The following is the third in a four-part series dedicated to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which devastated the Caribbean island of St. Martin and damaged many others in September 2017. Here we share stories from the locals and travelers that lived through the event and its repercussions.
Debra Wilson is the Managing Principal of Engaging Solutions, an Indianapolis-based management consultant firm. Her firm holds an annual partners’ retreat, where a group of eight—the company’s four partners and their spouses or best friends—rent a villa, steal away to a sunny destination, and spend a week planning the company’s future and bonding. “We’ve all known each other for 30 years,” she says. “So we always look forward to the retreat because it’s a way for us to refresh—not only as business partners but as friends.” For this September’s trip, like the previous five, they asked Luxury Retreats to help plan their stay in St. Martin. But business discussions were quickly sidelined in favor of hurricane preparations when Irma began to approach the island. Wilson filled us in on how she and her colleagues put their business minds to work in order to keep themselves safe during the storm.
“The days preceding the storm were beautiful. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, and our villa, Turtle Nest, was right on the beach; it was fabulous. The team picked us up from the airport and brought us to our villa where we began our scheduled meetings. On Labor Day Monday, we heard there was a storm coming, which was later upgraded to a hurricane. We didn’t know whether it was going to be a direct hit or not. Luxury Retreats understood the severity of what was to come, so Meghann Cundall (General Manager of Carimo, a Luxury Retreats subsidiary) moved us to a safer villa: Terrasse de Mer. We helped the team install storm shutters over all the windows and got ready to hunker down. We checked with our airline and quickly learned that no flights were available to evacuate us before the storm.
All but one of us had never been through a hurricane before, so we just wanted to get off the island. Once we realized we couldn’t, we shifted our attention to find answers to certain questions: How could we stay safe? What does “staying safe” mean? What do we need to know? Where do we need to be in the house? When is this hurricane actually going to hit? We turned into Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to make sure we were thoroughly prepared.”
Weathering the Storm
“At 1 am on September 6th, the high winds, torrid rain, and sounds of trees thrashing against the house started. It was traumatizing. Each couple lay awake in their own bedrooms actually trying to sleep! Needless to say, the noise was way too loud. When I realized the water was flooding into our ensuite bathroom, it no longer felt safe to be in there. We collected our bags and moved into the living room. Lo and behold, our friends had done the same, except for one couple that was staying at the guest house. Our two main anxieties were: how much longer the storm was going to last and whether the roof was going to hold. We started to hear the sound of stuff banging against the house, and it wasn’t trees anymore. It sounded like a can opener was pulling the metal roofing off the house. So the six of us gathered into one bathroom at four o’clock in the morning, praying and singing our favorite gospel songs the whole time.
The first part of the storm lasted four or five hours. Then the eye of the storm. We connected with our partner and his spouse who had been in the guest house, and thankfully they were safe. It became so quiet during the eye that the novices in the group thought it was over! We went outside to look at the damage. A beautiful five-foot tall fountain had broken into two or three pieces, the front gates had been completely uprooted, and one of the bedrooms had been completely torn apart from the house and was now without a roof. One of my colleagues knew about the concept of the eye of the storm and told us we all needed to get back into the house because there was more to come. That sounded crazy to the rest of us, but we followed instructions, and sure enough, the tossing and rumbling started all over again. In fact, the back end of the storm was far more violent than the front end and lasted for another three or four hours.
When it was over the house had accumulated several inches of water, several door-sized windows had been blown off their frames despite the storm shutters that were installed to protect them, part of the living room’s roof was gone, and all the furniture was wet. The state of the roads outside the villa was the most horrific thing I have ever seen in my entire life. All I could do was throw my hands up and thank God to be alive.”
Shifting Into Gear
“When the hurricane ended, we knew we were world news. Everyone close to us knew we were in St. Martin. Our immediate thoughts were: Who do we need to contact? How do we contact them? What do we say to them? We were in touch with the State Department, our federally elected officials, our city council president, the mayor’s office, the governor’s office—we were using every relationship we had to try and get ourselves off the island.
Meghann and her team came to visit to ensure we were all safe. She moved us to a third villa, Lotus, which we drove to in our broken down SUVs damaged by the hurricane. We squeegeed, mopped, and swept the water out of Lotus and got situated for the night. We only had three bedrooms for eight of us, but we were happy to sacrifice space for on-site, around-the-clock help. Herve Gehant, Carimo’s Head of Maintenance, lives in the villa’s caretaker apartment next door. He helped with cleanup, gave us a generator, and provided us constant updates—he was absolutely on point the whole time we were there.
We spent the next few days navigating the island trying to get cell phone reception and making phone calls when possible. We were getting all sorts of calls and emails from people wanting to know our condition, so we started sending out pictures of us smiling to let everyone know we were okay!
Meghann finally instructed us to pack our bags and she escorted us to the airport—it was time to go! Anxious and irritable, we were definitely ready to leave the island. We were airlifted to San Juan, Puerto Rico, but had to leave some of our luggage behind as we couldn’t bring our suitcases on the plane. Several media outlets had reached out to us while we were gone, and when we got off the plane at the airport in Indianapolis, we were greeted and interviewed by a reporter and cameraman from the local TV station, RTV6. Later, the Indianapolis Recorder wrote a feature about us.”
Back to Reality, and Back to Work
“When we returned to Indianapolis, we all had to get back to work immediately—as the leadership team at our consulting firm, we couldn’t afford downtime, even after all we had been through. Even while we were away, we were working as much as we could. Everyone in the office made a point to tell us how glad they were that we had made it back safely—each greeting another reminder we had actually gone through Hurricane Irma.
Days later, we were contacted by a group of people—a band of angels, I now call them—that worked at St. Maarten’s Simpson Bay Resort and Marina and had volunteered to reunite people that were on St. Martin during Irma with their lost luggage. I don’t even know how they got our contact information, but they tracked us down and returned our bags to us! With our luggage, there was a note that read: “We are so glad to be able to reunite you with your bags.” It was the most heartwarming thing that’s ever happened to me, but consistent with the healthy dose of benevolence occurring on the island after the storm—from my partners, our guests, the locals in both St. Martin and San Juan, Luxury Retreats staff, and more.
Every day is another opportunity to be thankful that we got through Hurricane Irma and to reflect on how kind the people were. Things have gotten closer to normal every day, but I’m not sure how normal things can be after what we went through. Our routines are back to normal, but there’s something imprinted in our minds and our hearts about the devastation we saw and experienced. Every now and then someone will pull up a picture and we’ll talk about Irma—we’ll never forget it.”
Photo Credit: Ayman Abedi; Thomas Proust
St. Martin Lowlands Hurricane Relief Project
Created in response to the crisis conditions on St. Martin in the weeks following the hurricane, the SXM Project is dedicated to bringing immediate humanitarian relief and long-term economic redevelopment to financially distressed workers in the Terres Basses and Dutch-Lowlands regions of St. Martin. If you would like to contribute to help rebuild the lives of those on the island you can find more information here.