I sit in my disorganized bedroom, still stunned, still dazed. It has been 4 weeks to the day that the devastating bitch of a hurricane Irma has hit my beloved home island of St. Maarten. My most prized possessions are still wrapped up in black garbage bags and waterproof containers around me. This hurricane season has been a busy one, with one storm after the other and with another month and change to go till the official end of the hurricane season, I am not about to start unpacking and pretend that our lives can go back to normal. Not yet anyway.
I laugh at the disarray and the garbage bags everywhere. As if these bags and containers would have been able to keep my possessions save had our roof blown off with countless others. Yes, we are one of the “lucky’ ones who still have a roof over our heads. Our business and main income is another story but then again everyone has lost something in this storm, haven’t they?
I sit here alone. It’s just me and Miep the cat, who is completely unaware of what we have actually survived. She sits next to me on the bed licking herself clean like cats do. Obviously she has forgotten being shut in a crate with her two brothers in the bathroom, the loud noises of that night forgotten in her little kitty world.
The days leading up the storm are a blur. My husband and a friend hammering away at pieces of plywood, boarding up our doors and windows, steel brackets being installed on the wooden shutters outside and inside, me prepping our little “safe” room with food, water and melatonin to keep the pets calm. The prime minister was on the radio along with the chief of the meteorological department the day before the hurricane, basically saying that this was going to be the biggest storm of our lives and to practically kiss our asses goodbye. Winds of 185mph with gusts of up to 230 mph was no hurricane. This was the hand of God. How do you prepare for that?
Irma has arrived
The night of the hurricane itself will forever be imprinted in my head. 12 hours I will never be able to forget. Irma announced her arrival at around 3am Wednesday morning, September 6th. At first it was just gusts of wind, a few minor bangs and scrapes outside the walls. Then things got more serious, the bangs grew louder, the scrapes scarier, the howling unbearable. We were sitting in the dark, the only light source a lone candle on the dressing table in the small room. It was us three adults (I will forever be thankful for our handyman and friend who stayed with us during the storm) and our 5 dogs in that tiny room. The meowing of the cats in the bathroom next door sounded like they were being killed off one by one and then their meowing subsided, disappearing completely as the noises outside grew even louder, absorbing their terrified meows. The bangs got more intense as ripped off roofs from our neighbors crashed onto ours, the squeals of the screws trying their mightiest to keep our roof in place. In the distance car alarms were going off.
My heart was beating so fast that I didn’t know if I was awake, passed out or asleep half of the time. I now know the meaning of paralyzing fear. My legs gave up as I tried to fit myself and two of our five dogs in one of the build-in closets in the smallest bedroom in the house. I cursed myself for taking the doors off that closet all those years before, thinking it was important to the walk-in closet design I was trying to achieve back then. Not that doors would have matter had Irma’s winds entered the house.
My ears were popping as the pressure inside the house built. I remember praying. I’m not exactly religious but after years of Sunday mass and Sunday school as a child the prayers came naturally. I prayed to a God I wasn’t sure still existed. I made promises and made deals. Just please let us survive this. I never prayed so hard in my life.
There was a lot of whimpering and I remember thinking it was one of my dogs only to realize it was coming from me. My husband, always Mr. chatty, went silent after that first loud bang, he scooted closer to my folded body in the closet and reached out for my hand. I remember thinking then:” That’s it. We are all going to die.” How am I going to save 5 dogs and 3 cats if our roof starts ripping off its frame? Where would we run to? Where would we hide?
Then just like that the winds subsided and it got eerily quiet. We were in the eye of the hurricane. We ignored all warnings not to go outside, eager to see if there was still some things worth saving and expecting to see that at least part of our roof was gone. I was surprised to see that the rest of the house was still dark. I was expecting to open the door of the small bedroom and see sunlight coming from a roofless living room. I was shocked and relieved to see that we still had a roof. A miracle or solid construction? We don’t know.
We hurried outside to make sure the roof was really ok and to check on our neighbors. According to the meteorological department we had 45 minutes before Irma’s second half of the show. We were grateful for that intermission. I don’t think my heart would have been able to take a continuous hammering. There were a lot of “are you ok’s” from concerned neighbors. In the distance we could see the grey dark wall of the storm moving away from us. Its winds sounding like 100 jets preparing for lift off. There was already some major damage around us. Zinc and other heavy objects littered our yard. Cars were missing windshields, back windows, side mirrors, and more. I started growing anxious. I wanted everyone to go back inside before the second half winds started up. I did not want to tempt Irma. Like a woman scorned she was filled with so much anger and destruction. She was one scary bitch.
The second half was a repeat of the first, only in reverse. It started with loud angry noises and slowly subsided to calmer winds and rain. I dragged my body to our bedroom at the end of the second half. Three days of not sleeping was taking its toll on me. I slept like I never slept before.
Writing this post takes me back to a time I don’t care to ever relive again. Tears are filling my eyes as I remember what we’ve gone trough from the days leading up to Irma to the 4 weeks after. Those first few weeks post-Irma were the hardest. I went through so many emotions at the same time. Frustration with not having power or water for weeks. Fear for our lives before and during Irma made way for fear of being robbed by gutless individuals trying to cash in on the devastation of others. Consternation as I saw our food supply slowly dwindling. Guilt for still having a roof and a home. Sadness every time I heard someone’s tale of all they have lost in the hurricane or whenever I drove down the streets and saw the devastation first hand. Disappointment at all those who still had a job and home but decided to abandon the island instead of helping to rebuild it. A deep animosity for all those who abandoned their pets when they evacuated. Anger at those who thought they could make a quick buck by looting and breaking into stores that survived the storm and damaged our island’s reputation in the process. Embarrassment for the way or government handled the situation both before and after Irma. Shame on them all.
But there is also pride in all those men and women who worked and continue to work hard to get the island back on her feet, even when they themselves do not have much left after the hurricane. Admiration for us all for still being able to be positive. Thankfulness for the help we continue to receive from the Dutch marines. Immense gratitude for those who go out of their way to take care of all the abandoned and homeless animals now roaming our streets and most of all optimism when I see how far we have gotten in such a record time.
The island resembled a war zone those few first weeks after Irma. Restaurants we used to visit, bars we used to hang out at and friend’s homes we used to have get-togethers at were all gone, ripped apart or completely disintegrated. A child’s teddy bear laid discarded and wet by the side of the road, next to it someone’s bed. Houses with only two walls still standing, their remaining possessions on display for everyone to see. A lady walking around in town with her head down looking for what remained of her home. When asked what she was looking for she replied almost choking on tears that she was searching for her wedding dress. She was supposed to get married in a few days. Everyone is telling us to be strong but really, what choice do we have?
Fast-forward to 4 weeks later and most of the island now has power and water. Disaster relief arrived in abundance from the many relief organizations and good souls all around the world that wanted to help in anyway they can. To them I am grateful. Banks, restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores and other businesses with no or little damage have opened their doors to the public. Those with a job were able to return back to work. Our hills are green again, damaged trees are sprouting new leaves. There is a need for normalcy and we are grateful to have some of it back. But the debris on the side of our roads, the abundance of flies attracted by it, the smell of decay still heavy in the air and the destruction to buildings all around us, serve as a constant reminder of what it’s like to survive Irma. Some are still without running water and electricity. Some are still living out of a suitcase with whatever they could salvage from their destroyed homes. Some are still standing in line waiting for food and water from relief organizations. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, the road ahead is long and it will be no walk in the park. There is much to be done. Our tourism dependent economy received a big blow but we are not about to throw in the towel. Never!
We are rebuilding. The excellent work by all of us has already created a difference. Water stations have been set up in most districts. Law enforcement is doing a banging job in capturing those who looted and stole in the aftermath of this super storm. Punishing them severely for the embarrassment and delay in progress they have caused this country. The announcement that we will be welcoming our first cruise ship after the storm on November 11th, St. Maarten’s day of all days has filled us all with a much needed hope. We can finally see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. This too shall pass. Together we will get back to the paradise we get to call home. Irma may have thrown us down but we are definitely not out. We are still island strong.
I know a lot of you are eager to help by sending food and clothing and I thank you for this but remember that we are an island completely dependent on tourism. So a great way to help St. Maarten and other Caribbean destinations affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, is to book your next vacation and come visit us this December or early next year and beyond. Our sunsets are still golden and our beaches still blue. We may be bruised but we are definitely still beautiful.