My grandmother, my father’s mother, was diagnosed with cancer when I was only a child. She was told she had only months to live. She wrote a note to the family and toured the world, I assume saying her last goodbyes to friends, before settling into a house on an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea known as St. Martin or Sint Maarten depending on which side you were on.
I visited her there once with my father, months, if not years, after her original prognosis. I guess the climate suited her more than the cancer. I remember her out on the porch under a brilliant blue sky in light summer clothes, though it was mid-January. She sipped her coffee, looked out onto the horizon, and said, “it’s just another G-D day in paradise.” Except she used the full phrase. My grandmother was not one to adjust her style for children.
And so it was – paradise, that is. So much so, that my aunt lived there at the time as well along with two of my cousins, both near my age. They invited me to visit their school so they could introduce their American cousin to their friends, but I couldn’t fit it in. There was simply too much else to do, like dodging incoming airplanes or sitting on the beach.
My dad rented a catamaran which my aunt helped crew. It was the most gorgeous boat (excuse me, yacht) I’d ever been on with window in each of the hulls allowing you to see beneath the turquoise waves and a mesh net over the top where you could enjoy the ocean’s spray as well as the journey.
We let the wind take us to another nearby island where engines and bits of WWII fighter planes still dot the landscape. To both my amusement and embarrassment, we also learned that particular island also happened to be a stop for a nude cruise, giving a whole new meaning to the term, history buff.
We spent the rest of my visit scuba diving where I was given the nickname ‘she who sings with the fishes,’ as I had come up with the brilliant (and I now know completely ridiculous) idea I could extend the oxygen in my tank by humming. That’s also how I learned sound travels farther in water.
I have beautiful memories of that trip and always intended to go back and share it with the family. Maybe we could go one year when our work isn’t so crazy or the next when the kids aren’t quite so young. One cousin still lives there. We had plenty of time to visit.
But a category five hurricane with 185 mph winds decided to beat us to it.
Wednesday, September 6th, I spend a good portion of the day stalking the social media feeds of my extended family. Hurricane Irma had made landfall. My aunt had lost contact with her son, my island cousin, around six am. His brother, now stateside, forwarded links to island webcams showing a vaguely tree-like shadow shaking in an otherwise gray nothingness. The image wasn’t exactly comforting.
I clicked on another link. This one had a slightly clearer picture and I was relieved to an extent until I saw a notice posted above the video. It was only a loop of earlier footage, taken prior to complete loss of power and connectivity.
Nearly the entire day passed before we got the news – my island cousin had checked in from the other side of the storm. He’d lost his roof but helped rescue another person stuck in what was left of their home. Looters roamed, but he was making his way across the island with a chainsaw and a 4×4. He was okay, though the same couldn’t be said of the island I’d once known.
In the US mainland, we waited as the hurricane hit Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Barthelemy, Anguilla, Saint Kitts and Nevis, the US Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, the British Virgin Islands as well. Then Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, which never seems to be able catch a break, the Bahamas, Turks, Caicos, and Cuba too, resulting in the deaths of 68 thus far [82 as of September 15th] and rendering thousands homeless. (Source: Don’t forget about us: Irma’s desperate Caribbean survivors, CNN & Irma’s Staggering Toll: At Least 68 Dead, Billions In Damage From the Caribbean to the U.S., The Weather Channel)
When the storm finally arrived on the mainland, no longer a category five, some people said they were unimpressed. However, I say, when a hurricane comes a-calling but decides at the last minute to turn away, the word you are looking for is grateful. Because as the last few days proved, when a storm like this comes to your door, it is anything but another day in paradise.
For those wishing to do more, I would encourage you to check out the facebook group SXMabroad which is a group whose goal is to A) provide a consolidated list of reputable organization to for the purpose of financial donations B) organize groups of people who have the time and ability go and help re-build and C) do whatever this group can to encourage tourism to rebound as quickly as appropriate.