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October, 17, 2004

Life: Post-Ivan


It was almost exactly 1/2 of the way through my two years here that Ivan hit the shores of Grenada. Amazing how this event coinciding with my 1 year anniversary has created a divide in my service bigger and more palpable than any I could have imagined. Life has changed in Grenada in obvious as well as very subtle ways. The few weeks directly Post-Ivan were a lot about survival for us and our communities. I had to remain up in Forde (where our safehouse was) for almost 2 weeks and during that time, we, as volunteers, grew very close with the community members--I guess that what happens when you're "surviving". We shared stories, food, laughter and water as there was none in the pipes for a week. The amount of water needed to sustain 7 people, we quickly learned, was substantial. For the first few days, the neighbors allowed us to take from their 500 gallon water tanks for drinking. Their generosity would quickly deplete the tanks though, so to supplement we hauled water in buckets and containers from the river (about 1/3 mile walk) or from nearbly community pipes. The river was a fabulous place where the community gathered just like in the days of old (as I soon found out from multiple stories). Together, we bathed, washed dishes, laundered our clothes and rejuvinated our spirits. (Oh yeah, and contracted a nice little ear infection--well, not everyone was lucky enough--just me!). During the days, we'd help the neighbors clean out their homes, dry their belongings, mop up schools...whatever we could find to keep busy. Most importantly though, we got used to the ugliness that was our new home.

During this time, we also had limited contact with Peace Corps staff. They made a few visits and would call when they could. The first news that we received from our Country Director was that we were staying--despite the American medical students fleeing and the reports of loose criminals and rampant looting. Despite those dangers, I was relieved to hear that news. Grenada, even with the nauseous destruction, was where I wanted to be. Time went on and we continued to try to get involved in the community relief effort and sustained ourselves on non-perishables and boiled water. On Sept. 16th--a week and a few days after the storm, we got connected with a newly formed organization (SARO) in St. Andrew's that was working on relief efforts. They were very excited to be connected with us and we spent an exhausting day touring shelters and severely damaged areas. I realized how I had gotten used to the destruction in my area, but seeing these new areas, made me deeply saddened all over again. There were literally houses in the road and one area that looked like a long row of rubble--the remains of families' homes. The conditions of some of the shelters were sickening and yet seemingly unavoidable as most of the offical "designated shelters" had lost roofs or been damaged during the storm. SARO was trying to get estimates on how many shelters there actually were and how many people were living in them, but the task was proving incredibly difficult as often, a family would be housing a number of families in the area. These "unofficial shelters" were numerous and sometimes difficult to find without literally scouring the area. After that day we were finally seeing how we could fit into this relief effort and were excited about the impact we could make. This compounded our frustration when we got home to a message that Peace Corps was "pulling us out". Outrage and confusion dominated my emotions as we tried to make contact with Peace Corps staff. As it turns out, PC decided collectively (Eastern Caribbean, Grenada and Washington DC) to temporarly move us off Grenada so that they could "re-train" us for relief work and simultaneously assess the island for safety and the feasibility of us remaining and working. As we would eventually find out, the true story lies in some combination of politics, safety, frustrated volunteers on other parts of the island, worried parents and pressured congressmen (If you really want the details, it's best done over beers I believe!)

So, 11 days after the storm (as Ivan was just inching towards the US), the Peace Corps volunteers in Grenada were on a plane to the vacation destination of Barbados! The whole experience of being there now seems like a large blur in my mind. It was a mix of debriefing, training, relaxating, guilt for relaxing, eating really good food, and anticipating my arrival back on Grenada. When we arrived, we were unsure if we'd really ever be back on Grenada and skeptical about whether they were just "easing the blow" before they shipped us back to the US. But as the tab for the hotel and associated costs grew, along with our visits with the US Ambassador and the director of USAID, we hesitantly trusted that we would, in fact, return to Grenada. I didn't completely believe it though until were back on a plane and I could actually see Grenville out the window. I arrived back at my pitch dark house on the evening of October 1. The Peters screamed out in glee and I gave them big hugs, hung out with them on the veranda for a while and then went to my bed for the first time since Sept. 5 and slept like there had never been a storm.

Unfortunately, though, there was and the aftermath was incredible. In addition to the destruction from the hurricane itself, the problem was multiplied by widespread looting, an extreme lack of preparedness across the board for a hurricane of this magnitude, political fighting about distribution of supplies and relief efforts, lack of communication (barely any land lines survied), lack of essential equipment (ex. a crane to move containers off ships), and much of the prison population still loose. The National Emergency Relief Organization--NERO (which is based in the Prime Minister's office) has since been dubbed ZERO by many Grenadians. The Director of USAID (US Association for International Development) told us when we were in Barbados that there were a number of very experienced Relief officals in Grenada--people who had covered disasters around the world and for decades and almost unanimously they stated that this was on of the worst disasters they'd seen--not just because of the storm's destruction but that combined with all the other factors. One woman had recently been dealing with the genocide in Sudan and said she'd actually prefer to be working there than in Grenada right now. Yikes. The good news though is that there is massive relief (humanitarian and monetary) pouring in and Grenadians are feeling the support and feel quite grateful for it. Estimates are that it will take $1 billion US over the next two years to rebuild. The first few weeks back for us volunteers has been mostly letting people know that we're still here, hearing stories about how their house got "mash up" or "roof go" and figuring out how we can fit in this endless puzzle here. The first few days seemed eerily like my first few weeks in Grenada over a year ago--making contacts, finding community partners, exploring options.

Overall, Grenada is moving again. It's limping a lot, but it's moving. As of this week, quite a few businesses are back open (the ones that could), although with limited hours (banks, utility companies, grocery stores--rum shops are back to normal hours!). The curfew was dropped for most parishes, but as far as I know is still in effect for St. Andrew's and St. George's from 9pm to 5am (actually, I haven't been paying attention since I don't leave between those hours anyway!). Electricity is slowly being restored. I got home this past Monday to the low purr of my refridgerator working--the sound almost brought tears to my eyes! Schools are slowly starting to re-open as well. Oct. 11 was the first offical day for schools that could open (i.e. those that had a building standing with no cracks, no asbestos showing, no people still living in it, an attached roof or tarps covering the gaping holes and teachers who were ready to come back). Many in my area opened for a few hours (9-1 or so) and will continue to for a while. Dress standards have relaxed and teachers attend in unprecedented casualness (a nice change from the suits 5 days a week) and students have a hodge podge of uniform pieces. Most classes are quite informal and involve a lot of talking, drawing and sharing for these first few weeks. Some of the children seem a little squirrelly but almost all seem to be glad to be back in the routine and structure of school. In discussing the restlessness of some children with a Grade 4 teacher (who also happened to be my bus driver on the way to St. George's yesterday), he said it's hard to know if it's really due to the trauma of Ivan or simply the fact that children have been out of school for 13 weeks now. Good point. In general though, there seems to be only a small portion of the population that is paralyzed from the trauma and unsure where and how to start. That fraction though is slowly declining and joining the majority of Grenadians who are "builing from the rubble" and displaying more creativity, motivation, generosity and optimism than I've seen since I've arrived. It's an exciting time to be in Grenada.

As for me, I'm holding up well...for now. There's certainly been ups and downs and I'm glad to be back in my home and have the ability to distract myself from the daunting task at hand. There was a point in Barbados where I realized that EVERY thought I'd had since Sept. 7 was at least tangentially related to Ivan. That feeling has subsided and the reality of life here is much easier to take on a day to day basis. (My fan blowing on me and a glass of ice water certainly helps that reality!). I find the hardest thing for me is traveling to parts of the island that I don't frequent. I'm getting used to my immediate surroundings and the parts I see on a regular basis, but it's passing those more unfamiliar areas that brings back that pit in my stomach. I know as time passes that will lessen, but for now, I suppose that pang is what will keep me motivated. So, as I begin Year 2 in my adventure called Peace Corps service, I look forward to it with anticipation and the realization that this probably will be even more unforgettable than the first one has been.