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Hurricane David

By Jose Holguin-Veras

[Editor's note: Our main coverage of Hurricane David is here. This story was of such length that we decided to give it its own page. Thanks for your story, Jose!]

I don't even know where to start.

In 1979 I was a Civil Engineering undergraduate student at the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo, the oldest of the Americas (founded in 1538). I worked at the Traffic Engineering Directorate of the Ministry of Public Works.

I remember reading about a powerful hurricane, David, that may create some problems for the Dominican Republic. I did not think much of it because hurricanes are a matter of fact occurrence in the Caribbean, but it called my attention that meteorologists seemed to have a special kind of respect for David. I would understand the reasons for this respect later on.

A couple of days before the hurricane expected date of arrival, my family and I stored the supplies we considered necessary. Since my father was a volunteer of the Civil Defense and was frequently involved in the coordination of recovery missions, we all had developed a heightened sense of awareness about the potential danger and the need to ready oneself for the hurricanes.

The day of the hurricane's arrival, myself, my two brothers and my mother were glued to the radio and TV. I remember plotting the hurricane's course on the map I clipped from the local newspaper. Judging by the trajectory plotted in my tiny map it seemed the hurricane was going to pass South of Santo Domingo City, maybe hitting the Barahona Peninsula, in the South West part of the island.

With increasing anxiety, we all noticed the increasing wind speed signaling that David was getting closer and closer. All of the sudden, there was a blackout and we were left with the radio as the only source of information.

We could all see from the windows of our reinforced concrete apartment trees been ripped apart, the roofs of the some wooden houses being torn apart, a roof of a wooden house flew between the towers marking the Hospital Suero, which was located two blocks away in the middle of this chaos, a surreal scene: two drunk men singing in the pounding rain apparently completely oblivious of the danger.

When the hurricane was a 100 miles South of Santo Domingo City and everything seemed to be fine, I heard the radio announcer yelled in a state of panic: "...the pressure is dropping!, the pressure is dropping!, the pressure is dropping!"  meaning that the barometric pressure in Santo Domingo City was falling and that David was going to turn North towards the city. I understood the implications of the pressure drop and told my mother: "this is going to get worse." As I expected, David turned North (see the picture below and you will notice the North-bound turn I referred to).

NOAA

Track of Hurricane David.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

 

Half an hour after that, Xiomara, my brother's girlfriend called (in a state of hysteria) and told my brother that "the sea is entering their apartment." I remember telling my brother not to worry about it, because that simply could not be (her apartment was in the 4th floor of a building at the Malecon, the highway facing the Caribbean Sea).

The worst of the hurricane was over by nightfall. The rain kept pounding all night. We all went to bed with apprehension about the amount of damage we were bound to find in daylight.

Next day, my brother and I went to check how his girlfriend was doing. The walk from our apartment to his girlfriends place was a very sad experience. Santo Domingo City, noted by its beautiful trees, was unrecognizable. The trees that were standing have lost all their leaves. Thousands of trees felt damaging numerous power and phone lines. Though the city has been spared a direct hit, the devastation was incredible.

We simply could not believe what we found at Xiomara's apartment: sand, dead crabs and fish in the stairs of her building. Some of the Malecon's concrete slabs, weighing 20 metric tons each, were flipped over like pancakes. A ship moored at the Port of Haina was dragged half a kilometer inland. A cargo plane at Las Americas airport was lifted from the ground landing on top of a hangar upside down. What an incredible sight! I still have a collection of newspapers of the day with pictures of the devastation. I have kept them because this is the only way my descendents would believe what happened that summer in 1979.

My brother, a Chief Boy Scout who would later became the National Executive of the Boy Scouts in the Dominican Republic, and myself decided to participate in the rescue and recovery missions. He joined the rescue team organized by the Boy Scouts and went on to help the refugees in Ocoa, the worst hit area. I joined a group of my colleagues at the Traffic Engineering Department that in a rather impulsive manner, and without a full understanding of what we were getting into, decided to do something to help the refugees.

Armed with our ardent desire to help we approached the Director of the Traffic Engineering Department, Dorian Villalba, and asked for his permission to use one of the new vans that the Department has received. He let us use the van with the warning that we have to protect it with our lives.

Our rescue team (that is how we called ourselves) was comprised of Oneximo Gonzalez (who would later become a Director of the Transit Administration of Santo Domingo City), Juan H. Ramos, Carlos Saleta, Aristes Abreu, Jorge Abreu, Vinicio Retiff (the only one who, by virtue of being a son of a legendary Chief of the Fire Department, could claim some familiarity with rescue procedures), and myself Jose Holguin-Veras.

After gathering some minimal supplies (we had to comeback to get 5 gallons of drinkable water because we did not have any) we decided to go to the San Cristobal area which, according to the information available, needed volunteers. Once we arrived to San Cristobal, we were advised to go to Cambita Garabito and from there, the local Red Cross staff, indicated that help was needed in Los Cacaos.

I remember asking somebody where Los Cacaos was located. The man pointed towards the mountain peaks surrounding Cambita Garabito and simply said "..up there." We began our drive through a mountain road with space for barely one vehicle. In a couple of occasions, our vehicle produced mudslides that took the existing road with them.

From Los Cacaos, our group split in two. Myself and two other went to La Cuchilla del Diablo (The Devil's Razor) where we met another team from the Ministry of Public Works. We helped rebuild a school that had lost its roof and coordinated the delivery of food and medicines to the local Red Cross office.

We spent three days in La Cuchilla del Diablo. I was completely wet most of the time, which I remember as the most uncomfortable sensation I could ever imagine. The rain simply did not stop. Unbeknown to us, a second hurricane, Federico, has hit the Dominican Republic with a deluge that produced more damage than David. The levies and dams, already at capacity because of the rain brought by David, simply could not hold the deluge of Federico just a couple of days after David.

Fortunately, the final day of our stay, a local coffee businessman let us stay at his warehouse where we could finally dry our clothes.

In the third day, Oneximo Gonzalez, came looking for us saying "the peasants urged us to go back because the road is falling apart." We walked from La Cuchilla del Diablo to Los Cacaos and had to climb over recent mudslides with mud up to our waist, and had to cross over numerous torrents that threatened to drag us over the cliffs. We arrived to Los Cacaos at night and, for that reason, the seven of us had to sleep in the van.

Next day, something in between twenty or thirty of the local residents, went with us as we tried to go down the narrow mountain road that was the only way to get back to our homes. Some sections of the road had completely disappeared and we had, literally, to cut the mountain side with picks and shovels to make room for our vehicle. Other sections of the road have been completely covered by mudslides and we were forced to remove the mud.

I have always found it ironic that the refugees ended up helping the rescuers.

Finally, after a day of hard work, we were able to descend to Cambita Garabito. This town, unharmed by the powerful winds of David, was completely flooded by Federico and the devastation was incredible. Because of the floods, we had to leave the van behind (which worried us to death because we thought that, at the very least, we would be fired). We were able to return home by means of the precarious public transportation that was available. We all returned to our jobs and to our surprised we were not fired for not bringing back the van to the office (which was recovered a couple of weeks later).

With the benefits of the more than twenty years that have passed, I frequently reflect on this youthful and solidarity. I marvel at how utterly unprepared we were for the task we assigned ourselves, and that in spite of that we still managed to make a modest contribution to the recovery process.

The ironic end of our adventure was not lost me. The fact that the refugees ended up helping the rescuers is another indication that, in life, we cannot know what the end of the story will be.

Jose Holguin-Veras
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 

 

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What do you remember about Hurricane David? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)


 

DISASTER DETAILS

Hurricane David offshore of Jacksonville, Florida - 9/4/79.

Courtesy of NOAA

Date(s): August 30 - September 7, 1979

Location: Caribbean and Eastern U.S.

Deaths: 2000+

Injuries: 

Damage: $1.2B


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