Hurricane Irma and St Maarten
1. From my writing room in Melbourne, I track the hurricane. They have named her Irma. Universal. From the old German “irmin”. War goddess. Reports show her bending trees, crushing buildings, scooping torrents of water onto bracing shores. She is making to sideswipe Puerto Rico. Haiti might just escape. The Bahamas is right in her path. In the shaky mobile-phone footage of onlookers, Irma howls hell-fury. She shows no signs of calming down.
2. Unlike the temporary cruise-market tables that greeted my family’s travel party on the United States Virgin Island of St Croix, St Maarten’s pier shopping is bricked-in sturdy. Pretty paved market area. Small row of permanent shops selling opals and stones, touting designer clothes. Tourist knick-knack stands spruiking ripoff sunglasses, palm-painted ukuleles, “handmade” Rasta wristbands still in made-in-China-stickered plastic.
“Ye hungry? Come on up! What meat ye wan? Chicken? Fish? Gat ginger juice, gat lemonade, gat sorrel juice. Ye hungry?” The young woman serving roti is all black-girl-shine, quick-hustling fistfuls of creased American dollars into the navy blue pouch-bag tightened around her waist.
3. My trembling index finger follows the glowing Category 5 fireball along my computer screen. Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados. St Lucia. Hurricane Irma is heading for Isla de San Martin. St Maarten. A country already knotted with cyclone scars. Hurricane Donna rampaged there in 1960. Hurricane Luis bore down in 1995. Now Irma has fixed her swirling silver eye, advancing with gritted teeth.
4. Workers in bright orange shirts guide visitors to taxis. “Where ye go?” a woman in a black cap asks my aunty. “Maho Beach.” “Take this cab here – $17 per person.” My aunty sucks her teeth, disapprovingly. “That’s too much. There are 40 of us. Do us a better deal.” My aunty is the youngest of six strong-willed children, all in our travel party. “We’ll go out to the road and hail someone.” “ Ma’am, we can’t guarantee safety unless you hail someone from here.” Aunty fans the dense humidity from her face. “We’ll take our chances.” Our group starts walking away from the taxi rank. “Wait! Let me talk to the drivers.”
Directly behind us, a mountainous hill looms. Not the lush jade-green we saw in Dominica or Grenada, but covered in a spindly brown and silver undergrowth. The steep incline shields the rest of the island from immediate view, like a brutish club bouncer, spoiling for a fight.
5. They are calling this storm a monster. She has conjured winds of 300 kilometres an hour, extending 130 kilometres from her centre, and sustained them for more than 35 hours. The Atlantic Ocean is September-hot. Irma will have a clear runway of warm water, stretching all the way from Puerto Rico to Florida. They say nothing will slow her down. They say she will destroy everything in her path. They say God save the people of the Caribbean, because nothing else will save them now.
6. My aunty bargains down to $US14 a head. Our group splits into two taxi vans. The driver of ours, an Indian man, introduces himself as Bob. Bob has lived in St Maarten for more than a decade. He speaks of her like she is the love of his life, but with a reverence reserved for the beautiful-dangerous. “I want to live here forever. You can get weed here. It’s not even a crime. We grow it like medicine. I can sell you some, and none of us would get into trouble. And St Maarten is a tax haven. I work five days a week and nobody takes any of my money.”
The driver’s chest puffs out proudly against the steering wheel at the sheer gall of it all. “Then on the weekends I go hunting.” Bob deliberately pauses a beat, as a small child telling a knock-knock joke. “Hunting pussy. Hehehehe.” His ample belly jiggles. “Just joking. I swear. But really, you can do anything here. And everything is cheap. Except petrol and girls.”
The vehicle climbs out of the port. Outside the van window, a suburban-cum-industrial landscape unfolds. An entrepreneur’s wonderland. Luxury holiday venues eat up white sand beaches, fancy new-build looming over turquoise tide. Inland, construction spills from lot to lot. Ageing, brightly painted, cement-rendered homes back on to roadside chicken shops, back on to hairdressing shops, back on to graveyards. Churches bump up against nightclubs, which twerk against factories. The T-shirted people walking the streets swing between laidback stroll and meaning-business stride.
I’m stunned at the number of car dealerships we pass, until the taxi van slows. “There’s only one road round to this part of the island. And everyone has a car. It’s so easy to get a car loan. Sometimes you can get stuck for hours.” It’s the first concession Bob has made about his beloved. But then, as if to erase the memory of it: “Did I tell you how cheap the rum is? We brew it up whenever we feel like it. But don’t buy it. Tourists can’t handle it.” He’s smiling, but the word tourists drips with derision.
“We have, like, 100 churches on the island. We just sin all the time and then repent on the weekend. There’s even a tiny island here where they go out to do voodoo. You bring a picture of the person you hate and they’ll snap a chicken’s leg off. You’ll never ever see them again. Just like that. Hehehehe.”
Bob does not tell us how Columbus did not bother to stop here. He does not tell us about the Dutch West India Company, setting up to mine salt. About the importation of slaves to grow cotton, tobacco and sugar. He does not recount how slave rebellions fiercely pushed the island towards abolition, or explain the still-divided regions of the island, French and Dutch.
7. The water at Maho Beach is so jelly-blue it seems like an eye trick. An open-air bar built into one side of the beach teems with tourists: red-shouldered with sunburn; drinking longnecks and rum punch; seeking shade shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder amid wooden tables, as an island DJ blasts reggae and hip-hop.
The fine white sand is striped with brightly coloured towels and every-body bikinis. The water is bath-warm, crystal clear, lapping gentle, like a lake. Behind Maho Beach, separated by a single-lane road, is Princess Juliana International Airport. The spectacle of impossible natural beauty against soaring steel bird and concrete runway is St Maarten to a tee.
Every 15 minutes or so, beachgoers, shrieking and pointing to the sky, watch as a plane draws closer and closer, flying in at chillingly low altitude, right above the heads of the sunbakers. So close it seems we could touch the underside with our fingertips. Each arrival ripples the bright blue water, dust-storms the upper beach. My cousin climbs up from the beach to the bar where I’m sitting. Her eyes are startled wide. Her black braids are sequined with sand.
8. For a good while, after Irma hits, all signals out of St Maarten cease. Then images start filtering through. Roofs peeled back like tin cans. Trees uprooted like garden weeds. Crushed metal hulls where once were cars. Buildings turned to powdered rubble. No electricity. No running water. No way off the island. The press use words such as apocalyptic, such as despair.
Irma laughs in aerial view: a swirling white mass, pulsing around a dark, inflamed eye. She is bound for Florida. Her family is close behind. Her aunt Katia landed in Mexico, then regrouped over the Pacific Ocean, to give birth to hurricane Otis. But it is Maria the world is worried about. Maria is Irma’s twin sister, and mirrors her in strength and temperament.
There’s even a tiny island here where they go out to do voodoo. You just bring a picture of the person you hate and they’ll snap a chicken’s leg off and you’ll never ever see them again.
I find myself wondering: is the voodoo island still standing; who is there left to row out?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Eye on the storm". Subscribe here.