Our Royal Islander resort, a few hours before Hurricane Irma arrived.
Part Two of Our Hurricane Irma Experience
Mike and I finally arrived home from St. Maarten on Friday, September 15th, nine days after Hurricane Irma devastated St. Maarten. When Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten, it was the worst hurricane recorded anywhere, and that record still stands, even with the arrival of Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria hit San Juan, Puerto Rico a few days ago, and destroyed most of the city and did massive damage to other islands, and is still a force of potential danger to the U.S. Also, a 7.1 Earthquake has decimated much of Mexico City. During this week of being safe at home, I have been unable to write, needing to process what occurred with us, and all the suffering around the world. But write now I must, before our experience and its lessons are too far removed from recent memory to teach us its lessons.
The day after Irma hit St. Maarten as a category 5 Hurricane during the night of September 6th, and we knew we were safe, Mike and our local friend who stayed with us, Ron, decided to venture out. They ignored the mandatory 24-hour curfew and drove what is normally a thirty-minute drive to Ron’s home to see the damage there. They returned five hours later. Some of the roads were almost impassable. They found what they expected at Ron’s home. The roof was gone, and most of the family’s belongings were destroyed. They took what food was salvageable, and a few other items, and began the long ride back. At this point the military had not yet arrived, and it was possible to be out without being stopped by roadblocks, but so many cars were on the road that the drive took much longer than normal. In fact, there was nothing normal about anything at that point.
The hotel next to our resort, Sonesta, was so damaged that all guests had to be evacuated.
The next day all six of us ventured out to go to Ron’s home again to get more of their family’s belongings, as well as to see the main shopping area of Philipsburg. By this time the military had arrived and set up roadblocks, so it was slow going to get anywhere. Looters were all over the streets, carrying large TVs and other electronics they had stolen, and the police were apparently unable to stop them. Looters also wiped out the grocery stores so there was no food left in them.
Front Street in downtown Philipsburg
The road to Ron’s home was now closed to traffic from our part of the island. The main shopping area had suffered significant damage, both from Irma and from looters. Looters had damaged or removed hurricane shutters on the doors of the shops, broken the glass, and stolen whatever they could find within. While we did get to Ron’s jewelry store, Joe’s Jewelry, it was not possible to get in. It was in the same condition as the others; however, the jewelry had been secured in a large safe in the back of the store. Hopefully the jewelry would still be there when it was possible to get to it.
Mike and our 17 month old friend, Veer, on our front deck, where we spent many hours.
From Wednesday, September 6th until Sunday, September 10th, we were trying to evacuate St. Maarten. Princess Juliana airport had suffered significant damage, and there were no commercial planes flying in or out. Military planes did come in, delivering supplies. Eventually those same military planes took Americans out, although there was no organized plan for doing so, and no communication of such other than word of mouth. It was difficult to know what to believe. The people who vacated by military planes did so by walking to the airport and waiting in long lines for many hours. We were told that if we were successful in getting out by a military plane that we could only take one piece of luggage, and that it would have to sit on our lap during the flight. The military planes were taking Americans to San Juan, where they would need to get their own lodging and flights home from there. By the time we heard of this option, we were concerned with the number of people who had vacated to San Juan, and the potential for being unable to find a hotel room or a flight home. We decided we were safer staying where we were, knowing our conditions there.
During these days, there was no communication on the island other than word of mouth; no phone service, no internet, no cable, and no radio for most of those days. We had food, although it would not last more than a few days. We also had power by generators. We did not have running water, although some units did. We spent our time just sitting and talking. The time passed slowly. I did read some, although not enough. And I did not have any energy to write, although I could have written a book given the time available! I think I was in a state of shock, not wanting to do anything, but wait.
There was no organized evacuation plan for several days, although the locals clearly wanted the tourists out. One of the reasons for this is the difficulty of caring for the 6000 tourists during such extreme circumstances. While our unit suffered minimal damage from the hurricane, other units were damaged beyond usage. People in other resorts told of being placed in large conference rooms, sleeping on cots, without toilet facilities readily available. The stories from others made us realize how very fortunate we were compared to many. Our resort staff did an unbelievable and admirable job, leaving their own damaged or destroyed homes, coming to work to care for their guests.
The resort staff wanted the tourists to be evacuated, for they were concerned for our safety. The looting in the streets had turned to violence in the resorts, with men with machetes overtaking security guards and robbing tourists. The resort staff at our property asked us to remain in our rooms and not risk the violence that was all around us. We occasionally left our unit to visit others in our resort and to get food from the restaurant across the street that cooked and sold meals a couple of those days. We also needed to find out what others knew about the possibility of getting out.
Fellow travelers, waiting for many hours to be picked up by the bus to be evacuated by the cruise ship.
Saturday night at approximately 11pm, three nights after Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten, the person in charge of our resort during this time, Nina, came to our unit with an evacuation plan. We were told to be in the lobby at 7am the next morning with all our luggage, and a bus would pick us up and take us to Philipsburg to be evacuated by a cruise ship. There were no other details provided. We would leave our local friends behind, and they would need to leave our resort when we did. A friend of Ron and his family had offered them lodging, and their plan was to move in with that family until they could decide what to do next.
Mike, Someer, Patti, Muskoan, Veer, and Ron saying goodbye
Our St. Maarten family leaving the resort. We have not heard from them since.
Mike and I were in the lobby Sunday before 7am. Eight hours later, we were still waiting for the bus to take us to the cruise ship.
The next Blog will tell the rest of the story.