The following is the second 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.
Meghann Cundall is Canadian born and raised. She relocated to the Caribbean in 2013, first to Virgin Gorda, then to St. Martin, where she’s lived for the past three years. She is the General Manager of Carimo, a Luxury Retreats-owned property management company that represents some of the island’s most opulent homes. Here she shares some of her most shocking storm stories and tells us how life has changed in the months since Hurricane Irma.
Preparing for the hurricane
“Everyone on St. Martin is an amateur storm tracker. Every hurricane season, we start our mornings by going online and checking StormPulse or the National Hurricane Center or WindGuru. On Wednesday, August 30th, we could see there was a storm forming in the Atlantic close to Africa that was picking up force quickly. By Friday I started calling all Carimo guests scheduled to arrive on Saturday onwards and canceled every single one of their arrivals up until the following Thursday, September 7th. Our priority was to have the fewest guests on the island as possible when the storm was scheduled to hit St. Martin.
Next, we started contacting all guests already on the island and their airlines, to try and get them off the island before the storm was due to hit, on September 5th. Two parties remained on the island and would have to brave during the hurricane.
Our Maintenance team, our Concierge team, and I set out to work. Our priority was closing up our villas and getting them hurricane-ready. We worked 16 or 18 hours several days in a row to make sure the villas would be as protected as possible.”
Search and rescue: finding missing colleagues
“After the hurricane passed I set about trying to locate all my employees and make sure they were safe. One of my good friends has a pickup truck, which we would need to navigate the flooded and debris-covered roads. We partnered up and drove around the island to try and locate everyone. In the first few days, we were able to find 18 out of 19 employees—one was missing, our Concierge Daggi Schneider. We were worried, and to make matters worse, we had to postpone our search for her when we got word that we were expecting yet another storm: Hurricane Jose.
We went into survivor mode again for the next two days, trying to prepare the villas we were staying in for another storm, having already moved into them from our own unlivable homes. At that point, anyone I managed to find that didn’t have a home came to La Provencale villa, where I was staying. By the time the second storm came I had 30 people staying there. Thankfully for us, Jose missed St. Martin completely; we didn’t get a drop of rain. On Sunday morning, I was finally able to drive up to Anse Marcel where Daggi lived. I didn’t know her address, but I knew I could find her if I asked everyone I saw in that neighborhood. So I went there and I asked anyone on the side of the road if they knew her or her husband, Nico. Sure enough, I found them safe, working at cleaning up their destroyed apartment.”
Finding time to celebrate
“Donna Hodge is a Carimo Concierge and a St. Martin native from Grand Case. Her family is really well-known there and they do a lot of community work in that area—they are the family of Grand Case. Donna and her family chose not to evacuate Grand Case because they didn’t think they would be any safer elsewhere.
Donna and her family have a two-story home in Grand Case where she lives on the top floor and rent out the lower floor to the restaurant La Villa. Their whole top floor is now gone, except for one wall that remains standing. They only have a few pieces of clothing left. I invited 11 of her family members over to La Provencale to stay with us. One of them was her cousin, Cassie, whose birthday was during the storm. She spent her birthday reinforcing the door from the wind and water of Irma, trying to prevent it from breaking. After the second storm passed, we threw a massive feast on Sunday.
It was an amazing time with a lot of music, laughter, and hugging; some of the kids that were staying in the villa even put together a dance routine. Every time someone showed up on the doorstep with nothing and nowhere to go, I took them in; I didn’t have the heart to do otherwise. People were sleeping on floors on lounger cushions, using towels as blankets. We were doing everything we could, but at the end of the day, it was being together that was important. Most of the people in the house either didn’t speak English or didn’t speak French—but we all just got along and lived together. I now have a whole new family here on St. Martin. We were so united about taking care of one another. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. If you were invited into our home, you were part of the family.”
Some lives were changed forever by the storm
“One of the saddest outcomes of the storm is the fate of Nayseth, a 14-year-old girl from Honduras. Hurricane Irma only lasted eight hours, but it managed to destroy her entire life. She was living in Belize with her mother and American stepfather. They were vacationing in the Caribbean on a boat and just happened to be in St. Martin during the hurricane. They didn’t know anyone on the island and there was no place for them to go, so they tried to weather the storm in a lagoon. Sadly, it was not a safe place. There were about 100 boats in the lagoon during Irma and not one of those boats stayed afloat—they’re all at the bottom of the sea.
Nayseth and her mother tragically watched her stepfather die on the boat, then jumped off to try and find safety together. They were eventually split up and would never reconnect—Nayseth’s mother was never found, but somehow Nayseth managed to get to shore. Once the storm had passed, a Carimo employee named Cyril set off in his car to try and find his friends. He found Nayseth alone at the side of the road and picked her up. Cyril and his wife took her in and she’s been living with them ever since. They are in the process of connecting her with her stepfather’s family in Texas where they hope to relocate her, but for now, she’s in St. Martin with Cyril and his family.”
What happens now?
“Of our 19 St. Martin staff members, 12 have lost their homes. I lost everything in my apartment due to flooding. I saved one suitcase and my dog. One of the best things to come out of all this was that I met my now boyfriend, Arnaud. He was one of 30 people I provided shelter to after Hurricane Irma, a friend of a friend. We’ve been dating ever since! Irma brought a lot of sadness to my life but the silver lining is now I have Arnaud to rebuild my new life in St. Martin.
The work to restore St. Martin has only just begun. A few days after Hurricane Irma, I got an email from one of our villa owners on the island, a man named Donny Dicharry. He told me he had started a charity. I immediately connected him with another owner, Jon Bobbett, as I knew together they could make this effort as successful as possible. The SXMProject is focused on raising funds and raising awareness of the fact that Irma has come and gone, but there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done. There are a lot of people that are unemployed or not making their full salary because their jobs relied on travel or hospitality. It’s a sad time. There are broken down or burnt cars still sitting on the side of the road, houses without roofs, and massive destruction that hasn’t been cleaned up.
We’ve built a distribution center on the tennis court at one of our villas and we’ve installed a makeshift office that we operate our Charity from. Now we’re just waiting for money to come in so we can start sending down shipments. We need linens, we need dishes, we need clothes, we need toys, we need furniture—we need everything you could possibly imagine. Anything you could think of that you have in your home that you take for granted, most of that is missing in the homes of people here. There are a lot of basic things people are going to have to go out and buy—but there are no stores open. Most of them were destroyed. So people are living without the the basics because there’s just no way to get them right now.”
All photos courtesy of Ayman Abedi
St. Martin Lowlands Hurricane Relief Project
Created in response to the crisis conditions on St. Martin in the weeks following the hurricane, 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.