Hurricane Maria was a once-in-a-lifetime storm for Dominica. It might be the norm
ROSEAU, Dominica — Every year the start of the Atlantic hurricane season is another reminder for Margarite August that she still doesn't have a roof.
"Every year, every year, it's fearful," she says.
The 70-year-old retired teacher's home on the small Caribbean island nation of Dominica was mostly wiped out by Hurricane Maria six years ago. On a recent morning she stood on her veranda perched high on a mountainside overlooking the island's Atlantic coast.
The view was stunning, if a bit ominous.
"Nothing good is coming my way and we have been like this since Maria," August says.
August is not alone. Since Maria, the government of Dominica (pronounced: daw-muh-KNEE-kuh) has built 7,000 new homes — about a quarter of its housing stock - with materials to withstand another Category 5 hurricane. They've also relocated two communities. But an untold number of the island's 70,000 or so residents are like August, rebuilding their homes in any way or makeshift means they can afford.
August, along with her 75-year-old husband who suffered a stroke, is living for now in a converted hillside bar that her family used to run as a side business before the storm.
"I always pray that another one as hard as Maria does not come again," she says.
Six years after Maria, Dominica is still recovering
Hurricane Maria is often referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime disaster. But the worry today especially on Dominica's wind-battered east coast is that climate change could make storms like it more common.
Scientists put much of the blame on warming ocean temperatures as a result of climate change.
Maria damaged or destroyed a staggering 95% of Dominica's housing stock and 226% of the nation's GDP. Prior to the storm, the country's economy had long struggled since its independence from Great Britain in 1978. Unlike its more famous touristy neighbors along the chain of eastern Caribbean islands it lies on, Dominica is more known for its rugged mountains and jungles than white sandy beaches.
Dubbed "nature island," a nod to the adventure tourists it draws, there are nine active volcanoes on Dominica, 365 freshwater rivers and countless waterfalls. Traveling the 30 miles across steep mountain passes from the east side to the Caribbean coast on the west can take up to two hours.
The jungle mountains that crash down to the coast are beautiful but disaster prone. Mudslides frequently block the winding, two-lane routes.
"I don't think anybody ever got over Maria," says Christine John of the Dominica Red Cross. "There are a lot of persons today, if it just starts to rain outside, they get anxious."
From its headquarters in the small capital city of Roseau, the Red Cross is trying to set up early warning systems which didn't exist during Maria. It's not an easy task on a jungly island with spotty cell service. They're training volunteers in mountain villages to monitor flood and rain gauges along rivers and equipping them with chainsaws and other tools.
The effort follows calls by the United Nations' secretary general last year at COP27, where an initiative was launched aiming to cover the entire world with EWS systems by 2027.
So far in Dominica, they've set up three warning systems, but they need at least fifty more.
Hurricane Maria is still haunting the island
One of Dominica's first EWS pilot projects is being spearheaded in the high mountain hamlet of Wotten Waven, a popular day trip for tourists off cruise ships who are drawn to the canyon's hot springs and waterfalls.
Rudolph George, a co-leader and amateur radio operator, points out where the new weather stations are placed along the village's steep hillsides. Six years on, George, a beaming boisterous man, is still haunted by Maria and its 165 mile per hour winds.
"You could actually hear the wind talkin' the different languages, you'd hear the echo of the wind you know," George says. "I was wondering if Dominica was ever going to recover."
After Maria, mudslides cut Wotten Waven off from aid for weeks. Most of the homes here today - including George's — have been rebuilt under the country's new climate resilient building standards. George is hopeful that an actual warning system, even if primitive, means people in the village will be better prepared if a storm hits this summer.
"We know for sure with climate change things are going to get a lot worse and we've got to prepare," George says.
Tiny Dominica is bearing the brunt of climate change
If another bad hurricane or other storm hits, Dominica will still depend mostly on international aid, when it can get here.
Donalson Frederick knows this all too well. He helped manage the Dominica government's arduous response after Maria. He's now back home on the eastern side of the island leading climate and disaster response in the indigenous Kalinago Territory. (Dominicans proudly point out the island was one of the last in the Caribbean to be colonized after the Kalinago fought to keep their land after Christopher Columbus arrived).
Today, for Frederick, the return of hurricane season brings anxiety but also frustration.
"It is concerning that if we were to be impacted now, that a number of our housing stock and families again will be homeless," he says, standing along a footpath the community recently built for tourists affording stunning ocean views.
Frederick says small island nations contribute a miniscule amount of greenhouse gas emissions yet they're bearing the brunt of climate change.
"Dominica is on the front line," Frederick says. "Climate change is not something that is happening tomorrow. It's happening now and it's affecting our livelihood now."
And it's time the international community, he says, hears Dominica's cry.
This story was reported with support from the United Nations Foundation.
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