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'It Was Hairy:' Riding Out Hurricane Maria on Dominica

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When Hurricane Maria slashed her way through the Caribbean, one Pensacola resident got an uncomfortably close-up view of the storm’s fury and the resulting destruction.

The powerful storm made landfall on the island nation of Dominica the night of September 18 as a Category-5 hurricane, with sustained winds at a record 160 miles an hour, according to the National Hurricane Center

Robin Foley had gone to Dominica representing the Pensacola chapter of Rotary E-Club of the Southeast USA and Caribbean. The club had awarded a high school student there a college scholarship, and he was bringing a laptop and other school supplies.

“I took my eye off the ball, I was so focused on getting down there after Irma here,” Foley said. “And when I got to Dominica I wasn’t watching TV or keeping up with anything. All of a sudden, I knew there was something out there but I didn’t realize it got so big. It really developed.”

When Foley attempted to leave, the airports and ferry services were all closed. He decided to ride out Maria at a hotel owned by some friends – the Champs in Portsmouth on the northwest coast of the island. Foley arrived around six o’clock as high winds and heavy rain began lashing Dominica.

“It was a concrete structure with a concrete roof over my bedroom; I felt reasonably secure there,” said Foley. “The one thing that would have bothered me would there be a mudslide, because a lot of the hills in Dominica are clay. The heavy weather causes mudslides.”

Later that evening, as Maria was howling across the island, something REALLY got Foley’s attention.

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Robin Foley

“The door in my bedroom blew open at one stage; and I actually had to hold that door for an hour and a quarter,” said Foley. “Because when the eye passed over [and] the storm coming in, the quadrant we were in. I could hear the roof coming off the hotel. It was frightening; it was hairy.”

The wooden structures over the concrete roof at the hotel were completely blown away. Walls and their television sets – which were covered by plastic – disappeared. After Maria passed was the trek to get out. First stop – the nearby university, where the dean was a fellow Rotarian.

“Friday morning I was out with the owner of the hotel doing some cleanup work,” said Foley. “A local came up and said ‘who’s John Foley?’ That’s my passport name. He said the State Department’s aware you’re here; there’s a helicopter and it will be leaving in about a half hour – you’ve got to go now.”

Members of the U.S. military were coordinating the chopper flights. Foley and the other evacuees were taken to a local airport that had been decimated, but the runway was open. A C-130 cargo plane took Foley and other American evacuees to Martinique.

As for the teenage beneficiary of the Rotary scholarship and supplies, she’s not been heard from. The search continues for her. Foley visited her school, which had the roof blown off and other extensive damage. 

“I met her teacher and inquired about her and [the teacher] said she had no idea; and we still have no contact with the young lady,” Foley said. “She could be injured; she could be dead, her home could be blown away, I have no idea. But looking at the destruction down there I’m sure her home was gone.”

Foley took a great number of photographs of the destruction on Dominica, and plans to turn them into a Power Point presentation aimed at raising funds for the island nation’s recovery.

“My heart goes out to the people in Dominica; I’d say [Maria] set the country back 50 years,” Foley said. “I feel they’ll fall off the radar screen for the assistance because we had Harvey down in Texas; {Irma} in the Keys down in Florida, and now we have [Maria] in Puerto Rico.”

Robin Foley and his wife Maeve are natives of Ireland who live in Pensacola, a city that’s seen its share of hurricanes during its 458 year history. He rode out Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis – and was asked if his time on Dominica has changed his mind set about coping with a storm at home.

“Yes,” said Foley. “If we get a Cat-5 hurricane coming to Pensacola, I’m gone.”