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ON THE GROUND

Documenting life after a Category-5 hurricane flattens your island

On the island of Dominica, where a category-5 hurricane killed at least 27 and flattened the tropical landscape in September,  residents speak about their lives as being split in two parts: before Maria, and after.

Before: when the lush countryside was covered in green, tourism was growing, and people felt hopeful about the future. Known as “the nature island,” Dominica was described on its website as “beauty unspoilt…the trailhead to adventure and discovery.”

And after: a place where people mostly grapple with the day-to-day business of survival. Speaking at the UN general assembly on Sept. 23, Dominica’s prime minister Roosevelt Skerri led his speech to delegates in New York City with a grim proclamation: ”The stars have fallen. Eden is broken.”

Emerline Anselm
A view from the ground.

Despite the level of desolation wrought by the hurricane, media attention on storm damage has been largely focused on Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Now, as recovery crawls forward in the tiny island nation, one schoolteacher is trying to bring attention to a people the world has largely forgotten.

Courtesy Emerline Anselm
On assignment.

Her name is Emerline Anselm, though on Facebook she goes by the moniker “EmoNews,” a reference to her nickname, Emo.

During the day, she teaches social studies and business to high school students at Portsmouth Secondary School. Once class is out at 1 p.m., she packs her daughter’s pink Doc McStuffins backpack with the essentials (notebook, pen, cellphone) and sets out on her daily routine of documenting conditions in a new town, often taking her cues on where to visit next from her audience, who connect with her on Facebook and WhatsApp. “I get messages like, ‘I haven’t seen my mother, I haven’t seen my father,'” she says. “I go through the messages and I say, ‘OK, today I will go to that village, that is my next move.'”

Hundreds have come to depend on her coverage. On her Facebook wall, they post thank-you messages and plead with her to continue. “Where’s the next stop?” wrote reader Ma’at Ra, who lives in London. “Please be safe, you are an asset to us Dominicans abroad, helping us to see our communities and families.”

Emerline Anselm
Documenting resilience on Dominica.

Carrying messages from cut-off communities 

Anselm started her EmoNews presence several years ago. After the storm, it became vital. There was a total loss of communication—no phones, no wi-fi, no cell service. Relatives abroad, fearing the worst, were desperate for news about how families were coping.

Four days later, after finding a working signal, she began to tour the island, taking quick portraits of everyone she came across. Each day, she posts photographs of people from various towns and asks her followers to look for missing relatives and friends.

Emerline Anselm
A portrait of a community picking up the pieces.
“They are homeless but okay.”

“I see my children, now I feel so much better,” one mother wrote. “My favorite sister-in-law, happy to see you,” reads another message. “My mom Thank God she’s unharmed,” a daughter wrote.

Her approach also mixes her digital presence with the technological limitations of a hurricane-ravaged island. Anselm began writing names of those she met on notebook paper, and asking residents to send brief messages to their off-island families. She then posts the photos of the notebook pages, offering a tangible conduit to loved ones abroad.

The handwritten messages are short and often bleak: ”They are homeless but ok,” one reads. “Roof gone.”

Emerline Anselm
Some of the handwritten messages Anselm has collected.

Coping with trauma while helping others

Anselm is dealing with her own trauma from the storm. On the night of Sept. 18, she was home with her mother, nephew, and 6-year-old daughter, Gaby. As the weather worsened, the house flooded. Water swept in from all sides and then began to seep in through the ceiling.

The four were huddled in waist-deep water under a table when the roof came crashing down. “All the windows were blown out, the ceiling fell, the roof was flying,” she says. “There was nowhere we could go.”

She just kept asking, “are we going to die?”

They stayed under that table for hours as her mother prayed aloud. Carette says she tried to remain outwardly calm for the sake of Gaby, who was wrapped in a blanket and held close. “Her head was on me, and she just kept asking, ‘Are we going to die?’ I said, ‘No, we are not going to die.’ But I was just saying that to her, because I see what’s possible. Stuff was just flying and falling down all around us.”

After several attempts to evacuate, the family was able to run to an uncle’s house. Once inside they saw his situation was also dire. All the windows had burst, and water was rushing in. “It was like, no rest,” she says. “The night was so very, very long, time wasn’t going anywhere. I was just praying for day to break.”

When morning did come, she went outside to see her verdant homeland completely changed. “Seeing the devastation was kind of shocking. I have never seen so many things crushed up,” she says. After finding reception, she updated her Facebook with a grim assessment. “Hello all. I am speechless,” she wrote then. “I am heartbroken and in tears. My Dominica is no more. Please pray for us.”

Emerline Anselm
Anselm’s home after the storm.

In the weeks since, Anselm has continued to makes daily trips around the island to document suffering and resilience, even as her own life has become more difficult. On Sept. 26, she made the fraught choice to send Gaby to stay with family in Georgia. ”Tough decision today but I had to send her go,” she wrote, posing in a duo of selfies with her daughter. “I choose to stay a little bit to help wherever I can.”

Anselm says she would like to remain in Dominica, to continue her reporting, to keep teaching her students. She still has no roof on her home, which has been covered temporarily with a water-resistant tarp. She wonders how residents she has met who lost everything will be able to rebuild with no resources. And she fears she will be forced to evacuate, as so much of the island has.

“With time I will decide, and I ask for God to guide my decision,” she says. “But you know, home is where the heart is. I love Dominica.”

Dominicans are raising money for recovery efforts through a YouCaring fund. The government is also accepting donations through the website dominicarelief.org.


Read next: What it looks like when a Category-5 hurricane flattens your island overnight

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