Hiking back up the valley on Saturday evening was a trip. The Nagua river was still too deep to ford, so I took the high road along the northern ridge and got an eyeful. Scrambling over and under downed trees as I climbed to the first hill, I came to a vista where there hadn’t been one before. Looking upvalley, I got the impression that autumn had finally arrived, New England-style. The canopy of green that had previously blanketed the ridges and swept down to the river was peeled away, leaving the gray of shattered trunks and dying leaves. Mudslides had scraped the vegetation from the steepest slopes. A giant with a weedwhacker had passed through, perhaps.
Hurricane Jeanne was the third major storm in as many weeks to sidle up to the island of Hispaniola and get cozy. But unlike Frances and Ivan – who skirted the DR, then went on to further fame and fortune in Jamaica, Cuba and the US – Jeanne was content to kick the bejeezus out of one target and then fade away. The coastal city of Nagua was flattened by high winds, and the coasts East and North were flooded, leaving 30,000 homeless. This is to say nothing of Haiti, where nobody yet knows the extent of the damage because of cut lines of communication.
Vuelta Larga did a bit better. As I discovered in the walk back to my house, fully half of the old growth in the forest had been pushed over at the roots by the wind, but none had landed on any houses. This was a minor miracle given the under-the-canopy placement of most dwellings. Thursday night for the Vuelta Largans must have been like any September night in 1940 was for Londoners: listening and waiting for a bomb to hit the house. So the village was lucky. My own house, nestled between a pair of fifty-foot breadfruit trees, escaped damage; each tree fell away from the flimsy, tin-roofed shack.
So where was I during this storm of the decade? I was watching the rain from the deck of a hotel in the inland city of San Francisco de Macoris, having been evacuated by the Peace Corps along with all other volunteers in the region. We played pool for two days. When the power went out I took my shots with a flashlight clenched between my teeth, and everyone speculated on the storm damage. We were allowed to go back to our sites on Saturday.
Yesterday was a blur of work (rare for a Sunday in the DR), as everyone in Vuelta Larga set to reopening the main path to mule traffic. My machete is now blunted from a half-hour battle with a one-foot-thick branch of some unknown ironwood, and my palms are perforated by the trunk of a mapola tree; honestly, who would have thought hardwood bark could have a million tiny thorns growing out of it?
So it is that I’ve come to Nagua today in search of a chainsaw. The electricity is unsurprisingly absent here, but the familiar roar of generators is the soundtrack as people nail their roofs back down and shovel the mud out of their houses. It’s gonna be a long week.