When a Hurricane Hits Facebook
In Dominica, I lived in a tall, bright pink, concrete building about 50 yards from the ocean. I was at the very, very top—apartment 12—which required a strenuous climb. It was, in a word, hideous. Most of the apartments are like this: oddly constructed, grout lines visible. Many of them stand on steel pillars, elevated six or 10 feet off the ground. Because when a hurricane hits, how pretty your building looks doesn’t matter even a little bit.
When Hurricane Erika first hit Dominica, I thought about the handful of tropical storms and depressions that had swept the island when I lived there. Some were scary, some were fun. Some were obnoxious, turning the water brown for days, or cutting off access to it—and to electricity—entirely. But in my short stint on the island, none ever made me or anyone else actually worry.
Erika was very different. Last week, the morning after a news alert told me that Dominica had suffered a devastating blow (actually, it said “Dominican Republic” and was only later corrected—oh, how American public school geography has failed us), I went about my usual tactics for contacting everyone I knew on the island: First, iMessage and WhatsApp. Then, Facebook Messenger. Last, I took to the many Facebook Groups used to update islanders. The silence of each of these places was deafening. Questions and comments rolled in from off-islanders, each post more anxious than the last. No one on Dominica responded all day.
So I did what anyone would do: Stuck at work a continent away, I obsessed over YouTube videos and photos of the wreckage. I watched a flyover to see if my apartment was still standing (it was), and if my neighbors’ homes were underwater or not (some were, some weren’t). I looked for footage of the main road—the only road that goes around the island—to see if it remained standing, and discovered there are huge, huge pieces of it missing—a devastating problem and image that still makes me feel a little sick to think about.
Staring at my screen, pausing and playing videos and zooming in on overhead shots to try and pinpoint places I knew, a Facebook message popped up. A friend who was vacationing off island asked me if I’d heard from anyone who was still in Dominica yet; he hadn’t. We chatted back and forth, telling ourselves that our friends probably just didn’t have electricity to get online, or maybe they were evacuated and didn’t have access to phones or computers. We made a list of everyone we knew who was there who’d been silent online since the storm hit. But everything was probably fine, we figured. Soon, a Facebook Group was created to share information—family and friends joined too, tagging people and asking if we’d heard from their children or spouses. The same YouTube videos and paltry articles were shared over and over. I searched Instagram to see if there were any images (a few posts geo-tagged to the main city had made it). We were all experiencing low-level dread: The reports at this point said four people were dead and 20 were missing (those numbers have since risen), and the assumption was that these people mostly likely lived in the extremely underdeveloped villages nearest the larger rivers. But that was all we knew: The island was suffering, people had died, and communication was halted.
Days went by, and the online silence from the people I knew on the island persisted. More footage and horrifying images rolled in (though it looked like their were from news crews), including one of the foot of child who’d been killed. It was difficult not to panic. One of my friends had posted a short Instagram of the ocean a day or two before the storm had rolled in, and nothing since. I felt like I was holding my breath.
And then suddenly, after a few tense days, the updates rolled in, almost at the same time. Everyone I knew was indeed OK—but this place that had been my home was not. Along with their reassurances that they were fine came more photos and videos of Erika’s aftermath. The bridge we took to each other’s homes and the market had caved into the ground, and there were still many locals who had joined our Facebook Group trying to find their friends and family who lived in the areas that were hit harder.
Meanwhile, media reports about the Hurricane were still getting the country’s name wrong, making it difficult for any bystanders to help out. (Please, don’t send hurricane relief aid to the Dominican Republic. It’s Dominica that needs your donation—and here are a few places you can do that.) The medical school community where I lived has become very active on Facebook in the last week, posting pictures of smiling students, photos of a stocked grocery store. A video of the airport I saw on Facebook makes it clear that travel to and from will remain a significant challenge for a while. You could literally scroll through Facebook and watch the anatomy of a disaster: The early, easy, gentle Facebook posts hoping everything was alright to the terrified, desperate pictures and photos showing how bad it all was, and the pleas to find the lost. You could almost chart anxiety levels based on the updates.
When I left the island, people would ask me how it felt to be back, and the thing I’ve always said was “I don’t feel like I’m back.” Until very recently, it’s felt like I’m going to pack up my two allotted suitcases again, get on a plane and return to Dominica. It still feels like my apartment there is… mine. My heart aches at all of this loss: For the families who have lost loved ones. For the country, which is not a rich country, and has suffered such damage to its infrastructure. For my friends and everyone on the island, whose lives there will be very, very difficult. And for everyone who won’t be able to know the parts of the island I did, because they’re buried under a landslide or washed away entirely. But I am grateful that Facebook gave us all a place to connect, to post GoFundMe campaigns, to virtually be together as we feared the worst, and to celebrate when news that someone was OK reached us. It made us feel ever so slightly less powerless while watching the unpredictable.
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