Sault man looks for news of family after Caribbean disaster

Sault Clinton Rickey Shillingford family

Sault Clinton Rickey ShillingfordOnly a month after visiting his family while on vacation in his homeland of Dominica, the Sault’s Clinton ‘Rickey’ Shillingford is still waiting to hear from his family after Tropical Storm Erika struck the Caribbean island nation August 27.

The island received about 30 centimetres of rain in eight hours.

At least 20 people are dead and dozens more are missing.

Mudslides and flooding destroyed roads, bridges and entire villages.

As of Friday, 371 homes had been destroyed.

Rickey’s parents, two grandmothers, and his extended family all live in Dominica.

“I haven’t heard anything from my family,” Rickey told SooToday, joined by his wife Raquel Lehto and their seven-year-old son Max.

“It’s a mountainous island with a lot of rivers, so you have all these bridges from village to village (Rickey fears the bridges have been washed away, stranding his relatives).”

“The (conventional land line) phone lines are down…it’ll get better but who knows when,” Rickey said.

“I’m really concerned about one of my grandmothers because she is 97 years old and she’s in a bed, she can’t move very much and she couldn’t get out (in a hurry if she had to).”

She has no access to a cell phone, computer or social media with which to communicate.

Some of Rickey’s family members have cell phones but there is no electricity to recharge them.

“I’ve been through one of these hurricanes and it’s the worst experience you could ever have, it’s really bad.”

“A lot of things could happen in a split second, your roof could be gone, your building could be washed out from its foundation.”

“Everything you work for your entire life is wiped out.”

One source of hope stems from the fact Rickey’s family does not live near the ocean shoreline or near one of the many inland rivers, but rather at higher elevations on the mountainous island.

They live in the village of Salisbury, which has a population of about 2,000 people.

“That has eased some worry for us, because this was not wind damage, it was flood damage, and based on their location the likelihood is they’ve come out of it okay,” Raquel said.

Raquel, a Sault native who is a Learning Strategist/Assistive Technologist at Algoma University, met Rickey in 1999.

That was a year after she moved to the island of St. Maarten to teach at an American-operated private school.

At the time, Rickey was working as a chef in St. Maarten.

Rickey and Raquel were married in 2001.

The couple resettled in the Sault in 2003.

It was a homecoming for Raquel and a new experience for Rickey, who now works as a welder for North Shore Wheel.

Their son Max, now seven, was born in the Sault.

“It’s going to be a really long time until it gets back to the way it was, maybe we won’t get to go there for another few years,” young Max said.

Max looked down and softly said “yes” when asked if he was worried about his family.

“It’s heartbreaking, it’s not a wealthy island, and to see how hard these people work for very little compared to what we have, then to see it all gone, it’s so hard to see that,” Raquel said.

“I’ve lived there and this is going to be a really long, tough road to come back from.”

“All of these bridges are out and people maybe can’t get to their jobs, if their workplaces are even still there,” Raquel said.

There is no Canadian embassy to contact for help in Dominica (the nearest embassies are in Barbados and Haiti) but Rickey and Raquel said they would try to contact Rickey’s family through agencies such as the Red Cross.

“The island just can’t afford it (economically)…it’s taken a long time to get to where they are today, now this is going to take them forever to get back to where they were,” Rickey said.

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has himself publicly stated the damage has pushed the island’s development as a nation back by 20 years.

Much of the island’s economy is based on agriculture and eco-tourism.

Another source of concern, Rickey and Raquel said, is a lack of media coverage on the effect of Tropical Storm Erika.

“We only heard about it because a friend of mine who I taught with in St. Maarten, who lives in the southern United States, sent me a message asking me if Rickey’s family is OK,” Raquel said.

“She said they’ve been devastated by Tropical Storm Erika, and if she hadn’t reached out to me we wouldn’t have known, and this is massive, this island has been devastated.”

However, two good sources of information which have emerged are Dominica News Online and Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s Facebook page.

Venezuela was the first member of the international community to respond with aid.

Dominica’s Caribbean partners have responded with help.

For example, Montserrat sent a ferry to evacuate stranded tourists.

China has responded with some financial aid.

Britain’s Royal Navy has sent a vessel with 150 troops to help with the country’s recovery efforts.

However, there has been no large scale, coordinated international aid effort, Raquel said.

Prime Minister Skerrit’s office has estimated damage to Dominica from Tropical Storm Erika to be more than $600 million.

More than 20 schools have been destroyed, with displaced people taking shelter in other schools.

The island clearly needs help, Raquel said.

The larger of the island’s two airports has been heavily damaged, and so far, only one aid plane has been able to land.

Smaller aircraft have been able to evacuate tourists from Dominica’s smaller airport.

Financial aid, Raquel said, can be sent to Dominica through an official page and through a Dominica government website 

Apart from the need for electricity, fresh water is needed (Dominica’s rivers have been contaminated by mudslides and dead animals), along with medical supplies (though the island’s one main hospital is still standing), bedding for homeless people, and shovels to clear the mud.

The need for food is not as dire, as Dominica’s trees have much fruit to offer.

Government officials in Dominica have called for financial, technical, in-person and medical assistance in rebuilding the island and have called on Canada, the U.S, the European Union and the rest of the international community to help.

Dominica was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and has, over the centuries, been colonized by the Spanish, French and British before the island gained its independence in 1978.

With a population of just over 70,000 people, it has an agricultural economy, though eco-tourists enjoy its natural beauty.

Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico were also affected by intense rainfall from Tropical Storm Erika.

The government of Dominica declared Thursday and Friday as National Days of Mourning, while National Days of Prayer will be held Saturday and Sunday.

“We’ll go back (and visit family) as soon as we can,” Rickey said.

(PHOTO: Though anxious to hear from his family in Dominica, Sault Ste. Marie’s Rickey Shillingford posed for this photo with his wife Raquel Lehto and their son Max, September 4, 2015. Darren Taylor/SooToday) 


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