Dominica.– Part of the runway was still flooded, and communication with the traffic control tower was intermittent, when the Cubana de Aviación ATR-72 touched down at Melville Hall International Airport.
Three days before, Hurricane Maria's winds of over 250 kilometers an hour had changed forever the island's geography and the lives of its 72,000 inhabitants.
It's difficult, but not impossible, assured the pilot, Adalberto Martínez, with 31 years of experience and a veteran of Angola. He completed the maneuvers needed to land on the runway, located just 100 meters from the sea, with the tested skill he honed as a youth flying a MIG 23.
The small plane carried some 20 Cuban search and rescue specialists who immediately put themselves at the disposal of local authorities.
The airport, on the northeastern end of the island, was cut off from the capital, Roseau, 40 kilometers southwest. British helicopters transported the Cuban rescue team, landing in the capital's National Stadium, with Cuban flags on their arms.
Team member Humberto Abad told Granma that they would only used the canine unit to locate trapped individuals, while their work was concentrated on restoring communication with the capital.
With chainsaws, shovels, and brute force, the Cubans helped to clear 20 kilometers of the highway linking Roseau and Melville Hall, winding around the mountains with cloud covered peaks and bordering beaches on the Caribbean.
This is the road on which international aid must be moved, and when we traveled along it 15 days after the storm, the effects of the hurricane were unchanged.
Of the cloud forest that covered the mountains, all that remained were bare trunks that extended to the horizon. Anyone not knowing about Maria's devastating winds would think that Dominica's 750 square kilometers had been hit by an atomic bomb.
The effect on the landscape, that attracts a million tourists a year, is similar to that caused by Agent Orange on the jungles of Vietnam. Green has disappeared entirely from the palette of colors visible on Dominica. Ferns and lichen are the first to sprout again, but it will take a long time for them to regain their prior presence.
Exactly where the millions of cubic meters of vanished leaves went remains a mystery. From the plane, we saw enormous patches of brown floating in the Caribbean.
We asked an experienced sailor about the patches, but he was not able to identify them. It is possible that Maria carried the foliage hundreds of kilometers to sea, where it can now be seen from the air.
Along the highway, residents are still trying to recuperate anything useful from the rubble left by the hurricane. Hundreds have raised temporary shelters near rivers and caves.
Few houses survived the wind's power. The Prime Minister himself was rescued when the entire roof of his home was ripped off.
A large portion of the population is drinking water directly from streams and entire families bath at river crossings.
Although there have been no outbreaks of disease, the risk is latent. Close to 30 Cuban doctors, some from the Henry Reeve Brigade and others who are part of the permanent mission in Dominica, are dispersed across the island attending emergencies and building awareness among the population of the need to maintain sanitary conditions.
The environment in the capital is practically toxic. Many of the 14,000 residents have decided to burn trash accumulating in the wake of María. The odor of burning plastic invades the city founded by French woodsmen on the mountainsides that descend into the sea.
All electric wiring is down and specialists say that it will be months before service can be reestablished. Water has begun to flow in some spots, but the majority of the population is still without access.
Speaking during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit requested urgent international aid to begin the recovery effort.
Cuba, already present in the country prior to Hurricane María, responded to the appeal despite the fact that the country was also dealing with recovery from a hurricane.
A dozen specialists from a variety of sectors, ranging from forestry to electrical engineering, are analyzing the scope of damage on the ground. With the goal of
focusing the help the country is in a position to provide.
"The stars have fallen, Eden is broken," Skerrit said before the UN, reporting the devastation his country had suffered. The challenge is to reconstruct it.