St. Martin: Before and After Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma’s terrifying force screamed and smashed through hotel rooms as if from the blast of a bomb. Photo Credit:@LA1ERE

“Look at the lobby… Look, look…” she said. I couldn’t help but look, stunned, as breaking waves surged into a building where a horrified woman filmed Hurricane Irma’s category five fury from the first floor.

#HurricaineIrma #Irma #Irma2017 #SintMaarten #Hurricane #Irma
This use to be the lobby from Hotel #SaintMartin #prayfortheCaribbean

— The Invisible Man (@invisibleman_17) September 6, 2017

Had I seen those railings before? This horrifying video on the IMac’s big screen zapped me back to 2006, and the calming and peaceful atmosphere that had greeted me from a hotel lobby in Marigot, St. Martin. I was hot and distressed when I walked into the lobby’s atrium of palms and cascading greenery. Although it would stretch my budget, I checked in for a week because it “offered comfort and a soothing atmosphere in which I could regain some composure,” I wrote in my diary.

The peaceful serenity of the lobby at Beach Plaza Hotel. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

The Beach Plaza Hotel became my safe haven after a drama-filled two-week sailing trip in the Caribbean, where too many things had gone wrong on the poorly maintained 37-foot Islander yacht I had sailed on. During a storm off Guadeloupe, where forty-knot (75 km) bullets of gusting wind and pelting rain turned everything white, the bungs in the cockpit blocked up and water swirled around our ankles for hours as we tried to make headway under mainsail alone.

Broken shackles put both headsails out of action. The new auto helm had broken. The water and diesel tanks leaked their contents over the floor below. Cupboard doors swung wildly on their hinges and spewed out cans of food, books, and computer parts into the slippery mix of water and diesel sloshing around the floor as the yacht yawed and heaved and crashed into the white-capped pounding sea.

And now the Beach Plaza Hotel looked like a ship at sea getting trashed in the screaming winds and pounding waves, the doors on the seaward side swinging wildly until they came off their hinges, while below in the lobby breaking waves forged a path of destruction like a huge, high-powered water blaster after completely washing away the kitchen and dining area. At that moment, it was as if someone pressed the delete button on the idyllic photos I brought home with me to New Zealand.

Pool and dining area of the Beach Plaza Hotel, overlooking Marigot Bay. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

The aftermath was shown in a video (no longer available) where distressed guests and staff could at least have a barbecue in the place where the dining room had been, but stripped bare by the waves, on an island with no power, running water or fuel. With the airport out of action, food would also be in short supply as the island’s supply of fresh food was flown in each week.

Across the road from the hotel is a boat yard, which opens into the Simpson Bay Lagoon. While some yachts were dug into the ground and had their masts taken out for the hurricane season, other yachts were up on hard stand while their owners did maintenance and repairs. The strength of the hurricane would have flipped these yachts onto their sides, adding to the mayhem of sections of roofing, etc. blown off the Beach Plaza Hotel and other buildings nearby.

BEFORE: Boatyard opposite Beach Plaza Hotel in 2006. Photo: Juliet Bonnay
AFTER: The aftermath on the roadside of the Beach Plaza Hotel and the boat yard. Credit-SPLASH NEWS

An intriguing coincidence happened during my stay at the Beach Plaza Hotel. Each morning when I opened my eyes, I could see the mast of a yacht I had sailed on from New Zealand to Tonga and Fiji in 2001. I had sailed with a German, Herbie, who was circumnavigating the world single-handed in his 36 foot steel Van de Stadt. When he arrived in the Caribbean in 2004, from where he had begun his single-handed trip, he left his yacht anchored in Grenada to return to Germany to see his mother. Hurricane Ivan then hit Grenada and washed his yacht up onto the beach.

Herbie’s steel yacht beached and partly buried in sand in Grenada after Hurricane Ivan.

When Herbie returned to Grenada some weeks later he wrote:

“She has been looted by locals and ripped and stripped inside. They broke in through the aft hatch and stole most of my tools, machineries, Sony-World receiver, a direction finder (no Yachtie would steal that one), other electronics, but they forgot the GPS (lucky me, I just bought it in St. Maarten, new), diving-gear, sleeping bag, clothes and food (wasn’t much left). Everything inside is a mess. The outboard engine is gone, but the solar panel was still in my aft cabin. Going back day after day I find more and more things are missing.

“The starboard side is facing the sea, but there is a lot of damage. To me it looks like she has been hit by another boat, but who knows. So far I couldn’t see any water inside. Getting her back in deep water is a huge goal, because she has to be towed by a big tugboat with horsepower enough to bridge a distance of about 120 yards shallow water. She could be easily damaged and than sink.”

There was only one tug boat able to do the job, and at a ‘cheap rate’ of US12,000.00, but the engine had broken down. With the yacht not insured, and after considering all his options with so much already lost, Herbie finally lost heart in trying to get his yacht off the beach and sold it for US$100.00.

Herbie’s yacht anchored in the lagoon in Marigot in 2006, two years after being rescued from the beach in Grenada. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Just as the shocking images of destruction Hurricane Irma caused took me back into the memories of my three-month stay in idyllic St. Martin, the sight of Herbie’s yacht took me back to an experience of a lifetime sailing offshore – and yes, even through storms, unafraid.

Well, I just had to introduce myself to the yacht’s new owner, who some folk in Grenada considered “crazy” for trying to get the yacht off the beach. Over dinner Hartmut told me about the months of preparation, of digging around the hull, the super thick ropes that would break again and again under the huge strain of trying to pull her off the beach, still partly buried in sand. Finally he wrapped slings from a wrecked travel lift around the hull like bandages and when chains were hooked onto them, this time she moved when a huge fishing boat’s engine pulled, and she bumped and scraped over sand and rocks…finally into deep water once more.

Damage to buildings and boats along the shoreline of Marigot Bay.

Just as in Grenada after Hurricane Ivan, boats litter the shoreline (above) in the wake of Hurricane Irma and buildings have been extensively damaged. As can be seen below, the catamaran on the far right in the above photo, has been picked up and dumped on the side of the road in Irma’s huge storm surge, losing its mast in the process. The extensive damage to roads can also be seen in the screen shot below.

Before: View from the foreshore of Marigot Bay, near where the catamaran was beached on the road.
View from Fort St. Louis overlooking Marigot Bay. Marigot is the capital of the French part of St. Martin (north), an island shared with the Netherlands (south).

In the upper middle part of the above photo you can see the Beach Plaza Hotel (with the red roof) and the boatyard on the other side of the road. This whole area was extensively damaged by wind and storm surge. The Simpson Bay lagoon is in the background. The marina, located in front of the cream roofed buildings on the left, was extensively damaged, as was the whole marina complex that housed some wonderful restaurants. From this it is easy to understand just how many businesses were destroyed. (See drone footage of the extensive damage in this area.) This is a catastrophic blow for everyone on an island with a tourist based economy, and duty free shopping for the numerous cruise ships that call into Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island, which was also extensively damaged.

It distresses me now to remember words to a Jimmy Buffett song: “Waves melt all castles of sand.” And now waves from the storm surge, combined with winds gusting up to 360 kmph/224 mph, have destroyed most of the buildings built on sand. Just north of Marigot, a short sail away, was a picturesque anchorage at Grand Case with restaurants perched directly on, and even overhanging the sand along the shore. I remember walking along the sand highly curious that, in their fragile-like appearance, they seemed impervious to storms.

Restaurants overhang the sand at Grand Case, St. Martin. Photo: Juliet Bonnay
Grand Case was a delightful place to sail to for a meal – French cuisine, bistros, or a barbecue. People were friendly and the streets often exuded a carnival-like atmosphere. Photo: Juliet Bonnay
This is what Irma did to the restaurants overhanging the sand at Grand Case. Screen shot taken from the video linked to below.

Watch drone footage of Irma’s destruction of Grand Case.

As can be seen from this post, the chances of losing everything – even one’s life – in a hurricane is just as great living on land as it is living on water. For those lucky to escape with their lives, the worst of Hurricane Irma has only just begun. My thoughts are with all the people who lost everything during this apocalyptic hurricane season, who now struggle to get food and water, who have no power, no decent place to sleep, and now are called upon to find the courage and energy to start over and rebuild what was lost…or move on.

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