In the days leading up to hurricane Irma, I waited restlessly as I received incoming messages from my close friend, Natalie Grieco, who lives in St. Maarten, an island in the Caribbean. As she prepared for the biggest hurricane to hit the island since 1995, I researched frantically, and fruitlessly, to find relevant information to relay to her.
For most Canadians awaiting news of the hurricane, information online was scant.
Unless related as to how it would impact the United States, online sources barely provided information about the location, direction or intensity of the brewing storm. Even less information was shared on the island.
Based on her own research and advice from close family and friends, Natalie bought extra food, water and juice and cooked meals in preparation. She created an emergency first-aid kit and packed her valuables and belongings.
In moments of desperation, I reached out to my infrequently used Twitter account to ask other people with families and friends in the Caribbean to help me track the progress and eventual destruction from the storm.
I read that tropical storms generally breed in East pacific waters and grow in severity as they approach the warmer waters of the West pacific – resulting in stronger winds and greater overall strength. The strongest storms then become hurricanes that are categorized according to their severity, from Category 1 to 5 – with a Category 5 storm expected to cause catastrophic damage.
This summer, hurricane Irma grew into a Category 5 storm as it approached St. Maarten and, instead of dissipating, it continued to grow – surpassing the Category 5 stage and entering unchartered territory.
Natalie boarded up her windows and waited. And I waited with her.
Before the storm hit, how did you find information in order to prepare? What was the atmosphere on island, among inhabitants?
Natalie: We had local weather stations interpreting information from the National Hurricane Centre and telling us what our areas in particular can expect. Irma broke a lot of records from the beginning, including the rate at which she jumped from a common Tropical Storm to a Category 2, then the rapid increase to a 3, then 4, then 5.
Islands, including St. Maarten, have been able to withstand Category 3 hurricanes, which cause damage, but are not catastrophic and don’t require fleeing overseas. When Irma hit Category 3 and seemed to be strengthening and coming in our direction, people began to prepare by buying canned foods and drinking water.
When she hit a Category 4 and all subsequent flights got canceled, most people started buying flash lights, batteries, wood to board up their houses, tools, and more food and water. Roads became congested with panicked traffic, lines got long, stores cleared out of essential items and everyone was on edge.
When it was stated that Irma had already become a Category 5 (indicated by winds of over 157 miles per hour, or over 250 kilometres per hour) before even reaching us, we knew we were in trouble. We boarded up. Our kitchen looked like the stock room of a convenience store. We frantically charged every electronic device, put our important documents in air-tight bags, and packed our luggage in case we had to evacuate.
We were asking one another, “Are you ready?” – but it was sad because in reality, even with all the preparation, we knew that while the one of the largest storms in history was coming our way, it was impossible to know if we were truly ready.
What was it like to be in the direct path of the storm?
Natalie: By the time Irma gave us a direct hit, the sustained winds had hit 185 mph – or 300 km/h – with repeated gusts of up to 230 mph, or 370 km/h. On the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Category Scale, this would have been a Category 6 or a 7, but to date those categories don’t exist, because there have never been storms of this strength.
The winds came on strong at 4 a.m. for three to four hours, with constant, terrifying howling winds. The pressure popped our ears and water came in around the edges of the doors. A direct hit meant being in the eye of the storm, and as the first side of the hurricane’s eye-wall (the area just outside the eye of a hurricane, where the most intense winds and rain exist) approached, the winds swirled in one direction, from North to South. The centre of the eye had eerily calm winds and when we peeked out, we could see through up to the sky.
Knowing the eye would only last for about 45 minutes, we took the opportunity to run outside to retrieve the debris that blew onto our balcony and bring it inside to prevent further damage. I looked up and it was something I will never forget – the entire sky was orange.
After the eye passed, it was time for the backside eye-wall to approach, and with it a change in direction. Because of the spinning winds, this meant that we now got hit from the opposite direction, now from South to North.
The back-end of the storm lasted about three more hours and proved to be much worse, causing the most damage. It tore down buildings, bashed through cement, took the roofs that ripped off during the first pass and flung solid sheet metal material around like paper.
We were fortunate – Irma didn’t come inside our house (my greatest fear) but most were not as lucky. Most had entire roofs ripped off and many houses were completely torn down. Some people that lived near the ocean were swept out to sea. Many boaters stayed on their boats, against warnings, and did not survive. As reports of dozens bodies washing ashore continue to come through, we know there are likely hundreds of people missing, dragged out to sea.
How did St. Maarten, a relatively wealthy island, cope with the damage?
The aftermath was mayhem mixed with desperation. We had no water, no electricity, no phone service and no access to the internet. After the storm, we went outside only to find that most roads were impassable. Trees the size of buildings were uprooted, 40-foot metal shipping containers and roofs were strewn across roads. About 80 per cent of the cars we saw were damaged beyond repair. Most houses had no roofs, others lost entire floors.
The amount of damage to homes was staggering – and multi-million dollar mega-homes were as damaged as the shack houses. Boats were on the roadways, flipped over in the water, and hundreds were half-sunk. Airplanes were flipped over on the runway like toys and the airport – once the second busiest in the Caribbean – was badly damaged. Hotels and major resorts experienced catastrophic damage and most are now closed.
The first day after Irma, we heard about Hurricane Jose coming, which luckily took a turn out to sea just hours before he was set to make landfall – though we didn’t know that at the time. Pandemonium broke out and we worried about the recovery time and if we would actually survive another storm. The amount of debris, which would typically take months to clean up, was strewn everywhere waiting to be lifted and thrown by the next storm. We had no time.
The looting started right away – first with grocery stores for food and water. Next it was tech stores, furniture and appliance stores, jewelry stores, restaurants, and even clothing stores like Michael Kors. The following day we were on 24/7 lock-down, not allowed to leave our properties. The curfew was not respected for a number of reasons – some people were trying to reach friends and family while the opportunists wanted freebies.
Looters invaded houses, syphoned gas from car tanks, stormed resorts and even beat up tourists for their belongings. Things became violent and after three days the government called a state of emergency, which allowed the hundreds of outside marines, military, and police to act and get things somewhat in order. It felt like a military state but it was clear there was no disaster plan in place and that everyone was left to their own devices.
When the government and military finally took over, there was still mass confusion and lack of information. Rescue supplies such as food and water sent from neighbouring islands sat on ships for 10 days because the government had no plan to distribute them. Two ships full of medical supplies were turned away without reason.
The radio was our only point of information. For the next two weeks we were left with no utilities and limited contact to the outside world. When we finally started recovering from shock, news came that Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, was on her way. At that point we were just tired – physically, emotionally, and mentally. We did what we could to prepare, experienced more damage and felt defeated.
What did you see in terms of foreign aid?
Natalie: The United States brought in planes to evacuate its citizens. France and The Netherlands did the same. Other than that, international aid was sparse. Canada showed little concern for its citizens, sending very few planes without alerting people in time.
Those who knew the planes were coming went to the airport in the early morning and waited on the tarmac for hours, in some cases days, to see if their country was coming to help them. I heard that many people evacuated between the storms and were stuck abroad since, unable to return.
Some lost everything and will never return.
How is St. Maarten coping now?
Natalie: The full effects have yet to be felt. On an island that relies on tourism as its sole source of economic stability, this will hurt. Thousands in the service industry are out of work, most are on reduced hours and many businesses are shut, possibly forever.
This year’s high season will not see many tourists, as most hotels are unable to house visitors or the thousands of timeshare guests that return year after year. The airport has been estimated to have $100 million in damage and will take up to a year to repair.
St. Maarten’s last catastrophic direct-hit was from Luis, a Category 4 hurricane in 1995. It took six months to restore power and water. There was a death toll then too, as well as looting. One major resort on the beach is still vacant due to legal battles. So the island has a long journey ahead.
Do you think these latest hurricanes should be a catalyst to do more to address climate change reduction efforts?
Natalie: We need to realize that climate and weather patterns have worsened – that natural disasters around the globe are getting stronger and more frequent. Countries in the G7 perhaps haven’t directly felt the devastating effects from it and need a wake-up call.
North America is a leading contributor to ravaging resources, we are some of the largest consumers. The ignorance of America is astounding, especially after witnessing the catastrophic events from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma to the Virgin Islands and now Maria in Puerto Rico.
The Paris Agreement is a drop in the bucket when we think about what needs to be done.
What should now be done moving forward in the wake of these tragedies in terms of disaster preparation and relief?
Natalie: I think the world is looking for band-aid solutions when we should be working on a heavy duty operation. We are hemorrhaging and it is way too late for band-aids. It’s time to look at the root causes and at our human demands on earth’s finite resources. Having a solid plan in place for managing the aftermath is key, but we should be creating prevention and preparation plans as well.
Based on what you saw, how do you think Canada would have handled a hurricane of this magnitude – and how should it be handled?
Natalie: Canada’s stick-built, siding-covered homes wouldn’t stand a chance in a hurricane of this magnitude. Luckily, there are more opportunities for evacuation to neighbouring areas, both before and after.
However, looking at Ontario, the low-lying areas and the numerous cities built on flood plains that lack proper drainage have resulted in severe flooding – think the Don Valley Parkway, North of the GTA this summer, and recently, Windsor.
On the other hand, the Western provinces have had such dry conditions they are burning. It’s a matter of assessing the vulnerabilities in those areas, and having a solid plan to manage them. I think that even before that, being cognizant of those conditions and treating the land accordingly by protecting some areas and refusing to develop on them would be wise.
What are some final thoughts after this experience?
Natalie: I think we need to have greater vision going forward, on the island and worldwide. Back in the day, there was less – less of everything. Less people to worry about, less businesses and houses, and less demand for electronics and frivolous things. People lived simply.
Today, there is more of everything – more money, more greed, and more, supposed, need. On the island, the population has grown exponentially, as have the numbers of houses and businesses. Vacant spots of land have been filled and even mountain tops are covered in houses. Building codes have been lax because money buys permits with fewer questions asked. Boats every few meters spill their oil with little regard into nature, garbage dumps are at capacity, and raw sewage has nowhere to go but into the ocean.
Everything is so fast-paced to appease human desire for consumption of goods and resources. The planet is showing us she has the power to come and reclaim her earth whenever she wants with whatever force necessary. We can rebuild, but she might destroy that too.
Though residents of the Caribbean islands are no strangers to hurricanes, recent events are proving they may come knocking more often. The inadequacies of nations to respond to natural disasters and their ineptitude at teaching the public may have devastating effects world-wide.
Natalie Grieco is now returning to North America to pursue other projects while the island’s tourism sector and resources recover.
By Izabela Wlodarczyk
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.