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Professor Delvin Defoe is Helping Those Facing the Aftermath of a Deadly Tropical Storm

Monday, September 28, 2015
Delvin Defoe holding his son on a beach.

Helping his Homeland: Delvin Defoe was in his home nation of Dominica with Justin, his 20-month-old son, and other family when Tropical Storm Erika struck on August 27. The computer science and software engineering associate professor is raising money to help the island recover. (Photo provided by Delvin Defoe)

Sleep was nearly impossible for computer science and software engineering associate professor Delvin Defoe and his young family during the last scheduled night of their recent stay on the Caribbean island of Dominica, of which Defoe is a native. Thunder seemed to shake the entire island, which lies in the heart of hurricane alley about 300 miles north of the Venezuelan coast.

"We had never heard thunder like that," Defoe says, sitting in his Myers Hall office. "It would go on and on. My wife [Donna] described it as sounding 'angry.'"

If Tropical Storm Erika was angry, Dominica, which is about the size of Indianapolis, got the worst of her temper tantrum. More than 12 inches of rain deluged the island, starting before dawn on August 27. The resulting flooding and mudslides would cost more than two dozen lives on the island of about 72,000 people. It also washed away roads and bridges and halted water, electrical, and telephone service. In a few hours, the powerful storm had returned the island to the Stone Age.

"We wanted to come back to the U.S., but we didn't know how that was going to happen," Defoe recalls. He and his family had no power, no water, and no ability to communicate with the outside world. "That was really, really tough."

Defoe had taken his family to Dominica to visit his relations there. In the days before the storm struck the temperature was a steady 90 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. "Nothing about the trip was easy," he recalls.

Defoe Storm Damage

Nature's Fury: Tropical Storm Erika claimed more than two dozen lives and left roads and bridges destroyed or impassable on Dominica. The island is still recovering from the powerful storm. (Photo provided by Delvin Defoe)

After the storm, the family's return to the U.S. would take a monumental effort stretching over five long days and nights. It involved hiking with his wife, 20-month-old son Justin, a sister-in-law, and his mother-in-law through thick, treacherous mudslides, along washed-out roads, and over dangerous terrain dotted with fallen rocks and downed trees.

Even when electricity and telephone service was restored, the difficulties continued. Airline agents back in the U.S. seemed to know nothing about what had happened in Dominica, and had to be educated about the extent of the damage to the country's airport, which was rendered unusable for the next two weeks. Defoe and his family took a ferry to a nearby island to fly back to the U.S.

Since returning to Rose-Hulman, Defoe has not forgotten those left behind. He has organized fundraising efforts on campus and online to help those still rebuilding the badly-damaged island.

"This is a noble cause that will be most heartily appreciated," he says.