Cricketers Shane Shillingford and Liam Sebastien (and Viv Richards) talk about living through Hurricane Maria in Dominica, and how cricket helped its own
by NAGRAJ GOLLAPUDI | OCTOBER 16, 2017
On the evening of September 18, Shane Shillingford, the West Indies offspinner, was sitting in his living room with his wife and father, playing board games. Music piped in the background. Outside, the wind was strong and there was some rain too.
Shillingford, who played 16 Tests till 2014, lives in Dublanc village, about a 15-minute drive from Portsmouth in the north-west of the island of Dominica, one in the string of tiny islands in the Caribbean that runs down from Antigua to Trinidad and Tobago in the south, flanked by the Atlantic to the east and the Caribbbean Sea to the west.
August-September is usually hurricane season in the Caribbean. Hurricane Irma had devastated Barbuda, the sister island of Antigua, on September 6. Now Dominica was bracing for Hurricane Maria, but the initial feeling, at least according to Shillingford, was it would not be too bad.
However, Maria went on to be the tenth most intense hurricane in the Atlantic ever. The news bulletins and weather forecasts were for the storm to pass Dominica by, but it shifted course suddenly. “We never thought that the hurricane was coming direct to us,” Shillingford says, speaking to ESPNcricinfo three weeks later.
He lives in a five-bedroom house with his wife, father, two brothers, a sister-in-law and a niece. He had just come back home from the CPL, where he had played for St Lucia Stars, and thought his family was “overthinking” as they went about piling wooden boards against doors and windows to secure the house.
“As the night progressed it just started to get worse. Then we got some serious winds.” Shilingford’s family locked the doors and windows as the wind gathered pace and raged ominously, along with thrashing rain.
When the storm grew, the family went up to the bathroom on the first floor to take refuge. “All of us were starting to get scared,” Shillingford said. At some point late in the evening, the winds abated somewhat, encouraging him to step out of the house.
The first thing to check was the roof. Most houses in the Caribbean have aluminum roofs, called zinc, or “galvanize” (short for “galvanized tin sheeting”) locally. Shillingford saw the zinc was intact. Everybody thought the worst was over. But his father recounted how Hurricane David had returned a second time after a brief spell of calm in 1979 to cause havoc.
Hurricane David, which stuck Dominica late in August 1979, was classified as category five, like Maria. Like with Maria, Dominicans thought David would pass them by and head towards Barbados. However, it moved course, killing 37 and leaving about 5000 injured and nearly a third of the population homeless.
“My dad told me that when David came back, most people had to run and hide for cover. The same thing happened with Maria. While people were out inspecting, in a matter of half an hour or so, things changed dramatically. And that was the worst, the second time it struck. That is when the zinc on the houses started to shake, the trees started getting uprooted.”
During the brief lull, when everyone thought the eye of Maria had moved past Dominica, two neighbours came over to check on the Shillingfords. When the storm returned suddenly, the pair were caught. “So that is when nine of us went into the bathroom,” Shillingford says.
“The zinc this time started lifting up, the ceiling starting raising and coming down, there was a lot of noise. Everyone thought we should put on our shoes and run out. My dad was panicking and said, ‘We got to go.’”
But Shillingford felt the wisest thing would be to stay inside. What if the roof fell over as the they tried to escape? “That is the most dangerous thing to do.
“We just prayed. I just prayed to the Almighty. I know he has the power to control the winds. It definitely increased my faith.”
In the past Shlliingford had enjoyed the milder hurricanes, when people would converge, play games and have a good community time. “The most fun part was when the seas got rough with big waves – we friends would go out and surf and we absolutely loved that.”
This was different. “The wind was making a sound like it was singing. I had never ever heard that in my life. We had sliding glass windows in parts of the house. The wind completely blew away the glass. We had to throw the couch, the mattresses [into the gaps] to try to block it. It was crazy.”
In the early hours of the 19th, the storm finally eased. Shillingford walked out of the bathroom, through the broken doorway, to look at the scene. Dublanc, like the rest of Dominca, was a meteorological crime scene: roofs, houses, trees, roads, buildings all lay ravaged.
Days after the storm left, to create havoc northwards in Puerto Rico, Shillingford drove through the village. Debris lay everywhere, big trees uprooted, naked and shorn of leaves, swollen rivers flooding the fields, power cables snaking across the ground. “It was like watching a war-torn place.”
“Rough! Rough! Rough!”
In a category-five hurricane, winds blow at average speeds of 160mph (about 258kph). No one was spared. Even the prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, was rendered roofless.
As Maria battered Dominica, Skerrit published a series of posts on Facebook. “Rough! Rough! Rough!” he wrote early on the morning of the 19th. “We do not know what is happening outside. We do not dare look out. All we are hearing is the sound of galvanize flying. The sound of the fury of the wind. As we pray for its end!”
“Fighting for life in total darkness”
Lockhart Sebastien lives in Canefield, which is on the northern outskirts of the Dominican capital, Roseau, about three quarters of the way down the west coast of the island. Sebastien, currently a West Indies selector, played cricket with Caribbean giants Viv Richards and Andy Roberts for the Combined Islands in the 1970s and ’80s. In his time Sebastien, 61 now, has experienced many hurricanes. At the time of Hurricane David, which he said was his worst experience, he was 24 years old. But he swears now that he has seen nothing like Maria.
He remembers the storm started at about six in the evening, followed by a lull at about 9pm. The worst came between 10pm and 3am. “That is when most people were scared. There was hardly anybody that could tell me who wasn’t scared with that force of wind and rain. No human being is supposed to go through this sort of a thing. It is like I was fighting for life in total darkness for about four to five hours.
“My entire roof was destroyed, like [those of] most people in Dominica. Agriculture, housing, businesses, everything was destroyed.”
“When is this thing supposed to end?”
Another Sebastien, also a cricketer, who lost his roof is Liam, Windward Volcanoes’ captain till last season. He lives in Goodwill, in Roseau, a few kilometres south of Canefield. When Maria hit Dominica, Sebastien was at home with his mother.
Their house is still a wreck. “The entire roof is damaged, lots of clothes, cricket gear, appliances and other stuff is damaged and soaked with water,” Sebastien writes in an email (the phone lines are unreliable). “It was horrible for me and my mother and a family friend, who were in the house at the time. Windows were smashing and we were trying to secure then, but so many of them broke at one point, we just had to leave it and seek safety in the toilet, which was flooding as well.”
Unlike Shillingford and Lockhart Sebastien, Liam did try to leave the house. “We tried three times to run from the house, but the wind was so strong we could not leave. On the fourth attempt I said to them, we have no other option – it is either we go now or we could get injured. We had no choice but to run. They asked me where we were going and I said I don’t know, but we cannot stay here. We have to go and go now.
“We had to run over galvanize, wires, a fridge door and so on, to run to a neighbour’s house, where we stayed until morning.”
Sebastien’s mother tried to secure the front door as the other two ran ahead. “I had to run back since I was not seeing or hearing my mother. I had to shout to her that we must leave the door and let us go.”
Sebastien had arrived in Goodwill just a day before Maria landed over Dominica. He was in Florida when Hurricane Irma hit there. His mother, their friend and the neighbour had survived Hurricane David, so they were relatively more relaxed than him. “I was just asking when is this thing supposed to end? I was scared. I was stuck in Florida for Hurricane Irma and that was not the best experience, as we saw what it did.”
Help arrives on the water
As Maria was tearing Dominica apart, one of Prime Minister Skerrit’s messages said: “We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds.” The island had been virtually obliterated.
Even as the government was coming to terms with the devastation, the cricket community decided to pitch in. One of the first to call Shillingford was former West Indies captain Darren Sammy, who with the help of the West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) sent a boat full of supplies from St Lucia, the next island to the south of Dominica, after Martinique.
“I want to say a big thanks to Sammy and his wife who reached out to me,” Shillingford says. “He sent a whole lot of stuff, which I distributed to every home in our whole village, which went really well and was very much appreciated by the people.”
Last Saturday, Shillingford played alongside Sammy in a charity match organised to help those affected by the hurricanes across the Caribbean. Called “Rebuilding the Caribbean one over at a time”, the match, played in Port-of-Spain, pitched a Caribbean Select XI (led by Sammy) against a Trinidad & Tobago side captained by Kieron Pollard. The Caribbean XI, which Shillingford turned out for, also featured Yohan Blake, the sprinter from Jamaica. The organisers’ aim was to raise US$1 million in aid, and given it was a full house, they might have gone a fair way towards succeeding.
Shillingford might have needed to borrow some gear because he lost most of his kit during the hurricane. On his return from the CPL, he left his kitbag at the Dominica Cricket Association’s premises in Windsor Park, Roseau. When the hurricane struck, the DCA offices were vandalised and among the property stolen was Shillingford’s St Lucia Stars bag. “I don’t even remember what all was in there, but luckily I still have some of my bats and some of the gear still safe,” he says.
Liam Sebastien says WIPA officials, including its president Wavell Hinds and Marla Seedansingh in Trinidad, have been in touch. Cricket West Indies, he hopes, will have spoken to the Windward Volcanoes franchise. All Dominican players will need help of some kind, he says
Meanwhile Lockhart Sebastien is grateful to his long-time friends Roberts, Richards and Hugh Gore, the former Combined Islands left-arm fast bowler. Just like they did when tropical storm Erika damaged Dominica in 2015, Roberts, Richards and Gore helped Sebastien and his fellow Dominicans this time around by shipping them aid. “They sent a lot of stuff to Dominica. It shows they were not just great on the field, they are great humanitarians as well, that they feel for their friends and the people.”
It was Roberts, who lives in Urlings, Antigua, who first got in touch after the calamity. A quiet-spoken man probably best known for his mean-sided nature as a lethal fast bowler, Roberts has been involved in charity work with the Andy Roberts Foundation, which helps people in his community, St Mary’s Parish. “I asked him what he wants,” Roberts says. “I purchased a lot of it and I got some sponsors for some stuff.”
A fisherman friend of Roberts’, Dale Henry, was heading to Dominica, and so, days after the hurricane, the Rise and Shinearrived in Roseau with relief – clean drinking water, food, and some clothes.
Richards, who has fond memories of playing with Sebastien, pitched in readily. “Playing with him, he was one of greatest guys you could find. He told me his faith was tested that particular night,” Richard says.
Not just his old friends, even current players like West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel, Sebastien says, have come forward to help. “I met him last week and he said to me, ‘Sebo, I need to give you some things to take home because things are rough,’” Sebastien said to Trinidad & Tobago Newsday recently. “He came to the Brian Lara Stadium and he opened his vehicle and I asked him which box I should take. He looked at me and said, ‘Everything.’ In it were two brand-new generators and maybe US$1000 of stuff, and I said to myself, ‘People look at cricketers and say they are greedy.’ This is a guy that has a kind heart. I didn’t ask him for anything and he brought all this stuff, and you have to congratulate people like that.”
Shelter from the storm
Twelve days before Dominica was hit by Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma descended on Barbuda, Antigua’s tiny twin to the north on the eastern Caribbean front. Home to about 1800, Barbuda was the first point of landfall for Irma, also classified as a category-five hurricane, which then moved upwards towards the USA and Cuba. Meteorologists say Irma was one of the strongest hurricanes in history to hit the Atlantic.
Unlike Dominica, Barbuda had been on high alert in advance, and the government had evacuated people to Antigua, which was spared. The damage in Barbuda was catastrophic.
“For the first time in 300 years, there’s not a single living person on the island of Barbuda,” Ronald Sanders, the Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the United States, was quoted as saying. “A civilisation that has existed on that island for over 300 years has now been extinguished.”
Of those evacuated, close to 200 people were brought to a shelter created in the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound, Antigua – the only sports venue to be used as a makeshift shelter on the island.
The ground also houses the Ministry of Sports, headed by Chet Green, who says the stadium was well equipped to handle the emergency. The designating of rooms for men, women, families and for kitchen purposes was determined by the National Office of Disaster Services according to standards set by international aid agencies like the Red Cross. Every possible space, including both dressing rooms, the rooms designated for umpires, physiotherapists and the media, was utilised to house people.
According to Green, all the food, clothing and hygiene needs of the people in the shelter are being met by the government of Antigua and Barbuda. And the Ministry of Sport is running entertainment programmes to keep the refugees in good spirits.
Cricket continues to be played at the ground, and is proving to be positive distraction. A tri-nation T20 series has been organised by the Antigua and Barbuda Cricket Association, which Green says is an “added entertainment” for those living in the shelter. “Shelter conditions require special treatment. To have these cultural programmes and the T20 cricket is really adding a level of excitement to an otherwise mundane space.”
People in the Caribbean islands have faced the wrath of hurricanes for centuries, but Irma and Maria have challenged even the toughest of them. Richards, the former West Indies captain and the one of the most popular cricketers ever, will not forget the ferocity of Irma. “It is the first I have experienced winds 185mph. Category five, that is pretty strong.”
Richards and Roberts offered help to those taking shelter in North Sound. Richards ordered books from local bookstore The Best of Books and had them sent over, thinking it would be one of the better ways to keep the children at the shelter busy. “With everyone donating food and sleeping gear and clothes, I felt I would give them kiddies books, so that they could pass the time.”
Richards visited the stadium named after him twice in the past few weeks. The last visit was on Wednesday, October 11, to watch a T20. “To have the cricket around at that time and to have them stay there, it is good for them to witness the matches, which could help [with the] disasters they have been through,” he says.
Richards asked his friends from Barbuda what it was like. “One of them said that he would not wish that on his worst enemy,” he says. “You heard folks talk about their roofs gone, they are standing in water to get some shelter, it just goes on and on.”
Roberts too went to North Sound, with his wife, taking supplies along. He has a long association with Barbuda, dating back to the times in the 1980s and ’90s that he went there to promote cricket.
On Sunday, Richards was part of a congregation of people from all faiths who gathered in a thanksgiving ceremony for the fact that Hurricane Irma missed Antigua. “Because we were rather lucky that it missed us,” he says.
The hurricanes have brought the people of the islands together. “Just seeing the outpouring, and people trying to help with whatever they have to offer – that was the winner. That is the response you need from your citizens when you have such disasters.”
“Wake up from deep sleep”
In about two weeks’ time Liam Sebastien will be back on the cricket field, playing for Windward Volcanoes in the regional four-day completion. But does cricket really matter in times like these?
“Cricket does matter since it is my job,” Sebastien says, “but at the same time, with the struggles we are faced with, that takes precedence, just basically to survive. A lot of gear got damaged and had to be thrown away, so it is just difficult in every facet at this point.”
Calamities like this one are overwhelming. They make human beings look at life differently. But Shillingford does not think life has turned upside down. If anything, he feels he has started to understand the true meaning of life, now that he has survived a brush with death.
He now wants to urge people to “wake up from the deep sleep” they are in and live properly. “God has opened my eyes even more in the sense of the devastation I have seen and all the things that we work hard for and cherish, and how overnight in a matter of hours they just can get blown away. These are things that we slave after, we work after, and as a result we cherish them and we use people. Rather we should love people and use things.
“When people count all that they have lost, it shows me now that without all those things we can still survive. The most precious thing is life. That is truly what we have. We must make the best of it, living for loving, caring for each other, and totally erase all our emphasis on earning materialism. It has really opened my eyes. Really, really, really.”