It is a date that is etched in the minds of many Dominicans: August 29, 1979. It was the day Hurricane David struck Dominica.
The island had only twice been previously struck by a severe hurricane. In a hurricane in 1806, 131 people died when the Roseau River shifted its course and flooded the capital. On September 10, 1834, 200 lives were lost as a result of what was to be known as the ‘Great Hurricane.’
And 33 years ago today Hurricane David, a Category 5 hurricane and one of the deadliest of the latter half of the 20th century, roared towards the island.
Days before, forecasters predicted the hurricane would spare Dominica and hit Barbados instead. But hours before moving closer to the islands the hurricane shifted and and headed for Dominica. Although it was clear David was coming residents did not appear to take the situation seriously.
Hence the island was totally unprepared as there was little local radio warning and no systems in place for disaster preparedness. Packing winds of 150 miles-per-hour the hurricane pounded Dominica for six hours from 9:00 am.
Thirty-seven people were killed and an estimated 5,000 were injured. Three-quarters of the population of 75,000 were left homeless. Many people slept in the open or huddled in homes of fortunate friends and neighbours for weeks or months to come.
The economy was totally destroyed, roads and bridges were blocked or swept away. Communications to the outside world was maintained only through Fred White’s battery operated ham radio until links were restored.
The Commander of a British Navy Frigate, which arrived in Dominica the next day, described the scene on the island as that of a bombed-out battlefield.
Dominica’s plight soon got swift attention from the Caribbean and the wider world. Food, tents, water and other supplies began arriving from the United States, Britain and Canada. Caribbean countries such as Barbados, Antigua and St. Lucia allowed temporary residence for scores of Dominicans who fled the island or who sent their children away until conditions improved.
The authorities struggled to restore some semblance of normalcy to the island. A food ration system was initiated. Foreign forces, contingents of the French Army, US Cee Bees and Royal Engineers set up camps here and assisted with relief efforts.
By November, Prime Minister Seraphin estimated that the pledges of assistance were at over US$37 million and that there was the probability of more in the long term. Assistance began pouring in from the IMF, International Red Cross, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisations of American States, the EEC and Caribbean Community States among others.
For months after the storm the island echoed with the sounds of chain saws, hammering and electric generators as the people attempted to rehabilitate themselves.
August 29, 1979 is a day that many Dominicans will never forget.
Reference: The Dominica Story by Dr. Lennox Honychurch.