Pelham’s hurricane helpers: Mason, Damm, and Kita

In Dominica, homes were ravaged by large waves, wind and swelling rivers. SUPPLIED PHOTO

In recent weeks, Pelham residents have returned to friends on islands they’ve visited in the past, bringing supplies and aid to their hurricane-devastated residents. We bring you two stories of such efforts.

Me gusta ayudar—Fonthill man takes more than himself to Cuba


One day in early October, sometime around four in the morning, Warren Mason was at the check-in counter at Pearson International Airport.

“Cubana Airlines is supposed to only allow two suitcases at twenty-four kilos each,” Mason said a few weeks later, after he had returned home.

“I was way over that limit. And I had one of those jogging strollers, too—the ones with big wheels. I tried to tell the attendant that I was going to use it to carry my beer down to the beach, but I couldn’t keep a straight face.”

The attendant started to laugh too, and in the end told Mason that the airline could classify the stroller as a wheelchair.

“But she also said that I had to find a plastic bag for it. So there I was wandering around the airport at four in the morning, looking for a big plastic bag.”

Eventually Mason did find a bag and all of his luggage made it through security. Once he was on the other side, he picked up even more things to take on the flight.

“I went to the duty-free and bought a whole case of Molson Canadian. Everyone on the plane was laughing at me carrying the case down the aisle,” he said.

Mason and Lough hold up a Cuban flag blanket, knitted by Dorothy Hardy of Pelham. VOICE PHOTO

Mason’s vacation to Cuba, where he goes four or five times a year, was only a week long, and so to those travelling at the same time, he must have seemed comically over-packed. But most of the things that he brought were not for him.

“Warren does a lot to try and help the people down there,” said Sue Lough, a friend of Mason’s who was visiting him at his Fonthill apartment last week. “He tries not to talk about it, but he really does. I’d say Warren spent close to a thousand dollars of extra money bringing stuff down, during his last trip.”

As Lough spoke about his efforts, Mason, who is in his sixties and has shaggy grey hair (a mop that was kept in place by a cap with the Cuban flag on it), looked away bashfully. For an advertisement salesman—Mason in the past sold ads for newspapers, including on and off again on behalf of the Voice, and now works for the Fallsview Casino—he was noticeably subdued.

“I don’t know if what I do is all that interesting,” he said. “I’m just trying to help a little bit.”

In between his trips to Cuba, Mason is constantly on the lookout for things that he could take on his next one. He eyes sales at Canadian Tire, where he buys flashlights and solar panels, and he stops by Giant Tiger and Dollarama to find little toys and holiday tchotchkes.

“This time I went down, some people that I’ve known there for a long time were just about to become grandparents, so I got a lot of baby stuff,” Mason said, explaining that he had tracked down the jogging stroller because its big wheels worked well on the sandy terrain in Cuba.

Mason has been going to Cuba since the 1970s, in a period during the Castro regime that the island was not the tourist destination it later became. He says that there was a lot less freedom for visitors in those days, and that when he asked to tour a farm, he was taken to one special location.

“I don’t have any proof of this,” Mason says, “since the undeveloped rolls of film are sitting in an old newspaper building. But when I was at the farm, Raoul Castro came touring there accompanied by an official from the Canadian embassy.”

The farm was Mason’s only direct brush with the Castros, but Cayo Largo, one of the islands where he frequently goes now, was once Fidel Castro’s favourite vacation spot. According to Mason, Pierre Trudeau visited Castro and snorkelled with him on the island.

“They really love Canadians in Cuba,” Mason says. “Ninety-two percent of all tourists there are from Canada—a million of us go down every year.”

On each trip Mason brings down a number of Canadian flags and a bag of the flag pins given out by Members of Parliament. The Molson Canadian is for the Cubans, too.

“I don’t drink that stuff,” says Mason, “but they just love it because it has the Canadian flag on the label. I make sure that the security guards at the resort get some, just so they’ll let us…get away with stuff.”

Americans are viewed considerably less fondly in Cuba. During one of Mason’s recent visits, he saw an American couple aboard the plane wearing starred and striped clothing, and though they changed upon arrival, the two had neglected to exchange their currency.

“American credit and debit cards won’t work there,” says Mason. “And the currency exchanger was giving them a hard time with their cash, too. He’d look at each bill under a magnifying glass and say, ‘Oh, this one’s ripped’ and refuse to take it.”

US President Donald Trump’s tumultuous first nine months in office have not improved Cuban-American relations in Mason’s experience. In his final two years, President Barack Obama had made efforts to improve the relationship, even re-opening the American embassy in Havana, but Trump’s rhetoric regarding Cuba’s Communist government has been more belligerent. Beginning near the end of 2016, some diplomats at the Canadian and American embassies were reportedly the victims of a supersonic attacks, and non-essential officials at the United States embassy were subsequently pulled from Havana.

As Mason spoke about the United States, sitting at his kitchen table, he looked over to his living room, where a “Trump/Pence 2016” sign was propped up against the wall.

“I’ve got to put that away,” he said. “People who come over keep asking to buy it from me—that’s the only reason I got one in the first place, because I figured that it’d be worth money someday. Trump has not been good for Cuban relations.”

“Trump hasn’t been good for anything,” said Lough.

Mason’s last trip to Cuba came just after a hurricane had blown through, and while Cuba was spared the worst of it, there was still significant damage.

Cayo Largo, the resort island, is accessible only by plane because of its shallow harbours, and employees of the resort who live on the mainland were stuck on the island for a month.

“I still want my trips to be a vacation,” said Mason, who is a member of the Canadian-Cuban Friendship Association.

“The association wants to build fences and other things—I’m not into any of that.”

Still though, Mason took down tarps and other post-hurricane necessities, and already has closetfuls of materials ready for his next trip in November.

“I haven’t bought the tickets yet. But these days, you can just sit at the computer with a beer and click through and wait for deals,” he said, pointing to the monitor nearby. “I try to get my packages for a few hundred dollars off.”

He paused and thought for a minute.

“Though I guess I end up spending the difference on other things I bring down. Oh well.”

Pelham firefighters help hurricane relief


In early September, Ben Damm, a volunteer firefighter in Fenwick, was speaking with Vernan, a seasonal agricultural worker. “There’s another storm coming towards Dominica,” Vernan said of his home island. “And I don’t think that it’s going to be spared this time.”

A few weeks before, Hurricane Irma had largely been gentle to Dominica, an island in the East Indies less than half the size of Niagara with a population of 75,000. Hurricane Maria was not gentle. For some two weeks, the outside world had no contact with the people of Dominica. At least 27 died.

During Damm’s three previous visits to the island—vacations—he had gotten to know members of the fire department in Roseau, Dominica’s capital. When he finally managed to get in touch with the fire chief, the news was not good. The entire force had been working non-stop since the hurricane, and it was struggling with its limited equipment. Though Damm had immediately wanted to go down and help, he also needed to make sure that he wouldn’t be an added burden on the strained situation. Once the fire department assured him that this wasn’t an issue, Damm rushed to plan the trip.

He asked around the Pelham Fire Department to see if others wanted to accompany him, and Joe Kita from the North Pelham station volunteered too.

“It was all arranged within a week,” says Damm. “Even though we had no formal fundraiser, we had a lot of last-minute donations.”

Damm and Kita collected and bought over 250 pounds of supplies, from flashlights to a new chainsaw to 250 packages of oatmeal.

“The water supply isn’t reliable there right now. So we brought water purification straws—which can make drinking from a river safe, and work for one thousand litres,” says Damm.

Damm and Kita first flew from Buffalo to St. Lucia.

“We called JetBlue before and explained the situation, and why we were going to have such heavy baggage. And they covered all of our bags,” says Damm.

The two spent a night in St. Lucia and then took the ferry to Dominica in the morning. Ferries to the island are irregular, and Damm and Kita had to decide between staying for three and half days, or eight. They chose three and a half—but made the most of the time, sleeping on cots on the second floor of the fire hall, which had little power and was missing half its roof.

“The firefighters were all so generous,” Damm says. “One said that his house would be more comfortable and offered it up to us. But we said we’re not here on vacation.”

On their first day, Damm and Kita went for a drive around with the fire chief to see the damage. Even though the clean-up had been ongoing for several weeks, the state of the place was still shocking. The roofs of many homes had been torn off, and whole houses collapsed. Trees had been stripped of almost all vegetation, and while the roads had been cleared of most debris, many were still covered in mud.

Damm and Kita spent much of their time pulling water from the river into the fire truck and using it to wash the roads. A lot of Dominica’s economy depends on cruise ship tourists. “Their goal is to have those cruise ships back in January, because they need that inflow of money,” says Damm.

The Pelham Fire Department told Damm and Kita to take their uniforms, and the two wore them as they went out on calls. One emergency they went out to see was a rockslide.

“The fire department runs the ambulance service there, too,” says Damm. “And the rockslide had blocked the road. We had to carry people in stretchers over the blockage and to another ambulance on the other side. We were looking up at the wall and could see other things loose. All of that could have come down at any time—these are things that you just don’t think about in Fenwick.”

The disparity between the equipment in Roseau and his equipment back home made Damm uncomfortable. “I almost felt guilty showing them pictures of our stuff,” says Damm.

Driving back to the station after another call, the Dominican firefighters passed a park where a boy was being robbed of his backpack by a group of other kids. “They were only about eight or ten,” says Damm, “and we went and broke it up. Usually the crime rate is so low there, but people are being brought to the brink by the storm’s damage.”

Despite these incidents, Damm says that the island’s residents were overwhelmingly optimistic.

“They don’t take any of the international help for granted, and most people are working really hard every day just to make things better. And the situation is getting better.”

Damm laments that Dominica, an independent country that was once a British colony, might not be getting the same attention as that devoted to Puerto Rico, with no “big brother” to look to for assistance. Damm hopes that a permanent partnership can be established with the fire department in Roseau, though for now he is working on keeping Vernan in Canada past the date when he is supposed to return to Dominica.

“Temporary workers are only allowed to stay for eight months,” says Damm. “But in Dominica, people are lining up for relief still. Even if [Vernan] has to go back, we want him to at least be able to send a barrel of supplies so that he can live.”

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