Remembering Hurricane David August 29, 1979
Reprinted from The Chronicle, Friday, August 29, 2003
On August 29th,1979, the Commonwealth of Dominica, not yet a year as an independent nation, was struck by one of the most vicious storms to hit land in the 20th century.
Hurricane David lashed the country with winds over 150 miles per hour, winds gusting up to 175 miles mph leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. 80% of its forests destroyed, 68,000 persons rendered homeless, over forty persons known to have been killed, and over 3000 injured. Hundreds of homes and properties lay in ruins.
No other individual is better suited to recount the effects of the worst natural disaster to occur in Dominica in recent times than, former Prime Minister, Oliver J. Seraphin. Seraphin, who was known as an ‘interim prime minister’ was formerly a member of the cabinet of Dominica Labour Party administration, under Patrick John who was ousted out from office at the heights of a constitutional crisis that saw Seraphin sworn into office on June 25, 1979. At the recommendation of the committee for National Salvation
Oliver J. Seraphin (b1943) fondly called O.J., become Dominica’s second Prime Minister. And it was under his watch that the most devastating storm in the modern history of Dominica was to hit.
I formerly wrote this article while a reporter for the Chronicle in 2003, as part of the 24th anniversary of the passage of Hurricane David. I Visited Mr Seraphin at his home in the interior of the island, and he told me that I was the first journalist to interview him since Hurricane David, and his role in Dominica’s destiny, from the political upheaval of the later part of the 1970s to the onslaught of Hurricane David.
What follows, is a reworking of that article that is the essence of a candid interview conducted with the unassuming, former politician, in an effort to seek his thoughts as prime minister of Dominica on that day and the months that followed.
HURRICANE WARNING FOR DOMINICA
“The hurricane warning was more for Barbados than for Dominica,” he remembers. “The Morning when the hurricane actually struck Dominica, we had only a few hours of preparation when we found out that the hurricane had shifted its course, a few hours before it actually arrived. In the hours preceding the hurricane, we were in a state of preparedness, but nobody was quite prepared for that which took place. The Aftermath was awesome .”Seraphin recalled.
Seraphin told The Chronicle that a series of meetings had been held prior to the arrival of the hurricane at the Government Headquarters with the Commissioner of Police, the now-disbanded Dominica Defense force, and Cabinet in preparation for what they thought would be a normal storm.
Seraphin said that he and other officials weathered the storm for six hours at President Jenner Armour’s official residence at Morne Bruce. Seraphin had failed to reach his own Morne Bruce residence. When the storm had subsided, Seraphin was not prepared for what he saw. “What is most frightening, is when we opened the back door, looking out at Morne Bruce, there was no longer the Morne Bruce that I knew. There were no houses or trees in sight.”
His wife had only recently given birth and Seraphin said that after seeing the destruction, he thought she was one of the victims. “The houses and the hillsides had been virtually wiped out and erased from the mountainsides so it did give me the impression that my wife could have been one of the victims,” he said.
As he walked the streets after the hurricane, Seraphin said he encountered the unbelievable.“ There were very houses standing, there were very few roofs still existing, and there was chaos.” The hospital was destroyed and so were the government offices. He remembered how the nurses of the Princess Margaret Hospital rose to the occasion. “ One of the most interesting aspects of it was the Princess Margaret Hospital. Some of the unsung heroes are the nurses who stayed back for duty because by then the hurricane had struck the roof and had virtually destabilized the life of the hospital.–drips were on the floor and the patients were on the ground,” he lamented.
Seraphin Praised the efforts of Matron, Evadney Richards who gave yeoman service, working night and day to bring relief to persons. “Richards is yet to be officially recognized for her valiant efforts,” Seraphin said. “There were a few brave souls. We had a small group of persons who were involved with me assisting persons to reach the hospital using makeshift means of transportation and carrying them on our backs to the National Commercial Bank..”Seraphin remembered, adding, “I think one of the things that really must be mentioned, is the second floor of the National Commercial Bank was converted into a hospital. There were rugs and we got blankets from the police headquarters…and that became the hospital. A morgue had to be found for placing the dead, and there being none, we found one in the place of the Convent Prep. That Is where we actually laid down the dead bodies…found in the river Clear area. The bodies were later buried in a mass grave.,” he said.
One Bizarre moment Seraphin recalled is when he visited Moreau’s Garment Factory in Pottersville that was being used as a shelter. He had brought some food supplies to the persons sheltering there from the warehouse of Astaphans supermarket. Seraphin said while he was at Moreau’s Garment Factory, he noticed that one person was silent.“There was one person in particular who seemed not to be part of the discussion taking place. It dawned on me that this person was so silent. So I went over to this person’s bed and said, ‘why don’t you come and join us!’ When I lifted the sheet, there was this smashed face on a dead body! What is amazing was that [the] people all around ha accepted the dead as a natural occurrence of Hurricane David because it appears that person had died from being hit by a fallen tree in the backyard of Mr. Moreau’s residence, “ he recounted.
A CALL FOR HELP
The Next morning, at 6:30 a.m, Prime Minister Seraphin declared a state of emergency in Dominica. The British frigate, H.M.S. Fife was the first vessel to reach the devastated island and was Dominica’s first contact with the outside world. Seraphin used the ship’s radio to launch an international appeal to the world: an S.O.S illustrating the damage that had been done to his beloved country. “The fact that we were about 60% or more homeless and that we were in dire need of assistance—no water, food, shelter—There was a strong need for assistance. Don’t forget,” he mused, “that the entire agricultural sector was razed to the ground; supermarkets, to large extent, were largely destroyed,” Seraphin said his voice trembling slightly.
The Former prime minister remembered with gratitude the generous assistance received from donor countries and agencies that followed his appeal. “ We got aid of unimaginable description. We got assistance in such a way that persons ate and drink much more than they would have normally. Assistance came from the British, Americans, Venezuelans and the French among others,” he recalled..In September, a month later, when he attended the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, he was seated next to Cuba’s President, Fidel Castro who also assistance to Dominica. “ but of course, one of the concerns we had, was that we could not bring in Cuban military assistance when there was American military personnel on the ground. That would have created a major state of confusion in the diplomatic world,” he concluded. Instead, Seraphin decided to ask the Cuban leader to assist young Dominicans with scholarships so that they could go to Cuba to further their education.
Many Months after Hurricane David hit Dominica, life was slowly returning to normal. Makeshift homes slowly replaced the relief blue tents that had sprung up everywhere, and voluntarism and self-help were the order of the day. The streets were slowly being cleared of debris, the trees had begun to sprout, and fish began to reappear in the rivers. Aid continued to pour in from nations around the world. It would be a different Christmas for some, and one of the most memorable for many. According to Seraphin, citizens still received their salaries and were still entitled to rations of food and clothing or ‘brogodoh’ as the donated clothes were nicknamed. Some even received free shelter. “Most people were also receiving clothing from all parts of the world, and we received them in bales, and because we were using the Red Cross headquarters up at Turkey Lane, that is where the big trucks would come and would throw the bales down, and it would make a noise like ‘brogodoh.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER RECOUNTS THE HORROR OF HURRICANE DAVID BY ALBERT WILLIAMS (First published) Friday, August 29, 2003, The Chronicle in Dominica
Hurricane David – Wikipedia (2022). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_David (Accessed: 30 August 2022).
[Cover] Visible satellite imagery of Hurricane David after crossing the Lesser Antilles late on August 29, 1979 as a strong Category 4 hurricane. Hurricane David – Wikipedia (2022). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_David (Accessed: 30 August 2022).
Oliver Seraphin – Wikipedia (2018). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Seraphin (Accessed: 30 August 2022).
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