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Remembering hurricane David winds gone wild

By Thomson Fontaine
August 29, 2012 1:10 A.M

la plaine
Grand Bay facing the wrath of David on August 29, 1979.

Grand Fond, Dominica (TDN) --

Last week as I stared at a satellite image of tropical storm Ivan taking shape some 200 miles West of Dominica something strange happened. I began to relieve in frightening detail that day 33 years ago when together with my family and neighbors we stared death in the face and won.

That day, Wednesday August 29, 1979 death came a calling on the 150 mph winds of hurricane David. As for me, I was still a child, too young to appreciate the gravity of the winds, too isolated to understand that David was the storm of the century, yet too naive to comprehend its scope and significance.

By the time the story of David was written two weeks later, hundreds were left dead in its wake, the scale of destruction unimaginable, and in the billions of dollars, and we learned to fear the wind, rather respect the wind especially when it picked up in the hot and humid months of July to September.

It was an eerie feeling relieving in excruciating detail something that had stayed with me all those years, without realizing how profound and life changing an experience that would become.

The day started as many a summer day in Dominica. When I awoke a light rain was falling. It felt good as the summer holidays were coming to an end giving way to thoughts of school. I was thinking that I would get an opportunity to go out in the rain, as I often did, run around with my friends, maybe go crab hunting.

We had heard previously that a hurricane may be coming to Dominica. This is not something we took seriously. None of us really understood what that meant. My best reference to a hurricane was a story told by my father where he related with much bravado his experience as a child in 1932 when Hurricane Edith had lifted his parent’s house and deposited it undisturbed some 200 meters away.

With the winds moving in that morning, I was a little bit disappointed because I was thinking that if we did in fact have a hurricane I would not experience been physically moved in a house. My house was laid in brick, unmovable I believed against the wind.

As the morning wore on the wind began picking up. I was delighted beyond words especially when peering through the window I noticed that the first set of jelly coconuts had started to fall from the trees scattered around my house.

‘Nice’…no need to find a climber……the morning was turning dark, the wind was picking up, there was a rustling overheard. The rafters were squeaking and groaning.

Meanwhile, the mood in my house was changing. My dad looked suddenly worried, mom stared impassively at the bending trees on the outside and seemed to be praying quietly. The noises were getting louder, less discernible, more evident, and everywhere.

As I peered on the outside, I noticed tree branches previously separated from their perch pushed and tossed with the ever strengthening wind. The children were beginning to sense that something was not right, I among them. The wind was supposed to be fun; we should be on the outside retrieving the fallen fruits, bathing in the rain.

Yet, we were pinned on the inside, staring out at the dancing and changing landscape. Suddenly it happened. I felt it, even before I realized what was happening. I was suddenly drenched. The cold rain was no longer falling on the outside.

It was soaking me, my father, my mother, brothers and sisters all. Fear descended just as quickly, enveloped my mind, and paralyzed my thoughts. Then the wailing started. My sisters were crying. My dad still stoic was looking skywards. Where before there was a roof over our heads it was now gone suddenly, totally, completely.

My dad then took the decision to make a dash to our neighbor’s house. From our vantage point, it still looked intact, standing solidly against the ever growing maelstrom. Braving falling tree branches and other debris we rushed the 300 yards to the comfort of our neighbor’s house, or so we thought.

Once we arrived, I noticed that the men and older boys were all there. We drew strength from each other. My relief was however short lived. It was now about three in the afternoon, but you could not tell. It was turning dark. The rain was coming down hard, driving; the wind not to be outdone was beginning to roar, or so it seemed.

The house was groaning with each passing gust. The men held on to the doors and windows, the crying continued. Now the ladies had joined the younger children, their tears interrupted with fervent prayers to the saints, God, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It sounded unreal, noises never before heard, indescribable. Then someone suggested, I don’t remember who that we vacate the house. It was beginning to feel like it was rolling with the wind. That decision may have saved us all. When we returned the next day, the house was a pile of rubble. Every single board had been ripped apart and piled on each other. Where the house once stood was now a solid pile of wood, upturned nails, stone and other debris.

With darkness thickening around us we ran, all twenty of us, to my grandfather’s house about a quarter mile away. Massive trees had been uprooted and casually tossed in the road like discarded weeds, obstacles that we squeezed under, jumped on top of, or simply escaped as they came crashing down on the wings of David.

Gratefully, thankfully, we survived the night without further incident. As night turned to day we emerged to discover just how lucky we were. Throughout the 305 square miles of the island, residents were facing their own challenges and fears. My experience no doubt mirrored in every single community.

Some, like us were lucky, others not so. That day some 32 Dominicans would fall victim to the wind and rain. In one instance nine members of a family were swept away by a raging river. Several more were injured with some losing limbs. Mercifully, the day of mayhem came to an end but not before the winds of David had stamped an indelible impression on the lives of an entire Nation, changing the way we felt, thought and reacted to news of a hurricane.

Hurricane David is regarded as the 18th most destructive storm in all of recorded history. In that storm, 2 068 souls were lost in Dominica, the Dominican Republic and the United States. It was not the worse storm however to hit Dominica.

The largest single loss of life from a hurricane was on August 14, 1788 when upwards of five hundred were killed. In 1806, within days of each other on September 9 and again on September 20, 450 and 165 individuals were killed in two separate hurricanes.

I could now breathe a sigh of relief. Tropical storm Ivan as though conscious of all the eyes focused on its movement dared not evoke the venom and anger of David choosing instead to quietly move over Dominica with barely a whisper.

Kids like I was then, 33 years later will have to wait to experience, to hear the sounds and feel the sensation of the winds gone wild.
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