There is a story I remember being told as a child. It takes place a few hundred years ago when European colonists first began to establish themselves on the Caribbean islands.  It is summer, sometime around August or September. The skies are clear and the sea appears calm, but the native islanders who reside on these islands know otherwise. Perhaps they noticed a shift in the wave patterns, or of the wind direction. Maybe the air was heavy and still, but the Kalinago knew what was coming and approached the new European settlers to warn them.

“But the skies are blue and the sea calm – they must take us for fools!” They responded. Ignoring the warnings, they went about their way.

That night a hurricane, (from the Amerindian “ouragan” and Kalinago “ioullou” and “bointara”), so ferocious, raged across the island. While the islanders were safely sheltered in hillside caves, the settlers were frantic. Their houses offered no resistance and without protection, many died. Those settlers who survived, so unfamiliar with the Caribbean climate and deaf to former warnings, accused the Kalinago of sorcery. How could these people have known of this approaching monstrous storm?

Kalinago cycle of the year. Courtesy

Kalinago cycle of the year. Courtesy

The answer is not so mysterious.

Aware of the island’s seasons, the Kalinago developed a relationship with their surroundings which allowed them to survive. When the signs of an approaching storm appeared – the islanders could on a drop retreat to safety. Their structures built of ‘Wild cane’ or ‘Roseaux Reed’, once damaged, could easily be rebuilt.

The islanders knew that hurricanes come from the east and during the wet season – which runs from June to December. Beginning as a weather system off the African continent they travel west across the Atlantic Ocean. Here they gather strength from the warm water, spiraling around an eye resulting in strong winds, rainfall and tall waves – or storm surge. Because of these consistencies, the Kalinago recognized which signs to look for.

Over the years, as the settlers became accustomed to this new environment, their building designs adapted to the Dominican weather and climate. Structures able to withstand powerful winds and torrential downpours could be secured in no time with hurricane shutters which were used to protect windows and doors. In those days, warning systems were non existent, giving residents little time to prepare, but in later years as technology and international communication improved, announcements progressed from sounding church bells, conch shells blown by villagers, canons fired up along the coast, to radio announcements and more recently satellite imagery publicized through websites and television.

As a child I have a memory of the excitement surrounding one particular approaching Hurricane. It was about a Category 2, and the whole island frantically prepared. Shelves of the supermarkets and shops were cleared of bottled water, batteries, candles and non perishables.  Cars lined up to fill their tanks with petrol and containers with kerosene.  At home, the hurricane shutters were unfolded for the first time in years allowing the doors and windows to be barred.  As it neared, the sky turned grey and air was heavy, silent except for the movement of people and their voices, which carried further than usual. Before the first gusts of wind began to tickle the windows and pellets of rain knocked at the roof, there was an eerie silence, as if the sky was taking its last deep breath.

Although there have been a few devastating hurricanes in the past, most recently Hurricane David in 1979, Dominica is fortunate to be just out of the Hurricane Belt. With our climate changing however, in recent years the worst storms have occurred during the months of August to November, but mostly in the form of heavy rain and no more than a Category 1. Today, early warning systems allow days (rather than hours) to prepare.