Surviving the Unknown

This time last year things were so different; I was stuck in one corner of my house, watching it flood. Our glass door had exploded in front of me, pieces of glass were stuck in my feet and my parents and I were using bed sheets, pillows and towels to stop the rain water from rising too high. We spent 6 hours trying, I’m still not sure if it made a difference. I remember being unusually calm as Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on my home; I think it was because the roof was still on. Others, like Michael Lees, weren’t so fortunate, he spent the night hunkered down in the middle of the rain forest, literally holding on for dear life. I haven’t mustered the courage to write about that night, or go into detail about what my life was like in the months after Maria.

So, here’s Michael’s story about how he survived the monster storm and the lessons he’s learnt because of it.

P.S photo-cred: Michael Lees

Sitting in the darkness of the forest, streams of water gushing through my palm leaf hut as trees cracked around me, the thought crossed my mind, “never in a million years would I have dreamt this is how my life would end.” Between the bursts of wind rattling my shelter and the sound of boulders tumbling down the river, I intermittently found myself laughing – and crying – as I reflected on the absurdity of my situation. “How had my life come to this?”

Three months prior to Hurricane Maria, I’d set out to the forest to start filming a documentary about progress, nature, and whether we were really moving forward or not. A lot of that required thinking about humanity’s history, but also thinking about where it is we think we’re going as a species. You talk to some people and they’ll tell you mankind is doomed – to misery, or even extinction – while others predict that one day man will transcend not only poverty and suffering but even death itself. Either of these outcomes seems as plausible to me as they seem far-fetched, but at the end of the day, “who knows what the future holds?”

Although I tried to prepare for all possible scenarios, 170 mph winds weren’t one of them. I brought an emergency locator beacon with me in case I got completely lost, I set up my camp far enough from the rivers so that if they flooded I would be okay – I even tried to make sure I wasn’t in the way of any big trees falling on me – but never in my wildest dreams could I have prepared for a category five hurricane making direct landfall with Dominica. Sometimes no matter how much we prepare we are thrown into uncharted territory, forced to fumble our way forward, relying on clues, signposts, and our intuition to find the right path.

I wasn’t completely clueless of the impending weather. A friend who knew my location came to warn me that a category 3 hurricane was on its way, but I decided to stay. The whole point of the project was to live the natural life, and a hurricane was about as natural as you could get.  If I really wanted to prove the natural life was so great, then I had to take the lows with the highs, and stick it out.

It was around 8pm, that doubt started to creep in over my decision. I don’t know what I expected, but this was more: more wind, more trees falling, more crashes, more rumblings – more emotions. I’d never felt so small, so at the mercy of the world, than I did that night. Doubt was useless. There was nowhere to go. In the stretches of “calm” between the big gusts, I sat there in the dark, a cool breeze blowing through my open hut. I thought of all the people I loved, I thanked them, and I prepared for the worst.

It was a week before I made it back home, and what I returned to wasn’t pretty. 95% of homes (including my own) had been damaged or destroyed – the capital had been looted, there was no water, no power, and limited cell service. Landslides littered villages in valleys, while villages by the ocean had been left battered and buried in piles of driftwood. Regions that had seemed ideal for settlements before Maria, revealed themselves to be death traps during the storm. Likewise, places that were “safe” during the storm became extremely challenging to live in afterwards. I visited a number of mountain villages after Maria like Tete Morne, which although avoided the damaging flood waters, the distance from the river meant getting water post-disaster posed a serious challenge.

Every location fared differently it seemed; there was no “best” or “worst” place for all occasions.

When I set out on this journey, I knew I was interested in nature’s solutions to problems, but I didn’t realize in what form the answers would come. I didn’t know I’d witness a catastrophe of such magnitude, and then, have the privilege (which it truly is) of watching life, including human life, adapt and rebound from what seemed like the brink of annihilation. Diversity it seemed was nature’s ultimate solution. Just as every location fared differently, so did every individual, every animal, every insect and every tree. Some forest trees snapped, some toppled over; some died and some grew back. And among the new seedlings that took root in the newly sunlit forests, some grew fast and spindly racing to the top, while others grew slower but sturdier. The implications of these strategies would be played out over the coming years.

Most importantly, in every situation, something would survive.

One year after Maria, other regions are facing similarly cataclysmic events to what we went through. These occurrences are tragedies, but they seem inevitable in a globalized, industrialized, consumption-driven world. When man set out on this great journey thousands of years ago, he couldn’t have known this would be the result. And that’s my point. We just don’t know what the future holds.

If we want to claim that progress is on our side, we need to hedge our bets, take a leaf out of nature’s book, and ensure that diversity – real diversity – can flourish. If we don’t, we will be putting the very future of life on earth in jeopardy, eliminating possible solutions for future, untold problems before they even have a chance to be enacted. We have to develop. But we have to do it differently. Our survival depends on it. As nations worldwide are forced to react and adapt quickly in this new age of climate change, hopefully a diverse set of solutions will emerge, and balance will be restored.


*Michael is currently working on telling his story in his upcoming documentary, Uncivilized. Follow @Uncivilizedfilm on Facebook to stay informed on the project and to get the full story of surviving Maria. 


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