beam and shielding her small grandchildren from the storm.

“Had it not been for prayer—because I prayed all night. I’ve never prayed so hard in my life, honestly,” says Honore. “We survived that night because the mercies of God.”

“Dominica suffered a real, real hard blow from this hurricane and a lot of people have left because of trauma, because of shock. Because you don’t know what to do, where else to turn,” says Honore. “We are still in a state of shock. But we are just hoping that we can get strength from God so that we can continue. Because Dominica now is not a comfortable place to be [unless] you have a relationship with Jesus.”

A big part of that relationship is built and strengthened in her church family. On Sabbath, Honore can be found leading Sabbath School and speaking at the pulpit. She says the members check on each other when they are discouraged or sick. The congregation also takes time to reach out to their community, sharing literature and praying with their neighbors. Even in hard times, Honore says “the church always cooperates in whatever it is that we have to do.”

The members of Woodford Hill meet in the basement of their damaged church. The structure seeps water through the ceiling and drips onto the people below. Image by Julie Lee/MVI

Honore is hopeful that Maranatha will be able to rebuild Woodford Hill. She is praying that her own home, which was damaged during the storm, will be fixed, although she has no income. No matter what, she says she is grateful for life and God’s mercy.

“The times that we are living in are disastrous times. Jesus Christ said the last days will be perilous. There will be storms, there will be earthquakes, there will be all kinds of things that happen,” says Honore. “But when we see these things, these are the times we need to look up. We need not be discouraged. We need not give up.”

“God is going to be there for his people,” says Honore. “I just want to encourage everyone that no matter what you are going through, keep trusting in God. He knows what is best, and He will come through at the right time.”

Celestine is counting on this very promise.

On the first morning after the hurricane, when Celestine saw what was left of her house, she knew she had to find a safe place for her family. They gathered what they could from the remains of their home, then started walking. All around, they saw such devastation and sorrow. People were standing in rubble, not knowing what to do.

Celestine didn’t know what to do either. Dominica was a disaster zone, and it will take months to repair. She, along with thousands of others, were homeless. She and her husband guided their daughters through the broken streets, and ended up at the one place they knew would always be home.

Their church. It was still standing.

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Categories From the Field, RSS English | Tags: | Posted on March 8, 2018