BY STEVE BATES
It was about 6 p.m. Monday when we noticed the men boarding up the shops and deploying sandbags around the waterfront area in Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten, in the Lesser Antilles Islands of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, a pool party went on as scheduled a few yards away, with many of the guests from our resort drinking, dancing and splashing to the pounding beat.
Something was very wrong with this picture.
As it turns out, the revelers and the resort managers were not taking Hurricane Irma seriously. But it’s difficult for me to criticize them. The party participants had paid good money for their vacation. The resort needed to maintain some semblance of normality. And I was there, with my wife Jean, despite the fact that we knew before we left home that Irma was lurking somewhere west of our destination.
We had departed from Newark on Saturday morning. After arriving, we chatted with the friendly car rental agent in Sint Maarten. Even then, three days before Irma made a direct hit on the Dutch-governed portion of the island, he had these words of advice for us:
All through our truncated stay on the island—including a drive through the French half, known as Saint Martin—there were two constants: beautiful weather, and friendly local residents assuring us that they had survived previous hurricanes. We know now that there never has been a hurricane as strong as Irma was becoming. If there was a Category 6, she would have been a strong candidate. Sustained winds of 185 miles per hour for many days, with gusts up to 225.
We had barely unpacked on Saturday before starting to monitor Irma and think about options should we decide to leave.
On Sunday, our concerns grew. I bought only enough food for a few days, in case we decided to leave early. I felt almost silly lugging a big case of bottled water. But why take any chances? I started looking at flights out of Sint Maarten on Monday and Tuesday, using the Sint Maarten airport website as a starting point. There were not many flights out of the hurricane zone, and none directly to anywhere in the U.S.
On Monday morning, we were starting to realize that remaining on the island was probably too dangerous, particularly given our limited supplies of medications. By Monday afternoon, we knew that we had to leave.
Our cellphones would not work on the island, despite both of us having arranged for service there. The landline in the resort room was also balking. As I started surfing airline sites and secondary sites such as Kayak on my tablet, I realized that everyone else in the resort must have been doing the same thing.
Service got slow, then slower, then crashed.
“We can ride it out,” said Jean.
I kept trying to find a flight. A couple of times a site showed seats on a KLM flight scheduled to leave Sint Maarten late Tuesday and arrive in Amsterdam on Wednesday. It seemed like a long way to go. But the alternative was to ride it out—and risk a delay in getting home, among other things.
Each time I tried to book two seats on that flight, I went through the whole process down to the payment, only to receive a message saying “Sorry, these tickets are no longer available.”
“We can ride it out,” said Jean.
Internet down. Internet up. Internet slow. CNN providing dire news. I kept plugging away.
Wait. What’s this? Business class seats to Panama City, Panama? Our only connection with Panama City was that last year one of our lost bags went there. But on Monday afternoon, getting off the island to anywhere was a priority. I would have paid up to the limit of my credit card for two flights to the South Pole.
I got through the booking process for Panama City, right through the payment. Then the “Sorry” message again. No such seats.
I tried a second time, with the same result.
The third time I tried to book the Panama flights, a screen display seemed to say that I had actually booked the seats. I stared incredulously at the tablet, afraid to say anything in case the world had decided to play yet another practical joke on us. I raced to another device and called up my email. Sure enough, two tickets, business class, with a confirmation number.
You could probably hear the happy screams back in the states. Still, I was worried that the airport would close or the flight would be canceled.
After a sleepless night, we drove to the rental car facility, where we were told that the airport was closing at noon. Our flight was supposed to be at 12:30. While waiting to process paperwork, I approached a woman who was sweeping the floor. “Where will you and your family go?” I asked. “There is a school made of concrete. Very strong,” she said.
By the time we entered the terminal, the atmosphere was fairly normal, other than a panicked tourist who kept running back and forth.
“She’s been doing that all morning,” our Copa Airlines gate agent said as she checked our passports and processed our bags.
“You seem awfully calm,” I said. She just smiled. Supreme confidence in her ability to handle anything—plus, I suspect, supreme trust in God’s will.
As we waited to board, flights were being canceled left and right. We had two gate changes, which I interpreted as good signs. You generally don’t change gates for planes that never arrive.
When our plane finally arrived from Panama City, a surprising number of people got off, including children. I could only hope that they were there to be help relatives on the island.
Our flight left right on time. Within 15 minutes I was fast asleep. Sometime within the next 18 hours, the airport was destroyed. There was no way on or off Sint Maarten. Six deaths occurred on the island. There was no running water. There was no food. Looting was reported.
As I write this, I think not only of the residents I met but also of the vacationers stuck on the island indefinitely. If some of them lack access to important medicine, the situation could become life-threatening.
The experience imparted a few lessons:
One, people are resilient when they have to be. They help each other when they need to. They are fundamentally good.
Two, natural disasters cause a lot of suffering. It is the poor who always suffer the most.
Three, another hurricane was headed for the Lesser Antilles, while Irma was aiming at Florida and another major storm was churning in the Gulf of Mexico. A huge earthquake hit in Mexico. The planet is warming. Maybe it has nothing to do with human activity. I wouldn’t bet on that.
Four, I’m never scheduling another Caribbean vacation during hurricane season. Mountains, here I come.