It has been a while since I’ve written anything, or have even felt inspired to do so. I think for most of us, it has taken some time – months, really – to get our heads on straight again after the IRMA Bitch (aka IRMA B.) ripped through our rocks in September 2017.
On my rock, St. Martin, we now have Life Before IRMA B. and Life After IRMA B.
It has been amazing to see the resilience of our island and its people. No roofs, no jobs, no money, government broke, but Carnival still goes on! Every Friday night, the party commences on the island. Tourists are finally returning and as an Epicurean Guide, I once again have an awesome job. Epicure is a great word, don’t you think? It comes from the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who believed pleasure to be the chief aim in life. I love that man and I feel fortunate to have the pleasure of touring our little piece of paradise of 37 square miles regularly with guests.
In the beginning, or right after IRMA B., I used to really notice the crunched metal everywhere. Roofing metals and zinc hanging in trees, metal frames bundled up like artwork, and cars scattered about in various states of crunchiness. Now, after 9 months, I do not even notice it anymore. It’s crazy how one gets used to devastation and simply lives on. But our guests are another story, consistently shocked by the debris still on island.
There is an explanation: when our back hoe is broken (and believe me, there are lots of broken ones at this time), we cannot just ask John or Bob from the next town over if we can borrow theirs. Why not? Well, that one is broken too. The only way we can get one is to have it sent to the island by ship or cargo plane. And yes, our airport, PJIA, was pretty much destroyed as well. While it’s pretty logical if you think about it, let me admit that even I had never thought this through fully before. Everything has to be shipped in. After explaining this to our visitors, they all get this OHHH wow expression on their faces when the realization sets in that SXM really IS an island.
Of course, to those of us who have been on island since the storm, it looks like we have made quite a lot of progress (apart from politically and environmentally, but let’s keep this light). But to a visitor from North America or Europe, our dual nation St. Martin/St. Maaten looks dirty, messy, and disorganized. While the island has always been in a perpetual state of barely organized chaos – part of the charm of living in the Caribbean, there is even a song about it somewhere – the current state of dirt, mess, steel, crunched cars, boats in various stages of ruination, completely derelict houses, houses with tarpaulin, houses being rebuilt, and houses being “MacGyvered” are a constant reminder of the direct hit our island withstood. So to the visitor, it still looks pretty bad.
I have found a way to try to help people understand what it means to live and work on an island so completely ravaged by nature: “If you think this looks bad, my friends, I invite you to go online and look at footage of SXM right after IRMA B. hit and then compare it to what you see today. You have to remember that we, as islanders, still have to go to work, do our laundry, put on a brave and smiling face for our visitors, while at home we might not have a roof, or water, or maybe even electricity yet. This means no laundry, but we still have to look presentable for our daily routines. And we still have to celebrate our progress, no matter how small it may seem.”
Life After IRMA B. requires you to deal with it – deal with the delays, deal with the debris, deal with seeing an island still very much destroyed on a daily basis.
Working with tourists, I try my best to keep up a presentable demeanor, though find it very difficult with all the debris around. I have never, in my 9 years on St. Martin, spent so much time taking care of my feet. At least twice a day, they require a good scrubbing. Walking around with ‘”free your toes” sandals and flip flops on has its downsides. Just walking to get the Daily Herald, our only surviving newspaper on island, means a wash of the feet afterwards.
A lot of visitors ask the following question: ” Are you changing the building codes?” Uhhhhh, yes we are officially… but then you have to enforce it and of course there is sooooo much to do on the island that enforcing new building codes probably isn’t the top priority. Not only that, but we have to take into account that 1/2 the island is “family” as well. Whether close kin or ‘”the brother from another mother,” family ties have a tremendous effect on the honest running of a country.
Another question frequently asked: ” What is the population of the island?” Uhhhhh, well, officially it was 40,000 on the Dutch side and 36,000 on the French side. This is the LEGAL count. We had so many illegals on the island as well who, of course, were not accounted for. Then we have all the boats with their crew. How many boats sank? I just tried to look it up myself but hey, over 200 boats were salvaged from the Simpson Bay Lagoon alone. The Simpson Bay Lagoon is normally classified as a “hurricane shelter.” This means a safe haven in case of a storm, though certainly did not apply when it came to IRMA B. Nothing was safe from IRMA B.
The questions about statistics are among my favorites (Read: NOT. Heavy on the sarcasm here). Statistics? You have got to be kidding. We are so busy still just trying to live life and prepare for this hurricane season that we’re in again already that we really do not have time for statistics at this point. Also, we had elections and we all know what that means… we’ve been busy re-inventing the wheel again.
But through it all, we still have the sparkling ocean, 37 beaches, endless sunshine, the Caribbean lifestyle, and the list goes on… crunched metal, dirty feet, and all.