“I am now waking up from the shock. You know, initially, I was in shock but now reality is stepping in and I am feeling emotional. You know when you look around, St Maarten was a pretty place and there is no beauty anywhere now even the hills are brown,” she said. I hear her voice crack and I know she is crying.
My older sister Geraldine Swarving is speaking. It has been a week since Hurricane Irma, which mashed up several Caribbean islands on September 6 before moving to the US. She lives on the Dutch side of the Dutch and French island known as Sint Maartin and Saint Martin, depending on which side you are referring to. The island was severely hit with almost 95% of the buildings destroyed or damaged. The only international airport, Princess Juliana, and the harbours are all damaged.
She wanted to share her experience and I decided that it should be in her own words. My sister has been living in Sint Maarten for the past 20 years, she is married and has three sons. A teacher on the island, Gerry, as she is fondly called, says she is taking it one day at a time.
Before I get into her narrative she wanted me to share that me and my two sons spent almost the entire month of August with her; we left the island 11 days before it was hit by the hurricane. Our time there, she said, is one of the happy experiences she holds on to.
Internet service is intermittent on the island and so her narrative was sent via several voice notes on WhatsApp.
“It all began with the mangoes. Around May/June it was the mango season and for the first time since I am here I saw mangos like I have never seen mangoes here, every single tree was filled with mangoes; everybody was giving away mangoes.
“I kept hearing the older folks saying, ‘this is not a good sign,’ because when Hurricane Luis came (the one that everybody talked about) in 1995 that is exactly what happened, the mango trees were overladen with mangoes. I heard it from quite a few persons that this was not looking good for St Maarten.
“And then Hurricane Irma came up. At first, it wasn’t anything that I took to heart because I have weathered five hurricanes since I am here and none of them were really bad: a little tree here and there, a few roofs went and that was it. Life returned to normal about two, three days after the hurricanes passed.
“So, I am thinking it was the same thing, but the hurricane was gaining strength and so by the Friday before it touched down the supermarkets started to get very busy… But still, I was not taking it very seriously…
“By Monday I said, ‘no this is looking serious.’ Monday, we had school, everybody was talking about hurricane and that was all we were focused on. According to reports, the hurricane was gaining strength. By Tuesday we began to hear about this super hurricane that was coming our way, that was more than a category five and I was like ‘no, Lord this doesn’t look good’ but I did my little shopping, got water, batteries, some extra dry goods and so on.
“I thought I was prepared, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
“By Tuesday afternoon everywhere was boarding up, you heard drilling and hammering. It was like St Maarten was transformed. You looked around and all the windows and glass doors, either their shutters were down or they had plywood over them…
“Persons were going around trying to get rid of the debris in their yards… And so we realized that it was serious and I started to get fearful but I did not relate it to anyone.
“I prayed a lot, because by then we were hearing that this was now a category six hurricane, something that is not on the records.
“But we decided that we are going to stay at home to weather it out, we were not going to go into a shelter and I am glad that we did.
“We went to bed and around 1.30 the wind started, but nothing big at first, you could look through the window and see the trees going. And by 2.30 it began to get a little stronger but by 4, it was roaring.
“What kept us was prayer and the word of God. We kept praying, myself and my husband. The children got up around 5… The wind was howling and the leaves were blowing all over, you know we peeped through a little window because we tried not to shutter everything down because it is advisable to leave a little space for some air to flow through.
“So, we were peeping and we saw things flying all over. And then there was a break; the eye came at around minutes to 6 in the morning and you see doors just flew open and all the neighbours came outside.
“We were all wandering around and saying ‘how you doing’ and you could just see doors opening and people coming out. Everybody was looking around, by then part of my fence was gone, the mango tree had a few leaves left but it was standing strong.
“About 7, the tail began to come and everybody went back into their houses and bolt up and lock up. And that was fearful.
“The part of the hurricane that was more dreaded was the tail and it was for a reason because it took everything that it could have taken, that was when our ceiling started going up and down, up and down and we got really scared. We started to take everything out of the closet, we live in a two-flat house and so we started to pelt everything downstairs.
“We took what we could have, we couldn’t take everything but we took some clothes and made sure we had our documents because we thought our ceiling was going to cave in so we ran downstairs.
“The wind was howling and the noise, you were hearing these hard noises, I don’t know but like two by fours, windows, zinc sheets hitting on the house. It was quite fearful and we heard like part of the roof cave in so I crawled and I went upstairs and what happened was just a part of the ceiling in one of the rooms came down, the zinc was still up, thank God for that because if the zinc was blown off then a lot of strong wind would have been blowing in the house.
“Throughout it all we prayed and we sang, God really helped us and he kept us.
“Around minutes to 10, the tail had passed and we went outside. The area had changed, there were no trees, just stumps and dry branches. Every tree around us, every single leaf disappeared, every, every single leaf. Half of the mango trees in my yard were gone, three-quarters of my neighbour’s mango tree, which is a really big mango tree, went away. My whole fence went. I had a big dog house, we couldn’t find it.
“When everybody came outside, we saw minibuses and cars were upturned; every other car was damaged, you know, windscreen out or something rammed into the back of the car.
“And so we took a walk in my village and windows were out and doors were out and I thought that was bad.
“… We started to clean up, I am so happy for the village that we live in; we started to clean up right away… and so by the end of the day my street was clean.
“And so I am saying that to say this: that the hurricane passed on September 6, and what was eerie about it is that Luis that was here 22 years ago – the hurricane that everybody talked about – I wasn’t here at the time, I came two years after. Luis came on the sixth of September and it was almost on the birthday of Luis that Hurricane Irma came.
“My area and streets are cleaned but up to today [September 14] there are some places that you can’t walk without holding your nose. There is debris everywhere and that is because much has been lost, houses have been blown down, roofs blown off, chairs and beds and clothes and stoves and closets, washing machines are all over the place, the fridges.
“It was when I ventured out of my village that I understood just how devastating this hurricane was.
“And so St Maarten has changed, from one beautiful, beautiful island to an island that is dry; everywhere is dry there are no leaves on the trees, the hills are brown… there is absolutely no greenery.
“Some places are just flattened where houses were standing, it is just garbage, just damage. Eighty percent of our hotels have been damaged and so life has changed.
“I now find myself waiting in lines for relief, for water to drink, water to bathe and clean with…and even for some food stuff.
“I must thank God. God has been mighty good to my family. We have neighbours who look out for us, they share, we cook, we share. I would bake bread, I would share. Last night there was a midnight water drop off for a neighbour and eight of us in that street we got water, we were able to fill up the drums and so to wash and to flush out toilets.
“So right now, you down to bathing once a day, rationing your food stuff, rationing the drinking water, rationing everything.
“Life as it is, is at a standstill at the moment. I am worried. I guess I was in a state of shock but today I broke down and I cried because I can’t believe that in one day a whole island can so transform and life as it is for everyone can be so transformed,” she said this while openly crying.
“I am teacher, went to the school today, half of it the roof is gone the books are damaged, our computers are all messed up and so you don’t know when you are going to go to work again. And so as it right now it is just waiting from one day to the next.
“My husband works with the housing foundation so he goes to work because they are in charge of a lot of apartments and many of them have been damaged…
“But it is just that I don’t know when life is going to be back to normal. One thing that is on my mind is my son who is in fifth form. I don’t know how he is going to finish school because most of the schools have been heavily damaged.
“I am hoping that we would get a solution for my son very soon…
“We had have two storms: you know Irma but then the looting, that was devastating so the supermarkets are closed. We are not getting gas. Gas is only being sold for emergencies. Basically, we are now dependent on the outside world that is sending relief. I don’t know how long it would last.
“Life is just about helping now. You get up and you try to help someone because there are persons who don’t have homes and they need lots of help and I try to share.
“I don’t know if we are going to have to return back to Guyana or if it is possible to continue living here, an island that has almost been wiped out, the airport damaged, the harbours damaged. Half of the water supply is down, I got electricity in my area but it is off and on because of the damage. The cleaning up is going good; right now the big vehicles rule the roads but they are doing great.
“Kudos to the garbage collectors and those with the big equipment, they are doing a great job.
“And so, we wait, we wait, one day at a time we take it because life as it is, is at a standstill.”