A Journey Through Storms Past

Notes from an Archive Internship

On March 2nd, 2021 I began my archive internship at the Documentation Centre in Roseau, Dominica. Even typing out the date it seems like so long ago, and yet, it feels too soon to end. It has been a major learning experience for me as an intern at Create Caribbean Research Institute (Dominica State College) who are collaborating with Goldsmiths, University of London on the Surviving Storms | Caribbean Cyclone Cartography project. The project is divided into 3: The Past, The Present, and The Future.

My archive internship contributes to the study of The Past: historical experiences of and recoveries from hurricanes in Dominica. For this internship I digitised reports, magazines, newspaper clippings and dispatches from the governor of Dominica for an open access online archive. I also wrote my own reflections on the writing, the events, the people; sometimes even relating my own experiences to what I read. It has been a very enjoyable experience to read these documents and then write about them; talking about the documents with friends and colleagues on the project has added to my enthusiasm.

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I have heard that young people tend to perceive time based on their age and it couldn’t be more applicable to me. Handling documents older than me is always a surreal experience; whether referring to storms in the 1970s which, in the grand scheme of things, is very recent; or from 1834, which feels so long ago, the year that Dominica moved towards emancipation from slavery . In either case, I feel very grateful to be able to have a peek at the past, written in a ‘present time’ tone. I feel the joy of finding these stories and the thrill of knowing they are real narratives being told by the survivors of such tough experiences. It may be because I experienced Hurricane Maria and TS Erika myself that I find it so natural to cheer these protagonists on, and that I can find such positive energy behind their willpower and love for Dominica despite harsh circumstances.

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A Digital Timeline

At the time of beginning the archive process, I had just learned about Knight Lab because of Create Caribbean. I had seen projects done by other Create interns that included storytelling tools such as digital timelines and maps. I opted to use JS Timeline, a Knightlab software that allows me to make an interactive timeline of historical events. I decided that it was a really good way to consolidate the information known about Dominica’s past hurricane into one place that could also lead to different parts of the whole Surviving Storms | CCC project. I gathered information from Dr. Honychurch’s talks, and documents I had found on the dates of hurricanes that had affected Dominica. I believe that it is useful because it brings together all the work I have done and also gives a foundation for further research, having provided that preliminary step of gathering the dates and information on key events. I’ve always wanted to try using the timeline format and I was very glad to put it to use.

Surviving Storms Past | Dominica’s Hurricane History Timeline

The Process

During the internship, my working process evolved as I learned more about how I work and what would be most efficient. Dr. Philogene Heron had already recommended some documents for me to look at so I started with those and got an understanding of the forms for requesting the documents from the archivists. After this, I sat down and handled the camera I would be using to get the hang of it. 

In the first session, I was very careful about everything and it took a long time to digitize just one or two documents. I was worried about lighting, angles, I edited photos to maintain consistency, I retook photos to make sure it was readable and so on. After a while, I was able to decide my angle and optimum location for taking photos. 

Another technique I had was to dedicate days for reading and days for digitizing. On a reading day I would go through every document that had a hint of what I was looking for. I would end up reading through up to 10 documents in a session. I would leave the camera at home so that I would have no pressure to get something digitized that day. Instead I could just become consumed with the document, letting my imagination wander through the scenes each correspondence or report would construct.  

On digitizing days I would already have the ID of the documents I wanted to process so I would request them all and only take photos. Doing the reading, then photos, then documenting (on a form), then uploading in a day was too restricting for my time frame. It made more sense then to only read and document what I liked in one session and then upload while taking pictures on the next sesion.

After that first session, the process became a breeze and it was onto the next hurdle; what documents do I digitize? I wanted to go further than the list that was given to me and I wanted to see more than just disaster reports. I wanted narratives. Reports were easy to find and document, they related to the storms and related the storms to the land and people. But they did not say what I was really looking for. I wanted feelings and expression, different perspectives on the same occurrence to add depth to the hurricane stories we might have heard whilst growing up. The reports that I did digitize were very interesting and relevant. They gave the state of the landscape, infrastructure, and survivors. Some of them included interviews which gave the stories I searched for. They also studied these hurricanes from various stances including health, environment, and economy. It is interesting to note that the report on health concerns after Hurricane David stated that people were in fact less concerned about their own health and more worried about their homes and income. 

After weeks of doing these reports, I finally stumbled on my last options and decided to explore the National Archives. The National Archives holds older documents in their original form and is situated upstairs of the regular reading room where I had access to ‘grey literature’, photocopied documents and other current media. I had never requested something from the archives before so I explored the website and read through the rules of handling and requests as well as the collections they had available. Having my handy list/timeline of Dominica’s hurricane history, I picked out documents in and around the dates of key storms. I decided to look at the Dominica Herald, the Dominica Guardian, other newspapers, and dispatch notes from the colonial days. I felt so honoured to handle them, even though it seemed a mundane activity, I handled these books and papers like precious jewels.

Highlights

It was in the dispatch notes from the governor of Dominica that I finally had a breakthrough. The hurricane of 1916 caught in ‘4K’ – that is, in highly detailed form. These notes contained first-hand accounts of a storm that was comparable to category-5 hurricanes David and Maria in its ferocity. While Dr.Honychurch gave quotes from Dr. Imray saying how devastating it was, the dispatch notes contained reports that came from all over Dominica. Each gave similar accounts of destruction and a death toll that kept rising with every report as new deceased were found every day. It was incredibly saddening to read about how much people had lost and how much had happened in under 24 hours. An even more striking factor from these notes is the way that the tone changes immediately after the storm, and how quickly the reports convey a tone of normalcy. I found this strange until a note was written to the metropole  about how unpleasant it is to be requesting relief from Martinique and Guadeloupe (islands under french imperial control). In the time of these normal dispatches, people were still without food and shelter, with the hospital destroyed and no help requested or offered from Britain. This stands in vivid contrast to our response to devastating hurricanes today, where states and agencies from near and far offer support. In addition, there is little to no evidence of the destruction and loss caused by the 1916 hurricane today – apart from the histories of the buildings that survived – which made digitising these documents vital. 

There were other stories, in other documents, which were just as moving. Sometimes a report with few words would speak volumes with pictures. I didn’t need to be told how many homes were lost, how far the sea came in, how high it got, nor how strong the river raged, I could see exactly how the storm spared no part of what was depicted. Another point about these pictures, they show a Dominica that is different from what it is now, we see a new transformation with every major storm. Houses blown down or partially destroyed and rebuilt differently multiple times, streets adorned with mud and random pieces of house material in trees too tall to retrieve them. 

Limitations

I felt like reports were very restricting when it came to the recovery after a storm so I always preferred to look for documents with more storytelling. I persistently explored the archives for newspaper stories and other media but the newspapers often said little about storms and many of the newspapers around the times of hurricanes were not in good condition for handling (so I could not view or document them). The only news that broke my heart was hearing that a document was too fragile to handle or being given one that I decided was too fragile to handle, for fear of its pages breaking in my hands.

What The Project Has Done For Me

This internship allowed me to practice independent research, to take on responsibility for project work in a free and open space, where I could make mistakes and learn from them. This can be a tough thing to learn at school. When my grades are at stake I do not problem-solve experimentally, I do not try to change the way that I work and I do not take chances with ideas that may be unstable, or untested. During this internship I could try out risky ideas/tactics that did set me back in terms of productivity but I learned form them, why they set me back did so and I also learned more about myself and how I work. I did not get admonished for, nor was I disadvantaged by the mistakes, they helped my practice grow, which is an amazing liberty.

I think the National Documentation Centre was a very good place to do this work. Aside from it being the source of the documents I would be using, I did the work that took place around documenting them – including writing about them, uploading and editing the pictures and so on – at the Doc’ centre too. The staff were very supportive and friendly and the atmosphere was really motivating and it was very easy to stay focused. Personally, change in scenery is a very effective motivator for me and so having to switch between the national archives and the study area to handle the different documents was very suitable for my own working style. 

My internship in this project also allowed me to meet so many new people involved in the field of academia as well as other organizations in Dominica committed to a cause. I have met some very inspiring people and I had the pleasure of meeting them because of this project. In addition to this, I harboured a newfound drive to be involved in activities  where I can use my talents and time to contribute to a cause beneficial to my interests and Dominica’s future.

Kaila-Ann has produced a moving podcast about her time in the archive in which she reflects on significant hurricane events, how her research snowballed, the courage of repeated hurricane recoveries + the value she gives to public research on disaster repair.

Surviving Storms | CCC would like to thank Kaila-Ann for all of her hard work. Her final digitised collection will be donated to Dominica’s National Documentation Centre and feature here on Survivingstorms.com.

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