Stories from St. Martin: The Road to Recovery

Stories from St. Martin: The Road to Recovery

Helping the inhabitants of St. Martin to find their feet after Hurricane Irma

The following is the last 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.

Hurricane Irma, which hit the island of St. Martin on September 6th, claimed the lives of 11 people, destroyed many homes and caused massive damage to the infrastructure of the island. While the results have been devastating for many of the island’s inhabitants, the aftermath of the storm saw people from all walks of life pulling together and helping one another get through each day. A group of villa owners from the island, some of whom had never met, took the initiative in the days immediately following the storm to bring in much needed basic supplies to the island. Since then, they have formed a Non-Profit organization called SXM Project, to help the island’s inhabitants on the long road to recovery.

Memories of Katrina

Donny Dicharry, the man behind SXM Project (sxmproject.org), is no stranger to the devastation that mother nature can bring. A New Orleans native, in 2005 he and his wife Becky lived through Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged their home on the outskirts of the city. They were cut off from civilization for 10 days and spent two exhausting years rebuilding. In fact, it was the desire for a much-needed break after this period that brought them to St. Martin the first place.

They loved the island and purchased a home on a cliff overlooking Baie Rouge in Terres Basses – the island’s lowlands. The following year they purchased another home, also in the Baie Rouge area. The couple has spent a lot of time on the island in the past 10 years with family and friends and developing new friendships local residents. Donny says the staff who work at his properties have become as close as family members over the years, explaining “We soon got to know everyone in their households and have had the joy of watching their children and grandchildren grow.” Both of their homes on the island were badly damaged by the hurricane.

Donny watched the coverage of the storm with a heavy heart: he knew first-hand the devastating effect of a hurricane and felt compelled to help. “I called Pat Cantor, who also owned a villa in the Lowlands that was damaged, and asked her to join me in forming a non-profit NGO to provide hurricane relief.”

Great Minds Think Alike

Pat and Donny were not the only villa owners moved to help in the days after the hurricane. Jon Bobbett, a fellow American who grew up in West Africa where his parents worked with NGOs, was one of the first people to fly basic supplies into the island—fresh water, dry goods and medical supplies. His family had vacationed there for many years before buying property and knew the local residents in Sandy Ground very well. He says, “In the immediate aftermath of a disaster the real need is sustenance to help people get through. They wake up the morning after and there is no food or fresh water.”

Jon felt a keen duty to help the local islanders and enlisted his friends and his son Stephen to start collecting supplies. He found an air cargo company in Puerto Rico where he could charter some planes, but they were not able to land, as the main airport on the island was badly damaged and not open for business. Working his contacts, Jon was eventually able to get in touch with the interior minister of the Netherlands (half of the island is Dutch), who gave the all-important permission to land.

Jon and his team of volunteers delivered an amazing 10 tonnes of basic aid in the days immediately following the disaster. That’s equivalent to roughly 5% of the US government contribution pledged to the entire Caribbean this hurricane season. He says “It was a pretty moving experience to get there and unload the supplies with the few people who were still working at the airport. One man fell to his knees when he saw what we had brought; it was very humbling.”

It wasn’t long before Donny heard about Jon’s relief efforts and reached out to him to become the third founding member of SXM Project. Soon after that, Carimo (Luxury Retreats’ subsidiary on the island), and Sotheby’s International came on board. Donny explains, “They have been indispensable for identifying the local individuals who were affected by Hurricane Irma. In addition, Carimo established a secure site at one of my destroyed villas as a distribution center for food and supplies.”

The key areas of focus for the NGO are threefold—Relief: Meeting immediate needs for food and shelter, Restore: Replacing necessities such as beds, appliances, and linens and Re-Establish: Helping to support the island’s long-term recovery as a tourist destination. Both Jon and Donny are keen to point out that everyone working with the NGO is a volunteer, and that every dollar donated will go to local residents in need of help, not to the villa owners, who face the task of rebuilding their properties on the island at their own expense.

When asked what inspired such a quick and effective response to the crisis, both men refer back to their own life experiences. Donny says, ““Because of Hurricane Katrina I knew that the news footage could not begin to reveal the true carnage, nor the fear or despair of the residents. This fueled an instant decision to do whatever I could to help” Jon continues, “An island like St. Martin is not the beaches or the sun, it’s the people. The island has given a lot to a lot of people over the years; this is an opportunity to give back, to help people rebuild their lives.”

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.

Jenny Cahill-Jones