Midnight, September 17th 2017
Jan and I are overwhelmed by the thoughts and prayers you sent our way during our tussle with hurricane Irma. Religion has never been my thing but oddly enough I do believe that prayer is powerful. Perhaps it’s a throwback to my hippy days when things had good vibes and dreamers were out to change the world. And how does change come about if not by dreams.
The reason it has taken so long to thank everyone is that for over ten days we have lived without power and only now has it returned along with access to internet although the connection isn’t mine, I am taking it from the apartment below.
My date with Irma wasn’t what I expected, she was more woman than I could handle.
Jan and I have lived in the Caribbean for over 20 years and have survived all the storms and hurricanes including Luis, which I rode out on the boat. Previous to living in the Caribbean we survived a Bay of Biscay storm that twice rolled our boat and left us adrift for seven days, so I guess you could say we know a little about storms. A message I received today from a friend said: “Gary, you are going to live forever,” by which she meant I am not destined to die in a storm.
Irma, the strongest hurricane to hit the Caribbean since 1926, was powerful beyond belief, a living, breathing malignant bitch that left parts of the northern Caribbean looking like Trump had finally lost his mind and unleashed nuclear Armageddon. I hope he saw the videos coming out of the islands because that is just a taste of what the world will look like if the button is pushed … Cold, stark reality, not false news.
In Nettle Bay, French St. Martin, where we live, an eight foot tidal surge breached the main road and the ocean poured into the lagoon. The sea entered beachside homes sluicing them clean leaving nothing behind but crumbling breezeblocks and buckled roofs. The torrent smashed the roadside wall, cascaded down the grassy bank into our parking lot sweeping cars and trucks before it. We lost our Jeep, our motorbike and our friend’s car. As the water receded with the passing of the eye, peoples’ lives were laid bare, personal possessions, appliances, clothes, children’s toys, paperwork, food, furniture, personalities …
In our second floor apartment the roof was holding but straining to maintain its grip. Metal window frames bulged and cracks stippled the walls. In the calm of the eye, we took stock. We had some water damage but across the way, as far as I could see, homes were roofless, giant palms were down and the parking lot resembled a madman’s chess board of piled up cars and trucks.
Then it got really bad.
With the passing of the eye, the wind came from the opposite direction and what little protection offered by the building opposite was lost. The first wind gust was powerful; the second came with Irma’s full fury. Our roof began to moan and wail; the death throes of a creature in agony. It trembled and shook and plaster from the walls fell to the floor. The ceiling fan swung from side to side, doors rattled and the world, our home; our heads were filled with a million screaming banshees.
We jammed ourselves into the tiny bathroom – myself, Jan, our friend’s Goldendoodle, Jesse, and our old cat Moggie. That’s when we realized our young cat Buster wasn’t with us but still cowering under the bed upstairs. The groans from the roof intensified and the bulging windows were on the edge of letting go. Should they collapse then Irma would be amongst us and no amount of concrete, wood and friction could stop her, the roof would lift and everything in the funnel of our open rooms would go with it including the bed and Buster.
Dragging a crazed cat from under the narrow opening beneath a bed at the height of a 185mph storm isn’t something I recommend. First I had him by the front paw, then the back paw, then by his neck until finally I had him out. I made it to the safety of the bathroom just has he raked me with his back claws and sent blood dripping from my finger tips. That’s twice we have saved that cat’s life, you’d think he’d be more grateful.
Jan sat on a duvet squashed in the corner next to the sink with Moggie and Buster pressed into her side and Jessie against her legs. She wrapped her arms around the three of them and whispered to keep them calm. I sat with my back pressed against the door as Irma fought to get in. Nothing I could do would stop the incessant machinegun rattle of Irma clawing her way in. Time had little meaning beyond the awful bang, bang, banging against the door … and then the pressure eased, the period between hammer blows grew shorter until finally, defeated, Irma hoisted her malignant skirts and went off to plunder the Virgin Islands.
The aftermath of hurricane Irma has shocked me as much as the storm. Mass looting, gunfire, and lawlessness stripped away the thin veneer that separates civilized behavior from total every-man for-himself anarchy. Not everyone turned into a scumbag, many rose to the occasion doing everything they could to help those less fortunate at great risk to themselves. In a crisis you always get the angels. The authorities need to hold the looters to account but hey, it’s the islands, mon, and I’ll believe it when I see it. If it was down to me, I’d rip off their heads and spit down the hole. They are above contempt.
Ten days since the storm and on the French side the military have restored some kind of order although nights are still dangerous and patrols few and far between. We have no running water and flush the toilet with water carried from the swimming pool. Aid organizations bring us bottled drinking water and a little food for which we are thankful. We are better off than many.
A few days ago the aid organization, escorted by French paratroopers, gave those living in our apartment block a huge bag of partially frozen food but without electricity we had no way of cooking it or keeping it cold. The food included piles of half frozen fish and meat, all destined for the dustbin by morning. In order to eat some of it, a group got together and built a fire in a large concrete flower box. They got the fire going with gasoline and fueled it with toxic wood. Jan and I took two massive tuna steaks back to our apartment and by candle light and using a blowtorch on the bottom of the frying pan cooked the fish and opened a warm bottle of wine. Gazing at the beauty of the stars in a blackened sky, we dined like kings overlooking an ancient battlefield which, in a way, we were.
Throughout all this, Jan has been my strength, keeping our little family fed and healthy. The number of storms I have put her through I wonder why she stays with me. Our love is strong.
Buster survived the trauma of the hurricane … just. He is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping and seems to be happy but after ten days we still can’t get him to leave the bathroom. He won’t go further than the door. We hope in time he will heal. The other animals are fine.
Today, for the first time, I was able to view videos of the devastation wrought on the islands and finally emotion took over. I cried. If climate change is responsible for these super storms then each and every one of us bears some responsibility for the death of the baby snatched by Irma from its mother’s arms as she clung to a palm tree and Barbuda disintegrated around her. The destruction is on us and the politicians we voted into power.
What does the future hold for the Caribbean? Well, it will rebuild and become a beautiful playground once more. There will certainly be no shortage of work. As for us, we could have evacuated but we decided to stay, at least for now. We are taking things a day at a time, keeping out of the shadows and walking with a big stick. I have an outboard to fix, which will give us transport, and All At Sea magazine to edit, which will help pay the bills. We are blessed.
So many people helped us get through this; you with your thoughts and prayers, and those of our neighbors who are still camping amongst the rubble. On the island of St. Martin, Martine gets a special hug along with Garth and his crew. JL, we are connected.
A special mention goes to the team at Laser 101; the radio station became the voice of the storm. They did a superb job of broadcasting, keeping the island informed and up to date even though many of the presenters had lost their own homes. Shortly after the storm I listened to their banter until midnight and they had me in stitches. True professionals, thanks guys … shame about the music, but I tried.
Irma and now Maria. The Caribbean rocks.
Luv Gary & Jan