CEDAR RAPIDS — On Sunday, Sept. 17, when Hurricane Maria was projected to hit Dominica Island in the Caribbean, Paul Simon, of Cedar Rapids, was able to talk to his sister who lives on the island.
Simon grew up on Dominica Island, leaving in 2004 for Iowa State University while in his early 30s. Though he has lived in Iowa since, all but one of his family members remain on Dominica Island.
Simon’s family has weathered many hurricanes, he said. If it’s a Category 3 or higher, families congregate and stock up on extra food, water and other supplies. Early on Sept. 17, Hurricane Maria was forecast as only a Category 1 or 2 storm, and Simon’s sister wasn’t worried.
“She said, ‘Ah, it’s no problem. It’s a small hurricane. We’ll be fine,’ ” he said. “By 7 (Monday night), it was a Category 5. It happened so quick. We’ve never seen something like that. Never ever. We were panicking because Category 5, it’s not a joke. Everybody was holding their breath, (thinking) ‘Where’s it going to hit?’ ”
When Maria hit the island head-on Sept. 18, it had been downgraded to a Category 4 storm, but for about four hours the storm hammered Dominica Island with wind speeds of about 160 mph.
In Cedar Rapids, Simon waited. The only update he got was from a helicopter image projected on a national news station. Simon paused his TV and clicked frame by frame until he could see his village.
“I’m looking at it like, ‘Wait a minute, my childhood home is gone. It’s not there,’ ” he said. “I could tell there was supposed to be two homes in that area, and they were gone. I knew my family was impacted but it was nerve-wracking because I didn’t know anything.”
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Last weekend was the first time Simon was able to contact his family. He spoke with his father for the first time on Tuesday. Before then, he said the island was a “black hole,” with the only communication being through a ham radio. Electricity will not be restored to much of the island for another six to seven months, Simon said.
This weekend, Simon learned that the bodies of an aunt, cousin and a childhood friend and his wife have yet to be found.
Additionally, the family’s bananas, coconuts, avocados, oranges and grapefruits are all gone. The crops are the family’s source of food but also their source of income, as Dominica’s economy depends on exporting local crops.
“It’s not just the fruit gone, it’s the trees,” Simon said. A few Eastern Iowa groups have come together to organize a food and supply drive for hurricane-ravaged Dominica.
Simon has started a Go Fund Me page for monetary donations that will be used to rebuild homes.
The Intercultural Center of Iowa, Young Parents Network and a few schools within the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts are assisting in a food drive for non-perishable food items, toiletries and putty and roof nails to be used to repair homes. Items can be dropped off from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at YPN, 420 Sixth St. SE in Cedar Rapids.
Simon said in the next three weeks, he will travel to Dominica to help with rebuilding efforts and to bring the supplies with him.
For now, the food is necessary for survival, but soon money will be necessary to rebuild the island’s economy, he said.
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“Our entire economy has been wrecked,” he said. “We’re completely different from the rest of the Caribbean, without tourism. We have only eco-tourism and export of food. It’s going to take time for the bananas to grow, for the coconuts.”
LEND A HAND
What: Fundraiser and food drive to help Dominica Island.
When: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Where: YPN, 420 Sixth St. SE, Cedar Rapids.
What is needed: Canned foods and other non-perishable food and drink items, toiletries, putty and roofing nails.
Pickup: To schedule pickup of supplies, send email to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Info: Cristina Simon at email@example.com or (319) 540-0412
l Comments: (319) 368-8516; firstname.lastname@example.org