Why are we here?
Ari Berman, IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Dominica, on tropical storms, resilience, and the importance of local empowerment.
I wait to hear the wind roar outside, the rain pouring down. My heart thunders with anticipation, anxiously palpitating because nothing like this ever happened in Southern California. But nothing happens — not yet. I stare at the rows of water bottles, canned food, and bread in my apartment, my eyes eventually travelling up to make contact with someone who, until this event, was a stranger.
This was tropical depression/storm Beryl, one of the first major storms to hit the island of Dominica after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017. I am in Dominica to do aid work as part of IsraAID’s Humanitarian Fellowship, helping rebuild the 90% of buildings that were damaged in the hurricane. In anticipation of Beryl, the NGO team I work with — a mix of local and international staff — gathered in a shelter. The Dominican IsraAID employees told me that they used to rejoice at hurricane days. A local colleague said she used to “run outside in the rain with umbrellas, lifting themselves up in the air.” She recalled that for storms or even small hurricanes, she would watch movies at home until the power cut out. That all changed after Maria.
Walking around Roseau the day before Beryl’s curfew was set, there was a frantic energy humming about. Cars honked at pedestrians, the stores were packed, canned food was running low, the catcallers far less numerous. Colorful doors were boarded up, and there was an almost tangible fear in the air. A child in a disaster training focus group shared with me that his family prepared for the storm as if it was a Category 5 hurricane. It’s as if the entire country is carrying this immense trauma, jumping at the slightest storm warning.
This fear is not unfounded, given the havoc that Maria caused. As I travel through the country, nearly a year after the hurricane, I am struck by how many buildings still have no proper roofs, blue tarps from NGOs hastily stapled down onto wooden beams. Even more astounding is when I encounter a roof that is intact, giving you a sense of how devastated the island is.
Normally a storm like Beryl is old news for Dominica, but given how vulnerable most buildings still are, even heavy rains and wind are worrisome. The country issued a curfew and flood warnings were handed out.
The reaction to Beryl and the aftermath of Maria made me realize how valuable IsraAID’s presence in Dominica is. IsraAID was on the ground soon after Maria hit, giving emergency services like medical care, repairing water systems, and fixing roofs. Addressing the psychosocial damage of the hurricane, IsraAID partnered with UNICEF to run the Return to Happiness Program. But the emergency phase of aid ended right as I arrived in Dominica as a fellow. Why is IsraAID still here?
The answer came to me as Beryl hit — though the country passed the “emergency” phase threshold, it still has much work to do in the realm of recovery and resilience. IsraAID remains in Dominica to strengthen local capacity to respond to future disasters such as Beryl. By teaching students about disaster response, IsraAID is building the institutional knowledge of how to respond to disasters. Even as IsraAID continues to rebuild roofs, it also looks forward, working on developing a code for structure-resilient school buildings, hoping that these principles of engineering disseminate across the island.
The one thing I learned about humanitarian aid before this fellowship is the importance of localization. You can’t empower governments and local communities if external, Western NGOs provide parallel services. You need to mesh international NGO culture with local services — in other words, to have success in building resilience, you have to work locally. Working in Dominica, IsraAID has exemplified this for me. Our staff is mostly local and therefore able to forge strong and lasting partnerships to help the country recover. I have watched meetings with the Ministry of Education, the East Children’s Federation, and UNICEF. All of this teamwork is aimed at making Dominica more resilient and prepared for when the next storm comes.
The IsraAID Humanitarian Fellowship is an annual program offering 14 students from colleges across the United States a two month internship in one of IsraAID’s humanitarian aid and development programs around the world. The fellowship is supported by the Schusterman Foundation and the Koret Foundation.
Ari Berman studies Government at Harvard University and is an IsraAID humanitarian fellow in Dominica. She is from Los Angeles, California.