After devastating hurricane, community unites in reconstruction

April 13, 2018

ROSEAU, Dominica — Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, was one of the most severe Atlantic hurricanes on record. When it swept through the Caribbean some seven months ago, the destruction it left in its wake was staggering—homes destroyed, agricultural fields ruined, and communities decimated. International media coverage at the time rightly focused on the loss and tragedy that the people of the islands had suffered.

But in the months since, another story has unfolded in the Caribbean—one that is hopeful, positive, and not commonly told. It is the story of communities, throughout the islands, that have discovered in tragedy the power of unity, cooperation, and collective action to rebuild the physical environment and strengthen the social and spiritual connections that bind neighbors together. It is these connections that are essential for resilience in times of trial.

When natural disasters strike, communities that are united in their efforts “are more capable of taking meaningful and effective steps to respond and recover,” wrote the Baha’i International Community (BIC) in a statement published in May 2016. “(E)xperience has shown that people can exhibit remarkable resilience, selflessness, resourcefulness, and creativity in such times.”

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Kalinago territory, Dominica, where the community rallied together to build greenhouses in which seedlings could be sprouted to help restore the agricultural fields that were decimated by the hurricane

The island of Dominica is one such example. Though relatively small in size, the local Baha’i communities on the island saw themselves not as helpless victims, but as protagonists in the transformation of their physical and social environments.

In the Kalinago territory of Dominica, a primarily rural and indigenous region that was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Maria, aid was slow to reach the area in the storm’s aftermath, with food, water, and other supplies that were earmarked for the region never making it out of Roseau, the capital city.

Recognizing the critical needs of their neighbors in the weeks following the storm, the Baha’is in the area were able to bring together community leaders, neighbors, friends, and others to consult on what they could do given the resources available to them. They decided to build several greenhouses to quickly re-establish food crops that had been decimated by the storm. Several residents offered their land to be used for the greenhouses where seeds could be planted and also plots of land where, later, the resulting seedlings could be transplanted.

“Building the greenhouses brought the community together in a profound way,” explained Siila Knight, a Baha’i from Barbados who visited Dominica to provide logistical support on behalf of the BIC. “Neighbors and friends joined together and worked from early morning until evening, bringing whatever materials they could spare or salvage and sawing planks from fallen coconut palms. After finishing their work for the evening, they would gather again for collective prayers.”

“It was very touching,” she continued. “Somehow everyone could feel the spiritual atmosphere while working together.”

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Friends and neighbors gather in front of a greenhouse they constructed together. The community in this part of the remote Kalinago territory has begun to hold classes for children and young adolescents on the site, as well as prayer gatherings open to all.

Drawing on what was being learned in Kalinago, the Newtown neighborhood in Roseau also gathered to consult about how its inhabitants could take charge of the reconstruction efforts in their own community. On a Sunday in early January, dozens in the neighborhood discussed what needed to be done most urgently in the wake of the damage left by Hurricane Maria.

As residents consulted, there was hope present at the meeting in Newtown. Together they made plans to remove the logs and rubbish that were clogging the harbor and blocking access to the ocean, which is vital to their fishing community. Inspired by the work in the Kalinago territory, they decided that they could use some of the lumber retrieved from the bay to build a greenhouse where seeds could be sprouted rapidly and distributed for planting at farms whose crops had been destroyed.

“I’ve seen how all of these efforts have given everyone hope,” said Ms. Knight, who has been involved in the reconstruction work taking place in both communities. The community witnessed firsthand the power of consultation to solve difficult problems and foster a collective will for action.

By March, the Newtown neighborhood, with some financial and logistical assistance from the BIC, had made substantial progress in addressing those aspects of the reconstruction that were possible for the local inhabitants to carry out themselves. They also arranged for therapists to come to the community and provide counselling for those who had experienced tragic loss from the devastation of the hurricane.

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Neighbors in the Newtown neighborhood of Roseau help clear the bay of debris following the destruction left by the hurricane.

Both communities quickly found that these projects provided not just practical assistance, but also a space for neighbors and friends to gather, reflect, pray, and study. In the Kalinago territory, the greenhouses became a collective rallying point. The community began to hold moral and spiritual education classes for children and young adolescents on the site, as well as prayer gatherings open to all. They would set up an array of seats from sawn tree stumps.

At first, the only seeds they could obtain for the greenhouses were for bok choy, a vegetable unfamiliar to the people of the region. But they planted it anyway, and soon developed recipes for the leafy green that families shared with each other. Later they were able to plant additional crops such as pumpkins, beans, carrots, cabbages, lettuce, watermelon, chives, tomatoes, parsley, and okra.

In the months since the greenhouses were constructed, the seedlings grown there have been used to establish crops and provide food for the inhabitants of several villages in the region. The community has also worked to assist other endeavors, such as building a new roof for the community library and obtaining supplies for a few schools in the territory.

Voicing an opinion held by many, an inhabitant of a village in the Kalinago territory shared: “What we have done together with the Baha’is—this is the first time that we have seen someone make a promise to help and actually fulfill it.”