Though I hate to think of myself as a “disaster tourist,” I can’t deny one of the things I was most curious about as I sailed south last fall to visit St. Martin, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico was how much hurricane damage I would see. I’m sure no one needs reminding that this portion of the Caribbean suffered a terrible one-two punch in September 2017 when Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever, and Maria, another Category 5 storm, both struck within two weeks of each other.
Like all sailors who have cruised these islands, I was staggered by the reports I’d read. On the French side of St. Martin, in the immediate aftermath of Irma, 95 percent of the buildings were damaged and 60 percent were uninhabitable. On the Dutch side 70 percent of the buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, and the island’s airport, one of the biggest in the Caribbean, was disabled. Similar statistics emerged from certain islands in Virgins that had been most affected by the storms. In Puerto Rico, badly mauled by Maria, there was catastrophic flooding, terrible mudslides and over 3,000 people killed. The island also suffered the worst blackout in U.S. history, with more than the half the population stuck with no power three months after the storm and many who had none for eight months. For months afterward, most of the island’s roads were also unusable.
When I sailed my 47ft cutter, Lunacy, into St. Martin early last November, a little more than a year after Irma’s visit, the island’s wounds were still very visible. Wrecked cars, buildings and boats were common sights, the airport terminal was a tent, and fewer than 30 percent of the docks at Simpson Bay Marina, where I left the boat, were usable.
When I returned six weeks later with my family to resume sailing, things had improved a bit. The airport terminal had reopened, though it was still largely under construction, and about half the marina’s docks were operational, at least on the Dutch side. Driving over to the French side, we found our favorite village of Grand Case, once home to the island’s best restaurants, was still mostly out of commission, with only a handful of businesses reopened. Even worse, our favorite marina, Capt. Oliver’s at Oyster Pond, where we’d often left the boat in the past, was an abandoned ruin, with no evidence of any effort to rebuild.
From St. Martin we sailed on to the BVI, visiting Virgin Gorda and Jost van Dyke, though storm damage here was still evident it seemed less prevalent. In the case of the once popular Bitter End Resort on North Sound, you had to know what was there before to comprehend the harm that had been done, for there was nothing there to see at all. It was as if the place had never existed. At Foxy’s famous bar on Jost, the hint that something had gone wrong was the fact that the place was all rebuilt, with a very shiny new roof. Meanwhile, moving on to St. Thomas, which I hadn’t visited in decades, it was possible to believe, from just looking around, that maybe nothing bad had happened at all.
Following another six-week hiatus, my wife and I returned, cruising all three of the U.S. Virgins, after which I continued on solo to Puerto Rico. In all these places, save for badly wrecked boats spotted here and there, I found it hard to distinguish storm damage from the general entropy and humid decay one so often sees in the tropics. To comprehend what had transpired I had to talk to people and hear, for example, what it’s like to have no power for months on end. With some, I walked their property and heard how much nicer it had been before. With others, I heard how they’d fled their homes and were hoping to return someday, but weren’t sure how that would happen.
I urge you to do the same when you visit your favorite storm-tossed Caribbean cruising ground. Just listen to people’s stories. They certainly are not shy about telling them. For most everyone I spoke with, it seemed that sharing what had happened with visitors was a useful catharsis. And of course, with yet another storm season heating up in these times of climatological roulette, we should pray our island friends don’t have any new stories to tell come winter.