A Roof Right Over Our Heads

We were in the states waiting for word that our loved ones were safe. It seemed that maybe it wasn’t so bad, that property was the only casualty. No one knows for sure what the actual death toll is. It is rumored that twenty-two coroners were called in on the Dutch side to help. Islanders are guessing the number to be well over one thousand.

What we do know is that the aftereffects are very evident three months later. Children and adults without shoes, clothes, meat, and still no roof over their heads. There are ongoing efforts to care for ongoing needs. As we get closer to Christmas, adults and children have hopes and wishes that may never be realized. After World War II, those released from one prison camp were given lipsticks. It seems frivolous and yet it gave the newly released prisoners their humanity back. In the same way the children of the island relish treats such as candy, snacks, and pizza. These bring back to them the innocence of their age.

Loss and comebacks are played out alongside of each other. We are encouraged to see so many working together. The work must continue until each one is once more whole. There are many opportunities to help.

Home. Shelter. We take it for granted to have a roof overhead to shelter us from the elements, or a dry bed to rest in. Here we are constantly reminded how miserable life is without these very basics. Couple the lack of shelter with lack of water, food, and electricity, and a picture of the reality of the aftermath of Irma emerges. Then the looting began. As more military joined the relief efforts, helicopters were employed; an eery sound hunting down looters with spotlights among the hills at night.

Those who were able escaped the island for various destinations seeking solace. Once things started to get back to “normal”, they returned. SXM is home after all. Islanders with roofs have taken in those without. There are still many who have found themselves homeless. Blue tarps are only temporary and on the French side between waiting for insurance, if possessed, and government regulations progress, is greatly hampered. There are people camping out in their homes. No doors, windows, or roofs. How many more months before everyone has a roof over their head?

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Haunting

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Beneath smiling faces lie the memories of Irma. Many islanders are shellshocked. The sound of the wind picking up no longer comforts but give cause for anxiety. Pets are also feeling it.

Vignettes of personal recollection needing to be shared. Someone to listen and validate their sanity. Yes, the water was ten to twenty feet deep in low lying areas. People and pets hunkered down in a bathroom together praying they’d survive.

One of our friends looked us in the eye retelling his story. At first it was so as-a-matter-of-fact, then it became difficult to keep it together. The flood waters rose washing away everything on the lower level of his house. Furniture, clothing, electronics were sucked into oblivion. Scrambling to the second floor there was no safe place to stay. The windows and roof had been blown away. In the end he swam for his very life. His two dogs were faithful companions he loved and cared for. He always kept them in the house unlike his neighbors. After the storm he never saw them again. Gone. Washed away by the sea. He still feels tormented that he couldn’t even bury their bodies. The loss has left an imprint on his soul.

The bathroom is where most people ended up. It was the safest choice. A mattress against the door with each person taking their turn to press it against the door. In some case pieces of ceiling dropped down upon them. The pressure from the wind was so strong main support beams cracked, window shattered or blew in. What may have begun as a hurricane party quickly switched to a survival one. Yet they were thankful to be together supporting one another. Many victims suffer from PTSD. The piercing siren sound the wind made will be a haunting sound they never forget. Needless to say, everyone was exhausted.

Spellbound

We appreciate the walkability in Simpson Bay and Pelican Key. Fun or food are only steps away. Sunday Funday began with a walk from our hotel to the Yacht Club. They collect their fair share of patronage throughout the day and night. Show up couple of times a week and those regulars become friends. This was our starting and ending point of the day.

We met a dinghy which brought us out under the drawbridge into the bay to our boat for the day. After making several round trips all the passengers were accounted for and the anchor was raised. Heading away from the bay we sailed toward Maho to begin our journey around SXM.

With each passing area the stories started. Bombed out shells instead of resorts interspersed with those less affected. Apparently some of the taller buildings were twisted by the storm’s winds. Damages priced well above what insurance paid out totalling in the many millions. One of the buildings had collapsed where a man was pulled out alive from beneath concrete slabs. Baie Rouge lost so much sand the beach is now ten feet lower. Talk of a foolish couple with their baby who stayed on their boat in the lagoon during Irma was sobering. The father was found along the shoreline while the mom was found still aboard the boat. It is a wonder that the baby survived, floating in the water strapped into a flotation device. Such a heartbreaking story and there are many more.

Passing Marigot the flag no longer flies from Fort St. Louis. It was hard to comprehend the many losses on the island with it looking so beautiful from our vantage point.

At Creole Rock we stopped for those who wanted to snorkel or swim. Another boat full was already there enjoying the water. The current and wind were quite strong.

As we passed Anse Marcel it seemed that not much remained of the buildings near the water. So ironic to see a catamaran anchored so close to shore.

The sea became rougher near the Cayes. A handful of surfers picked their way along the edge. I wondered if they dared to ride any of the waves.

The French dump was burning. Adjacent to the fire was a car graveyard. Vehicles piled high damaged from the hurricane were monochrome tones of rust.

We anchored at Tintamarre where we explored some of the island. So much sand was pushed far into the brush line. The same thing happened around the corner across from St. Barth. Coral and shells piled in mass one hundred fifty feet from the shore. We cut inland for our return. Not much had changed. Along the way we spotted fresh goat droppings although we didn’t see any. We were thankful to know the goats were alright.

After lunch we continued by sail alone back toward Płburg. We surveyed the very obvious destruction along the entire coastline. We listened to another story out of Quarter D’Orleans of a fireman who stayed home to help his neighbors. Some folks who had survived hurricane Luis decided to ride out Irma. In the morning during the eye he used a rope to swim across the road.,It was ten feet deep with water. His neighbors clung to their roof desperately hoping for help to come before part two of the storm.

Heading back to Simpson Bay we all commented on the health risks of the once again burning dump in Phillipsburg. Once anchored we enjoyed one last drink with captain Ian as we watched the golden sunset. Back at the Yacht Club we were still in time for happy hour where we joined more friends.

Signs of Life

The greening up of the island happened rather quickly. Now three months later the flowers and especially the bougainvillea are blooming. Severe pruning has its benefits. Some trees didn’t make it. Their bare branches are a constant reminder of what has happened, while the rest have new growth giving hope for the future. Even the long needle pines are recovering. They look as though they’ve been overgrown with moss. The mountains are beautiful and from afar one would never have guessed anything bad had happened here.

Some houses with blues roofs are really temporary tarps. In many areas repairs are underway. Those without means wait. There is traffic and bustle as those who still have jobs or have found new ones go off to work. The sound of children playing at a nearby school reminds us too that life goes on.

We’ve made a quick visit to P’burg, Grand Case, and Marigot. Although each lack the crowds, there is still plenty going on. Restaurants are opening. Some have complete menus, others more abbreviated versions. Two Lolos in Grand Case are up and running. Pop-up eateries can be found all along the main roads as well as back roads. Hole-in-a-wall bars and cafés seem to be everywhere. We plan on getting a massage on Orient Beach, where another shack has risen from the rubble. For us these types of businesses are the essence of the island. There is plenty of heart and soul here. People are working hard to get their businesses up and running, with new ones opening daily. Many shops are already open to sell their wares.

Presently SXM is open for business. It may not meet some five-star standards, so for those seeking such service, don’t bother….but oh the fun that will be missed! There is so much life here and now. It truly is a special time to be on SXM.

Sunset Ritual

The beach bustle was created by families, friends, music, laughter, eating and drinking. Kids enjoyed complete freedom in the sun, sand, and surf. Parents were carefree. That was us some twenty years ago after falling head over heels for SXM. We purchased a time share to be able to have the same experience yearly.

In the evenings we’d gather on the sand with cocktails or sharing a bottle of wine to watch the sun go down. We’d pay special attention to the horizon for the last rays to create the elusive green flash. Us artists would be distracted by the ever changing colors in the sky and sea. Others were able to multitask a conversation into the experience. After it set we’d gather the kids and head back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. Back then it was still the Pelican and the Flamingo. These memories are precious to me. So many have come and gone as we watched each other’s children grow. Some are no longer with us, some were story tellers, some always overdid it, some gathered us together, some bragged of best meals had, some were quiet and some are still great friends. We are all characters playing different roles. We make our appearance and hope it counts. With great hope we look forward to being able to do it again and again for as long as we can.

Standing in our favorite spot, we relived the ritual, minus drinks, people and sound. The sunset was beautiful. Such beauty alongside all of the damage. It was a profound moment of silence. We had our memories that skipped through our thoughts like being in a dream. The reality though, the resort is closed this season.

As the sun disappeared we walked around by the marina and headed to dinner….just like old times.

The Camera is Not Big Enough — Part 2

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From the parking area of Orient Beach heading in Pedro’s direction, only the shell of the pay toilets remains, looking almost in tact even. It was so odd to see grapevine leaves sprouting from the cutout in the floor where a whole tree used to be. They had built Pedro’s around it. The stairs to the water are also still standing. The building was perched on mound surrounded by a rock buttress. We All the sand has washed out leaving the rocks to block a path toward Club O. The same thing has happened on Club Os property. The beach line is now beyond where the Perch once stood. Wine among all the ruin, happy visitors enjoyed lounge chairs without umbrellas and an opportunity for drink and food at the Light Perch. Though limited, guests enjoyed the day and enjoyed meeting new friends.

We explored the area and headed toward Papagaio’s. It looked like all will have to come down. There is nothing salvageable on the entire property. Buildings have moved from their foundations. Foundations have been undermined. A broken dish, refrigerator, lamp, a stereo; these strewn about or half buried. It was strange to be able to see the open sea beyond. From the former Water Sport St. Barth is now visible. We continued walking where the path was once clear and now all completely open and reached the rock wall. This divided orient beach and Le Galleon in the distance. There is no wall, only piles of rubble. I wondered how long that wall had stood. It was no match for Irma. Turning back we spied something in the bramble behind the water sport slab. It was a wrecked boat that had been located on the jagged rocky coast of the open sea side at the end of Orient Beach. Many of us used to hike across the ridge to take pictures with it, now tossed again to a new spot.

Back at the Light Perch we shared a nice lunch and had a much needed nap on the beach. Within all the sadness there was still the hope o what will be. It seems wherever people get together goodness, joy and even celebration can come.

The Camera is Not Big Enough — part 1

We approached Orient Beach. The colorful buildings in the distance, Club Orient to the right of them. Wait, since when can Club O be seen from here? Of course! Irma. Without the underbrush or trees even from a distance the devastation is evident. The makeshift sign on the corner directs visitors to the Club’s location. Such a beautiful, but super windy day. The road switches to dirt and gravel. Ahead in the curve on the left are piles and piles of debris which have been gathered, making the road passable. Continuing on, we encounter the former entrance to the Club. Shells of buildings stand like a grave yard. The eerieness and quiet are overwhelming. There is no wall. We proceed to the back parking lot at the beach. There is a newly made entrance to Club O and the light Perch stands in defiance to all Irma has done. Even as we go to park behind all of our favorite shacks, yellow tape blocks and guides us toward a place to stand. The former bus and taxi parking and turnabout are not only impassable, they are nonexistent.

Luis airs his wares under a homemade pergola. The colorful sarongs blow in the breeze as flags claiming a deserted island. Desolation contrasts the sensual turquoise water with the kite boarders sailing away. The innocence of the day, the remains of our favorite beach, the silence, the lack of life are all part of the scene. Luis is happy to see us and quickly makes a sale. How to take it all in? I needed to linger, look around and take lots of pictures. It was appropriate that the ocean was so rough. Seaweed lay strewn in front of the serpentine rock wall that was supposed to be added protection to the ticky-tacky boxes costing four million dollars, lasting only one true tourist season.

Luis pointed back toward the former Club O entrance. “See the green paint, there, that’s my roof”. Next to him on the beach, there were two more roofs. The contents blown out from underneath, leaving nothing to hold them up. Beyond this, nothing, nothing but cement slabs. By Aloha and Le String even parts of the cement suspend above trenched out spaces carved out by the ocean. Luis pointed up at the only light post still standing. Half way up a circular disk protrudes marking the water level, he claims.

We walk the beach as far as Palm Beach. It felt like visiting a third world country that had had a war. Only a shell was left, minus a second floor. We climbed the stairs to spy a magnificent view of St. Barths. This and La Playa’s bar area are the only remnants of what was once vibrant, thriving businesses.

The beach, now greatly altered with a new boulder nested near the nob hill outcropping. The water was up well into the areas where lounge chairs had previously been. It had puddled in places, having first come up and over a slight ridge of sand.

We will have to revisit Orient Village, for there is so much to be explored. As for the rest of the days visit, stay tuned for part 2.

Devastatingly Beautiful

I’ve been wondering about the islands and St. Maarten/Martin in particular since the hurricane season. What a terrible season it has been. A direct hit by Irma with 185 mph sustained winds with 220-230 mph wind gusts. The eye passing over was a tease of a reprieve for fifty minutes. Then she slammed the island again, the winds changing direction. Three months ago to the day, the evening of September fifth Irma came, now here we are December fifth, just arriving to our favorite island. Our visit may be a whirlwind tour but promises to be one of good will. Back in September we were glued to social media for any and every bit of news we could get from our friends on St. Martin. Now, we will be hearing personal accounts along with rumors islanders whisper about.

Landing felt like coming home. We were even blessed to have friends there waiting to welcome us! What an amazing surprise. The mountains as green as ever. Nature more resilient than man’s handiwork, alias “progress”. What secrets are they hiding? Someone told us there were thirty-eight tornados during the twelve hour siege called Irma. (However the effects are still being felt ninety days later.) Damage so random, one house perfectly fine, while next door was ravaged. Many roofs were missing. Some cars with minor damage, dented or broken windows, others piled up in complete ruin. The streets have been cleaned up and repairs are in progress. Of course, we are only seeing and speaking of Simpson Bay, where we will be staying for the next three weeks. Our plan is to venture out and survey the other areas of the island during our visit. We shall see where this trip, this adventure will go. If our landing is any indication of what’s to come, we will see many clouds bedazzled by rainbows. We are always encouraged by the hopefulness rainbows seem to represent. The contrasts are already so striking. To see the $150,000 flag on the hill where we walked past a roofless house with someone sleeping on the porch, challenges who we are as humans and what kind of government we entrust to do right by all. Yes, the ocean is still as blue as ever and the waves still count time. Plants and trees are blooming and growing. Nature, innocently haunting, wind and rain in a rage.