In the silent, misty morning after the hurricane, it both felt and looked like the end. With sustained winds recorded at 220 miles per hour, and gusting off the scale, the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria was so brutal and stark that it brought me to my knees.
Lush forests were transformed to naked hillsides of leafless, skeletal shards that were once trees but now looked more like ghosts. Some had even had been stripped of their bark. Around eighty percent of Dominica’s 25,000 homes were damaged, with most losing at least the roof. Businesses were destroyed and wantonly looted, lives had been lost, and others were declared missing. A stunned silence reigned.
While the socio-economic and infrastructure damage, clean-up, and repair became the immediate focus of the collective recovery efforts, the effect of the storm on the island’s natural heritage was, understandably, of secondary concern. It was not until the fourth week of the aftermath that I happened to hear a local radio broadcast discussing the impact of the hurricane on nature.
“Nature takes care of itself,” said one expert, urging us not to worry about it too much, yet acknowledging that the revival of the island’s nature and wildlife was important for tourism. Increasingly, Dominica’s natural and cultural heritage are linked to tourism revenue, rather than something that ought to be preserved and celebrated in its own right. With the advent of destination marketing, nature has, rather unfortunately, become regarded as an eco-tourism product.
Dominica’s habitats range from dry and littoral woodlands on its coasts to cloud forest atop its many volcanic peaks. But the predominant habitat, covering around eighty percent of the island, is rainforest. The island’s rainforest is home to a diverse and fragile ecosystem that includes around two hundred species of fern and rare birds such as the regionally endemic rufous-throated solitaire (or mountain whistler), four species of hummingbird, twelve species of bat, and the locally endemic and endangered red-neck (Jaco) and imperial (Sisserou) parrots.
Hiking trails, often developed from historic traces used by Kalinago and Maroons, weave through this habitat in a vast but hidden network, and have become a draw for independent travellers with a love of the outdoors and unexplored places. Waterfalls, countless rivers, crater lakes, and one of the densest clusters of volcanoes beyond the Pacific Rim have earned the Morne Trois Pitons National Park UNESCO status, and Dominica has long branded itself the Caribbean’s “Nature Island.” With most hotels describing themselves in some shape or form as eco accommodation, and with many people employed in the eco-tourism service sector, nature has indeed become inextricably linked to earnings.
Nature does take care of itself, and, thankfully, there’s been no suggestion anyone should interfere with its recovery in Dominica. But the leaves that were beginning to reappear on trees four weeks after the hurricane were far from a canopy. And a rainforest really needs a canopy.
Without a full leaf canopy, the forest is exposed to full sunlight, and plants that are opportunistic and sun-loving will tend to occupy the spaces on the forest floor that were previously the domain of those that prefer the shade, and upon which other plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians, and invertebrates are dependent. Without a canopy, birds such as the two endemic parrot species have no natural source of food, and will seek fruits elsewhere, usually in gardens or citrus plantations. In the weeks following the hurricane, people observed the Jaco parrot foraging in such places. In late November, there was finally a confirmed sighting of the Sisserou. Given that it exists only in Dominica — and is the national bird, appearing on the country’s flag — there is real concern that the species could be pushed closer to extinction.
Recent studies of the effect of hurricanes on forests have been made in Brazil, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Conclusions are varied, as are estimates of how long it takes for a forest to fully recover — ranging from fifty to four thousand years. But none of the studies followed a hurricane as severe as Maria, and even Dominica’s own experience after Hurricane David in 1979 is not really comparable, as David was a weaker storm and predominantly affected the south of the island. Category five (plus) Hurricane Maria tracked through the middle of the island, and so all habitats were affected.
Having hiked all over Dominica, and written about it for more than ten years, I am concerned, but not without hope. I do fear for the survival of the Sisserou, but I also know how fertile this island is and how quickly plants and trees grow. Also the sheer number of deep valleys and steep mountain slopes means that leeward-facing and other slightly more protected sections of forest perhaps did not suffer quite as much as those that are more exposed. In these largely inaccessible habitats, I would like to imagine the mountain whistler still sings and the Sisserou finds nourishment. But around eighty percent of tree species in this kind of habitat are dependent on animals and birds to disperse seeds. If those creatures are not there to do that, or their numbers have been adversely impacted, new tree growth is reduced, along with future food sources.
From my porch on the western slopes of the Morne Anglais volcano, I saw the landscape transition from brown to green within four weeks of the hurricane and, even though I know it is just thin new foliage painted over much deeper cracks, I see it as a promising beginning, and no longer an end. Nature may well recover better than its dependent eco-tourism sector, which has been very badly hit. It is estimated that around fifty per cent of hotels in Dominica will require a partial or total rebuilding period of a year or more, and (unsubstantiated) estimates of the scale of migration from the island by people who need to find a life and an income elsewhere are already quite disturbing.
As time passes, I am hopeful that the shade-loving plants will out-muscle the sun-loving opportunists in Dominica, and that nature will thrive. But this has to be a time for fresh, new, creative thinking, and not simply more of the same. “The same” doesn’t exist any longer — and, with the obvious effects of climate change, more extreme weather events like Maria seem inevitable. The future is not what it used to be.