Thankfully neither my husband nor I were there when Irma hit. He has returned to the island several times since then for work, but I only went back seven months later this past April. What follows is an account of what I saw, heard and felt…
While the plane taxies along the runway, the first evidence of Irma’s handiwork comes into view: Where there used to be a long fluid line of hotels, condos and eating establishments along the beach that lines the runway, there are now gaping holes and jagged edges. Some buildings miraculously seem unscathed, others have plastic sheeting covering their roofs and others, including a well-known brothel called Bada Bing, are gone.
As the plane turns, I get a look at Simpson Bay which looks ‘normal’ until I catch sight of the carcasses of dozens of boats, some crashed just inches from the road, others floating aimlessly in the bay, denuded, de-masted and/or upended. Patrice says that the worst of it has already been cleared away and he is amazed at the progress made in clearing the runway and roads of mountains of sand and wreckage.
Perhaps I’ve watched too many Marvel action films, but as we tour the island over the next few days assessing Irma’s effect on Saint Martin, I have the impression that a malevolent giant went wild on the island; stomping on some structures and thereby obliterating them completely, smashing others with a mighty fist, ripping off roofs, twisting giant girders into ghastly shapes, poking holes into windows and concrete walls, and effortlessly flinging cars, boats, containers, and even a mammoth spiral iron staircase hither and thither. The monster did a good job. Estimates say that 95% of the island was destroyed. Not a single structure was left untouched and not a single person was unaffected.
Estimates of the death toll vary ridiculously, ranging from 11 to 6000. Locals all agree that the true number is over a thousand, many of whom were probably illegal immigrants and therefore without official records, but the number was not made public by the authorities, presumably to avoid a quarantine. Rumor has it that the bodies were put in containers and dumped out at sea. Is it the truth? I’m not sure, but I am heartsick to think that there are people in the world who will never know what happened to their loved ones on that terrible day.
Seeing the damage seven months after the hurricane is one thing, but hearing the stories of those who lived through it is another. Everyone we met was more than willing to talk, almost desperate to do so, and their emotions varied from tremendous relief and gratitude to lingering shock, full-blown depression and grief, as well as anger and bitterness over the terrible looting which took place in the aftermath, and the slow response from the emergency relief services and police. Here are a few quotes from friends and acquaintances who lived through it:
“I was sure I was going to die.”
“We lay huddled under a mattress in the stairwell for hours and hours.”
“The noise, I’ll never forget the terrible noise of that storm…”
“Sitting in the basement of our house, it felt like we were in an airplane going through the worst turbulence ever.”
“The entire house shuddered and groaned and we watched enormous cracks appear in the ceiling and walls.”
“Our friends, a family with young children were encouraged to leave their home and go to a hotel. The roof right over their heads in the hotel was blown off and they barely escaped alive. Incredibly, their own house remained largely intact, so they would’ve been safer there. Who knew?”
“The atmospheric pressure was so intense, I’ve had problems with my vision, balance and inner ear ever since.”
“We lost everything.”
“They came into our houses as soon as the storm abated wearing hoods, threatening us with clubs and guns, taking everything they could carry.”
“We’re alive, that’s what counts. The rest is just stuff.”
As I listened to these accounts, I was moved to tears each time and although I am relieved not to have lived through it, strangely I have a twinge of regret that I wasn’t there with them—I had the same reaction after 9/11 and other residents who weren’t on the island during the hurricane feel the same way.
While sitting on the beach, by our residence, as I looked out at that idyllic, now peaceful sea, I could not even begin to imagine what it must’ve been like at the time. I am repeatedly haunted by the video of the Beach Hotel where waves came crashing through the lobby: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E9VW04Scps, and am horrified to think of what it must’ve been like at our building right next door.
The ground floor on the ocean side of our building sustained the most damage where, like the Beach Hotel, the ocean broke through and ravaged the contents of the apartments on that level.
I wept when I saw that Layla’s beach bar and restaurant, one of our best-loved places on the island, just down the street from us, was utterly destroyed. Pierre, its owner is looking for a new property—as far from the sea as possible this time!
In Marigot, all the docks of the marina royal and Port Louis were destroyed and most of the boats were damaged beyond repair, but the protective jetty of Port Louis is still in place and viable.
The marketplace lost more than half its structures and many establishments in town are out of business—some for good. Seraphina’s, the popular bakery and the Mini-club which served a bargain ‘all you can eat lobster buffet’ twice a week, are now reduced to a pile of rubble and will not be re-built. Thankfully our favorite restaurant in town, the Tropicana, is miraculously up and running at lunchtime and will begin serving dinner again when the lights in the marina and street are functioning and the area secured.
*Open air barbecue stands serving local cuisine. The word Lolos means ‘boobs’ and these places are so named because the women who run them are rather well endowed.
Anse Marcel, which, until Irma, was considered a hurricane hole, paradoxically suffered some of the worst damage on the island. The Radisson (Riu) hotel will not be functional for at least two years and the marina where Taka Trois was moored for two years was ravaged. If our boat had been there, we would have certainly lost her. Thank God we moved her to Trinidad where she’s safe and sound.
Orient Beach lost every single beach restaurant, bar and facility. Not a trace remains. For before and after pictures, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWx-bRIMne4. Although I mourn the loss of the livelihoods of the owners and workers, I have to say that the beach, in its renewed natural state, is quite beautiful. And for those so inclined, the nude beach is back in action…
The Dutch side suffered as much as the French side of the island. Many of its resorts are now just skeletons and most of the restaurants and shops are closed down. The Grand Marché caved in completely, as did many supermarkets, and it will be a long time before it opens its doors. The Casinos obviously have serious financial backing and are all up and running, thankfully none of the bridges were seriously damaged and the Yacht Club at the bridge held up as well. Whatever damage it sustained wasrepaired in time for the Heineken Regatta which took place as planned this past February.
Oyster Pond which housed the ‘Moorings Marina’ base where we chartered a boat on our first trip to SXM more than 14 years ago, was completely destroyed. Captain Oliver’s and all the shops and bars on the dock are wrecked and Bobby’s restaurant by the sea, where we enjoyed a wonderful family dinner at Christmas a few years ago, is gone without a trace.
To end this report on a positive note, the island is already being rebuilt, in some places quite quickly, and there are already a variety of new and inventive establishments run by enterprising locals popping up all over the island. It will take a number of years for it to be properly restored—barring another hurricane, please God! An unexpected bonus from the storm is that it seems that the island may becoming home to a flock of frigate birds, possibly from nearby Barbuda, where their natural reserve was devastated by this same hurricane. It is such a joy and balm to the soul to watch these magnificent birds swooping and circling majestically overhead before dive-bombing dramatically into the sea to catch their supper.
And finally, some of you will be pleased to know that the Sunset beach bar is indeed up and running with the usual fools standing nearby at the end of the runway hoping to get their asses blasted by jet fuel…Their continued stupidity cheered me up enormously.
Sidenote: The woman who was instrumental in selling us the apartment asked me on my second night back whether I regretting buying our place. Even though, I was feeling heartsick, overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to be done both in the apartment and on the island and already dreading the next hurricane season which starts in less than two months…I had no hesitation in answering: ‘Absolutely none’. This island may be broken, but it is our island now and we will be a part of re-building it and making it better.
But before I do that, its time to have a cold beer and watch the sunset—thankfully no hurricane can take that away that pleasure for long. Cheers!