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'There's a long way to go'

CATASTROPHIC: Dominicans assess damage caused by Hurricane Maria during one of the Caribbean’s worst-ever hurricane seasons last year

LAST SEPTEMBER, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc upon the Caribbean, battering St Croix, Puerto Rico and Dominica with winds of nearly 160mph.

Londoner Julie Jaye Charles, CEO of the Equalities National Council, recounts the tragedy her family went through, after her mother Edith Charles disappeared in the disaster.

She told The Voice: “There are no words to describe the devastation that my family
and I have gone through.


PICTURED: Edith Charles

It wasn’t long ago that my mother came over to the UK to help care for me as I’ve been experiencing poor health.

“When the hurricane hit the island I was the last person to speak to my mother, who was nearby her house, at a friend’s place.

“The line was very bad, as the hurricane was taking grip, and she was saying that she’s going to leave and head home.

“I remember telling her to stay where she was until the storm passed; the phone cut off shortly after.”

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Hurricane Maria stripped Dominica of its vegetation, power and water, snapping off the communication towers in the process. The island, which has a population of some 74,000 people, was rapidly cut off from the outside world and many lives became disrupted – and even destroyed.


PICTURED: Julie Jaye Charles

Charles made numerous, frantic attempts to contact her mother following their last conversation.

As the hurricane became more severe, eventually reaching category five, members of the Charles family based in the UK became increasingly concerned for Edith’s safety.

With it being so difficult to get any news, at the first opportunity, accompanied by her siblings, she headed out to Dominica in search of her mother. But upon arriving on the island, the family’s worst fear seemed to come true.

They received news that skeletal remains had been discovered which could be Edith’s. A blue dress – very similar to the one that Edith was thought to be wearing when she was last seen was also discovered near where she lived.

And Julie made a heart-wrenching discovery of her own when she found her mother’s beloved white rosary on the ground.

Unfortunately, due to the damage done to Dominica’s medical facilities by Hurricane Maria, DNA examination of the skeleton is unable to take place on the island.

Instead, the government advised the Charles family that the remains will have to be shipped overseas – and the process can take as long as seven months.

Another factor which may extend the wait for results even further is that the government cannot undertake the process for just one body.

“Due to the volume of remains being discovered and the shortage of resources, we were told that it won’t be possible to do this for one body. And so, they would need to accumulate a certain amount to send for testing.”

For Julie and her siblings, the psychological impact of this ordeal has been profound. “I’m currently in therapy,” she said.

“And there are so many across the island who are experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are either undergoing counselling or are need of counselling.

“It is hard to accept what has happened to my mother. And, while we await the test results, it is as though we have no closure.

“My mother was an amazing woman, who was always helping out other people.”

Many can relate to the Charles’ harrowing story of loss and despair.

Hurricane Maria is the worst natural disaster on record having torn through so many islands and territories. A recent investigation by the New York Times found the number of hurricane-related deaths is likely to exceed 1,000.

According to the UK’s Dominican High Commission, efforts are still underway to help to rebuild
the country. A recent report on its website stated: “Close to three months after the hurricane, the situation is normalising throughout the country.

“Diverse foodstuffs have reappeared on the markets, shops are reopening, most public schools have reopened, and 30 out of 43 damaged water systems have been provisionally repaired.

“The curfew was lifted in Roseau on December 8.

“Nevertheless, Dominica remains seriously impacted. Over 80 percent of houses still have inadequate roofing, many children have not yet returned to school, 90 per cent of the population still does not have electricity, and a sizeable portion of the population is highly vulnerable due to the loss of their main source of livelihoods. Humanitarian actors are transitioning from relief to recovery-oriented activities and coordination mechanisms are reflecting this shift.

“A growing number of ministries and stakeholders take part in sector coordination mechanisms, which is conducive to more comprehensive and complementary action plans.

DEDICATED
“The Ministry of Planning has taken over multi-sector coordination from the Emergency Operations Centre.”

Through her work as CEO of the Equalities National Council, Julie has dedicated many years to championing the need for greater diversity and inclusion in the UK.

Now she is working with international organisation UNICEF in lending a helping hand to rebuilding Dominica and raising awareness about the situation in the
country.

“We have to keep the conversation going,” she said. “It has only been a few months since Hurricane Maria hit and the country still has a long way to go to get back
on its feet.”

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