Irma tales: Trini survives monster storm with humour

Guy Wilson and his wife Gail enjoying life in St Maarten in 2015.
Guy Wilson and his wife Gail enjoying life in St Maarten in 2015.

Trinidadian Guy Wilson, an aviation consultant, is general manager of Oil Mop Environmental Services, St Maarten. Wilson and his wife Gail Roach-Wilson were there when Hurricane Irma hit St Maarten on September 6, leaving the island suffering severe damage and also plagued by looting. Wilson has been posting humorous but heartbreaking dispatches on Facebook about life in the aftermath of the hurricane since then. Below are some extracts:

September 6, 5.32 am, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten:
I haven’t experienced such ferocity of wind in my life. All still okay. Side picket fence just went sailing away.

September 7:
The airport is a disaster. The fire station is in utter shambles, the perimeter fence is all gone. Winair’s offices are destroyed and their maintenance hangar is in total disrepair. The main terminal building suffered some serious damage, with windows and doors blown out. There were two private aircraft upside down, as were cars in the car park.

In an effort to cure our cabin fever, we decided to venture into the unknown.

The Fresh Market and new home centre, ably assisted by looters, were now deserted as these noble raiders made their way to what is now “Cost you None.” There was ample parking available as the merrymakers indulged in shopping-cart drag-racing and “How many Maggi browning gravy bottles can you carry?” Vital supplies such as Playdoh and Lego blocks were the order of the day.

Suffice it to say I shan’t be getting replacement lumber for my fence at Ace Hardware.

We crested the hill and stopped at the popular tourist lookout spot—sans the building. In Cay Bay and Cole Bay. The sight was indescribable. The devastation was complete, as it was easier to count houses with roofs than without.

September 11:
Early this morning our neighbour Elston hailed me out. His Chinese friend Lin called and advised him to meet her behind her supermarket. Accustomed as I am to such clandestine operations, I immediately donned my trousers with the many pockets and made haste to the rendezvous point.

We arrived at the allotted time, but there was no Lin. We waited for over an hour, to no avail. By this time (some six days after Irma) her meat and poultry products had begun the natural process of decomposition. The residents, seeing this unknown vehicle, approached and made inquiries as to the whereabouts of Lin and when she intended to come and relieve them of this aromatic experience.

A la St Peter we denied any knowledge of Lin and beat a hasty retreat. Very dejected, we returned home. Not too long after, another neighbour advised that drinking water was being distributed a stone’s throw away. With the speed of Lewis Hamilton I made my way there.

The line, surprisingly enough, was not too bad and I obtained an ample supply of government juice. I paid a “piper” a few dollars to stay in the line for the distribution of ice at 5 pm. Visions of a tall, cold beverage buoyed my spirits as I proceeded to another Chinese establishment rumoured to be open.

It was! The, line, however, was the envy of any civil service department: it stretched around the corner.

After what seemed an eternity (it was), I got to the top of the line and was quite chuffed with my success, save for some lamp oil and D batteries.

I returned home with my new found wealth, sat on my rocker, waved to the Dutch king and his motorcade as they whizzed by, and waited for my ice departure.

Operation ICE is a go. Elston was bang on time. We arrived at the ice establishment at 4.40 and my trusted piper was present. At exactly 5 pm the doors opened—but no ice.

By and by, a bearded bare-chested individual, whose muscles seemed to have muscles and who looked like the local Isaac Hayes, addressed the throng. He was only able to make about 50 bags of ice and these would be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis, two bags per person. Being about number 30 in the line, I was in dire straits.

Soon the 50 bags were gone and some people, disheartened, decided to leave. I told Elston we would not be deterred, as we had gained some ground.

At 6 Isaac announced the ice machine had broken down and he was doubtful that ice would be produced before 7. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth and many people left. I suspected there was something rotten in Arch Road (no, not Lin’s Supermarket), for I had earlier dispatched my piper to the other side of the building.

His reconnaissance revealed ice had been delivered to members of the local constabulary and the owner of the nearby house of ill repute. After all, essential services must have preference.

Having established that Isaac was a stranger to the truth, Elston and I decided to wait a bit longer, as we were now fifth in line. Alas, in vain: the sun was setting and the curfew would soon be upon us. I began to get nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, as I distinctly remembered my doctor’s advice, during my last visit, to stay away from bullets. We left, depressed and iceless.

But I got food and water. I shall get ice tomorrow for sure. I have to, as it is our wedding anniversary and I need to chill my newly acquired bottle of Chateau de Chinese Supermarket to accompany our anticipated repast to be served by the world-famous Italian Chef Boyardee.

September 14:
It had been some time since Gail actually left the house, so with the new curfew hours of 8 am to 3 pm, it was agreed she would join my never-ending quest for creature comforts. After plugging in every imaginable rechargeable device, I kissed my refrigerator goodbye and we set out.

Our first stop was Oil Mop. The damage was not too bad. The offices were caked in mud, but when water returns we will have it mopped up.

At our biggest customer, US Laundry, the devastation was utter. The place looked as if the Mighty Avengers and Loki’s forces had battled to the death on this very spot.

Shaken but not stirred, we proceeded towards the airport. My offices there were intact, as the cargo building is relatively new. The terminal, however, was literally gutted. Outside, the employee parking lot had been converted to the check-in area as scores of foreigners lined up to board the relief aircraft.

By now my ability to discern back-door supermarket entrances had peaked. My spider senses began tingling. Shopping at Maho Supermarket was like a child’s first visit to Disneyland or my first visit to Hamley’s on Regent Street. We stocked the cart like there was no tomorrow—then saw the “Cash Only” sign. So back went the Doritos, Cadburys and the like. We kept the dry roasted peanuts and, of course, the alcoholic beverages.

Hurricanes do not discriminate between rich and poor, have and have-nots, and Irma certainly did not. The Pelican area looked as if a Tasmanian devil ran through while under the influence of an overdose of speed. We met one of the managers of the yacht club. He seemed in a daze, as both his home and club were roofless and the deck of the yacht club had set sail.

We visited a dear friend, the recently widowed Judy, who had just arrived in St Maarten to get away from it all—only to end up right in the heart of Irma and her attendant tribulations. Judy graciously welcomed us into her air-conditioned living room and served us two of the coldest beers imaginable. Such unadulterated bliss.

The curfew hour was drawing near, so we said our goodbyes. Coming home to a lit house was surreal. We had become accustomed to sitting outside in the dark porch sipping our evening beverages—only this time they were cold.

Just then, the lights went. Electricity was gone like a thief in the night.

September 16:
The Windwards Islands Bank line was long, as usual, and the occupants looked frozen in time. I swear they were the same people from the day before, including hat lady.

As I parked in the now free public car park, I noticed a group gathering outside the RBC Bank across the way. Was this a vision, a hallucination, a mirage? No, it was not. The RBC ATM was working! According to the late Holly Betaudier, “Solid, liquid cash.” Good start.

I stopped off by the Chinee and treated myself to a breakfast of champions: a bun and a parlour juice.

I got water from a burst main in Simpson Bay. One man took the opportunity to do the family’s laundry but appeared a bit reticent to hang his wife’s dragon drawers on the makeshift clothesline between his trunk and a light pole.

I heard the Carl and Sons Bakery was open and when I arrived a tray of piping hot loaves had just been introduced. The aroma was enough to bring tears to one’s eyes.

At home I was pleasantly surprised to find we still had electricity. I kissed my refrigerator hello and enjoyed the coldest bottle of water I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. Dinner consisted of black bean soup and fresh bread after our evening cocktails.

This time with ice.

September 17:
Having survived the week from hell, I decided that, it being Sunday, I would adhere strictly to my religion and rest from all servile works.

My better half was now losing her mind, having not left the house since Thursday last. Armed with my ever-present water bottles, we set off. We stopped at the local Chinee and stocked up for the upcoming Hurricane Maria.

I had a really good look at the sheer destruction wreaked upon the Dutch side of the island. What was Cost You Less now looked like Cost You Stress, damaged not by Irma but by senseless mobs who had looted after the tempest.

The same with Kooyman, a hardware store. Ravaged by the wrath of Irma, it also suffered under the total asininity of the hordes who descended upon it. Do these idiots not realise that the same galvanize, wood and materials they loot today would be in short supply tomorrow? Some have no roofs nor electricity, yet they looted flat-screen televisions, computers, smartphones and the like. I hope when Maria arrives with her attendant rains that they find shelter under their newly acquired 50-inch TV.

We headed for the Green House: limited ice, but at least one could enjoy a cocktail with two blocks. Conversation centred on different methods of toilet-flushing to conserve water, the beauty of the stars sans roofs, the military presence, rumours of the Prime Minister demitting office, and the curfew.

Oh, my stars and garters! In our ebullience, we completely forgot about the curfew.

It also dawned on me that both establishments were still open – after curfew hours. Investigations revealed that the Dutch military were treated to sodas and meals during the day and would allow both Green House and Buccaneers to close at 6.

Says I, that does not help me. But by now, dear Gail was having the time of her life. I tried to explain our predicament to her, but she would have none of it. But we made it home without incident, whereupon we celebrated our good fortune with a sundowner.

September 20:
It was Monday and time to revisit the banks.

The powers that be had extended the curfew hours to 7 pm, though all businesses must close by 5 pm. The military were in charge of the streets. The banks able to open announced they would close at 1 pm, so all and sundry made their way there. The WIB line won the prize for best purgatory conditions in a post-apocalyptic event. The RBC line was a close second.

Not me and this today. I noticed that at the entrance to RBC there was an employee fielding questions. Says I, “I must make a mortgage payment, perchance is there a customer service representative available?”

With one quick movement the doors to the inner sanctum were opened to me. Having absolutely no intention of transacting any such business, I availed myself of the delights of their space-age coffee machine, joined the senior citizens’ line at the tellers’ island, withdrew, then withdrew from the premises. Five minutes flat. A record in any commercial bank, anywhere, any time, under any conditions

After refilling my water bottles, I made my way to the Oil Mop offices: still no lights or water despite being a stone’s throw away from the water and power company.

It was past the 15th of the month, so I had to do the payroll. But the bank where the employees could cash their cheques would not be open until Wednesday, Maria permitting. Poor fellas, there was nothing I could do, so I gave them each a very small personal loan which I hoped would tide them over.

Monday night into Tuesday morning was uneventful in St Maarten; unlike Dominica, it had been spared the ravages of Maria and the storm would pass some 100 miles to our south. As I looked out of my patio I saw the angry Caribbean Sea unleash wave after wave of indescribable venom. This would set back any efforts at rebuilding, as the main harbour was closed and the airport would soon follow.

In the evening I was able to get the Weather Channel on YouTube. They brought out doctors of meteorology past and present and put the fear of God into the poor souls in San Juan and the US Virgin Islands. No consideration was given to the goodly people of St Kitts-Nevis.

As night closed in, it became more blustery and I accustomed myself to the eerie noises of the howling winds and sheet-like rain of tropical storm conditions. I looked out one last time and noticed Philipsburg and Madame Estate were in total darkness: there were only seven houses with electricity. We were one of them.

I drifted off into another fitful night’s sleep. Jose and Maria, where is Jesus?


"Irma tales: Trini survives monster storm with humour"

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