Written by James Bagget, a member of our community. After reading this you may want to checkout his campaign to help the island community. https://www.gofundme.com/hurricane-irma-relief-aid
On Sept 6th Hurricane Irma struck the island I’ve called home for the past four years. The record-breaking storm destroyed numerous people’s homes, cars, and livelihoods. In a little under 6 hours Irma paralyzed the St Martin/St Maarten communication network, the power and water companies and all businesses. Shockingly though there were no storm related deaths on the Dutch side of the island where I reside…but the devastation was widespread.
As someone who grew up an hour from the Outer Banks, I made the grave mistake of thinking I knew what to expect with this storm. My education began at 4am that day…
The government had already issued a curfew and closed down the majority of businesses including the airport, and people had battened down their hatches. I however was angry that I couldn’t get a hurricane window in our living room closed so last minute I decided to strap some plastic coated cardboard to it with two old belts to sort of deflect the wind if it blew into our home. This was the equivalent of stopping a rampaging bull with a lasso made of dental floss. Still…that morning I sprang out of bed into a dark living room and peered across to see my neighbor’s mango tree was already flailing in the wind. There was an audible *POP* and the screen on the still open window came inside with a spray of rain water. I grabbed the frame and clicked it back into place. By now my wife had joined me and sat nearby holding the transistor radio and flashlight. Bracing my arms and back I stood holding the frame of the window screen in place for the next 3 hours… fighting Irma’s invasive blasts that threatened to throw me backwards into my kitchen. At one point my wife’s arms braced alongside mine and still we were skidding our feet as the aluminum frame shuddered and bulged against us like the sail of a ship. Around 5am as we watched our street lights flicker and die one at a time. It was like Irma had officially introduced herself to us, but not in the friendly Caribbean way. More along Jack Nicholson’s famous line from “The Shining”
Around 6 or 7 there was a strange gray twilight of sorts and the wind gusts faded as did the sound of sheet metal flexing, and the windows stopped shuddering.
We were in the eye of Irma…the very heart of the storm.
I ventured out to take a peep of the street in front of our apartment. A few of our neighbors were doing the same…I decided at this point to quickly snap a photo of the still (relatively) intact neighborhood. Knowing that like a boxer seated on a stool between rounds. Irma was just catching her breath and round two would begin at the bell’s ring.
As you can see there were still some leaves on the trees and despite the cable television lines down in front of our home there wasn’t much of a problem.
But then at 7am the bell rang and Irma returned from the other direct. This time the storm lived up to her namesake: The Germanic war goddess.
I returned to my post at the window bracing my sore shoulders against the window…however this time there was a new trick as this time the wind was sucking air through our apartment and then pausing….would blow me backwards again. The wind had shrieked with an ethereal rage earlier. This time it was the angry roar of a low flying jet, or some wild beast. Over this I could hear and feel the concrete walls of our apartment shuddering, and somewhere sheets of metal were flying past outside like playing cards. A discarded refrigerator bounced down the street.
Then over the noise a new level of roar made itself heard. I turned to my wife and yelled:
“Take the dog into the bathroom, shut the door and don’t come out until I get you!”
She never said a word, grabbed the dog’s collar, the radio and the flashlight and hurried.
Then outside the air went pure white with noise, with wind, and with…God knows what.
The pressure wave inside the building made me heave for air and work my jaw to pop my ears. You could feel ground shaking as if a locomotive was barreling past. A green garbage can bounced into the corridor in front of my door. This area is also where our landlord parks her car.
The Garbage Can had wedged itself next to our neighbor’s car and the wall.
Finally after what felt like an eternity the noise passed and the wind began to die. I released the warped window screen and got my wife to come out. The radio was just static…all stations were effectively silent. No power, or water.
When the silence was too much to bear I grabbed my phone and walked outside… Several neighbors had gotten away lightly, but others…had not. Especially next door…a Chinese family that runs the nearby corner market had had their roof completely collapse. Luckily no one was injured.
Our landlord upstairs had lost part of her roof and other than some mild flooding she was fine. She, my wife, our neighbor next door and I decided to walk up the hill to view the damage. A horse randomly barreled past us…its knees and legs were covered in gaping wounds revealing bone in places. I heard it later died from a combination of injuries and dehydration.
I took another panoramic of our street to compare the damage from the first half to the second…and it’s shocking.
Our neighbors to the far left (the Yu family) had lost their roof. The SXM cable pole across the street is snapped like a match, and the home slightly up the hill from us and across the street was gutted and de-roofed.
But it’s in times like this that people can and often will amaze you. Immediately the owner of the market down at the corner started yelling for us to come and get as much perishable items from his store as we could carry and split it amongst our neighbors. This man had spent part of the storm huddled in a closet with his cousin, brother, wife and their young four year old daughter but is now trying to make sure we all have enough food to survive the aftermath?
But this sort of thing brings out the best and the worst in people. At the end of the block we noticed people shoving carts laden with blankets, mattresses and appliances as fast as they could. Laughing and joking in Spanish and French (as their neighborhood is largely composed of Dominican and Haitian people) they were lugging large two door stainless steel fridges, freezers, and stoves to houses missing roofs, and ankle deep in water. No power. Almost as if it was a game, their children were skipping merrily along with smaller items.
The source of all their “discount shopping” was a nearby appliance store…it’s front half ripped open like a beer can. Nearby, the local Harley Davidson dealership was imploded…fuel tanks, and tail pipes scattering the area around it.
That night we slept in bursts on our living room couch and loveseat while tuning into a silent radio….the next morning we finally heard the voice of the people at Laser101. The first station to bring us news that we already knew, Sint Maarten was devastated.
The next few days were excruciating. I found more peace of mind dragging sheets of galvanized tin and zinc to the roadside for cleaning than I could napping fitfully in my stifling hot apartment. Grateful for its bunker-like construction during the storm…I cursed it at night as I often woke with my hair dripping with sweat. I stood in line with sweaty disheveled people to receive rations and bottled drinking water from young Royal Dutch Marines in tan fatigues and red berets. I often bit my tongue at the laziness of some young locals that preferred to sit in the shade and watch as myself and 3 other men worked long hours in the blazing sun to clear water meters and fuse boxes of debris for the Power/Water company to restore for us.
At night we ate as much grilled food as our stomachs could hold at our neighbor’s home. “Jackie” the head of the Yu family provided it, and the men of each home took turns cooking. Sometimes someone provided some semi-chilled bottles of water or Heineken Beer and we discussed the future of the island and watched the C-130’s and other relief effort planes leaving with evacuees for their various nations of origin.
As much as I’d like to end this story on a happy note. I cannot due to the fact the clean-up continues and people are still in the process of cleaning up. But I will in my own small way do what I can to help others who are less fortunate than I.
Fahrenheit Road Community, Cole Bay Sint Maarten