Last year when we decided to move to the Caribbean, we could have never imagined our journey would end the way it did. During our 10 months living in St. Maarten, not only did we fall in love with the beauty of the island, we fell in love with the friendliness and kindness of the locals and all of the other expats who lived there. Everyone we seemed to meet was in some way or another determined to help us. Whether it be finding jobs, finding an apartment, or meeting other people who shared our love of the beach, we never felt alone or isolated in anything we did. The islanders just had this innate drive and desire to help us. We quickly understood why St. Maarten was nicknamed the friendly island.
As time passed, we grew even more attached to the island. It was our little slice of paradise and we felt like we were the luckiest people on earth for being able to call St. Maarten home. For us, it felt like all the pieces of the puzzle were finally coming together. We had great jobs, a beautiful new apartment, and a great group of friends. We’d look out our porch every night and watch the sun set over the water thinking, wow life is just so good right now.
That all changed on Wednesday, September 6th.
The week leading up to Hurricane Irma, we had limited information. As neither of us had ever gone through anything like this – we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We looked at possibly flying off island a few days before but at that point we were under the impression that it was a category 3 hurricane and it was shifting north. We did what the locals told us and stocked up on food and water. As far as we were concerned, we were in good shape and ready to take on Irma. These people had done this many times before so we figured we’d just ride it out along with everyone else.
Things changed on the morning of the 5th, when we woke up to texts from our friends telling us to go online and read the news. Hurricane Irma was now a category 5 hurricane expected to be one of the most powerful hurricanes in history. The anxiety we felt that day is hard to describe. We called our families, letting them know we would most likely lose power/signal for a few days but we would be in contact once everything was back up and running. Little did we know how naive this mindset was. By then there was nothing we could do but put down our hurricane shutters and pray for the best.
When the storm began, we still had power. We knew it would eventually be turned off and we would lose contact with everyone. By 5am the wind and rain were in full force. That was about the time we lost power. We were trying to hold it together but it sounded like a jet engine was right outside our windows. Because there was a very real possibility that the windows and doors could be blown in, we moved all our heavy furniture in front of the doors and went and hid in the bathroom, which was partially underground. There we put the rug from our bedroom over us in case the window blew in and the glass shattered everywhere. At this point, it seemed as though time was standing still. Wind whistled through every crack and the concrete foundation shook. We heard things crashing outside and the wind somehow seemed to get louder and stronger. After a few hours, everything stopped and it became calm. We knew we were directly in the eye of one of the most powerful hurricanes that had ever hit the Atlantic. It was a very surreal experience. Within 45 minutes, the storm picked back up again and we went back into the bathroom to ride out the tale end. Again, we waited. Even though the second half of the storm seemed more powerful, it wasn’t as scary. We figured if our apartment held up through the first half, it would make it through the second half. This gave us an ounce of relief. Finally around 3pm, 12 hours from when it all began, the storm seemed to subside. We were grateful to be alive and have a roof over our head, but we were about to be hit with the harsh reality of what had happened to our island.
We braced ourselves as we opened the door to step outside. During the 12 hours we were locked down, we obviously tried to imagine what was happening outside. Never could we have ever guessed how utterly horrifying it would be . We looked around and all we could see was destruction. Complete devastation. We went up to our back porch, where we would watch the sun set every night and just stood there paralyzed with sadness. Every tree, shrub, bush, and plant had been knocked down or stripped of its leaves. The tropical flowers that once gave our backyard a rainbow of colors were gone. Our herb and vegetable garden, that we had watched grow with delight was completely destroyed. The hummingbird that used to fly past our back window lay dead on the ground. The once crystal clear pool in our backyard was brown and littered with debris. Our neighbor’s roofs and windows were gone and you could see that their homes were destroyed from the wind and rain. Every sight we used to cherish was now just a memory. And this was just the view from our backyard. When we went to the front, we became even more aware how much damage this storm had really done. Cars flipped over and completely totaled, entire roofs in the middle of the road, fences ripped down, even more trees uprooted. We began to walk around to see if maybe, just maybe, other houses or areas had been spared. Unfortunately, the same destruction was everywhere we looked. As we continued down our road, we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
Our minds were in a million places – did this really happen? Is the entire island like this? Is everyone ok? Are our friends alive? What is everyone going to do? What are we going to do?
It felt like a nightmare. It was one of those situations where you wanted to pinch yourself and wake up but this was all so real and so horrible. When you experience something like this firsthand, it is extremely difficult to find words that truly depict and describe what being there was like.
We kept walking around, hoping to find someone with some good news. Many people were outside looking at the damage with a glazed look in their eyes. We finally made it to the resort we worked at. Thankfully, there were no deaths, just lots of people with stories of how their roofs ripped off or how their windows caved in on them and their refrigerators were thrown right through the wall. That’s when we met our new friend Vanessa who was shaken to the core. She told us that she was up against the wall when she felt it shaking and when she looked up the roof was cracking. She grabbed her dog, got in the bathtub, and put a door over her and hung on for dear life for over an hour as parts of the roof blew away.
We also met some of our coworkers there. One of them was smiling. We asked her how she was. She said her roof was gone, but her whole family was alive. Another one of our coworkers told us how he lost his entire house, his grandparents house and still came to work in hopes of getting tourists off the island and back home to safety. It is these stories that will forever be engrained into our memories. These stories we heard, the stories that people told, they were truly unbelievable.
That night, we were drained. Our emotions had gotten the best of us and we were just so exhausted. We went to bed hoping that the next day we would wake up and everything would be back in order like none of this had nothing happened. Wishful thinking, right?
After a terrible night sleep, we woke up and were determined to see how our friends were and if they were ok. Considering the cell phone towers were down, getting in touch with them was no easy task. We would have to drive over to their part of the island to get any answers. The complete devastation that we witnessed on the way was overwhelming. Not one community was spared by this monster of a storm. I remember seeing one of the hotels, one that we had been at just days before, and it looked as though it had been abandoned for 20 years. The top 4 floors were just a skeleton of what had been standing there before. Our stomachs turned when we saw this. After navigating through makeshift roads across the golf course (the beautiful tall palm trees that once lined the road had all been knocked down and wouldn’t allow cars to pass on the road) we finally made it to their condo. As we ran up to the stairs, our hearts were beating so hard, that anticipation was hard to take. The second we saw them, we fell into their arms and just cried of joy knowing they were safe and alive. We will forever remember that moment. Trying to piece together what was going to happen and how we were going to get off the island, we were all just so happy to be in the presence of one another. We felt great comfort just being around loved ones after this experience had left us all in utter despair and sadness.
Over the next few days, we cleared the roads so cars could pass and tried to get more information. We helped many of our neighbors and they did the same for us. We burned candles at night and hauled water inside just to flush the toilet. We comforted each other, took care of one-another’s pets, helped to fix stuck doors and hurricane shutters, shared food, and just tried to slowly take it all in. Despite all the chaos and sadness and devastation around us, we all came together as one community. We shared knowledge and ideas, happy stories and necessities. That’s one thing about St. Maarten that is totally beautiful – the people remain smiling and helpful. In those days we spent trying to rebuild, there was one thing that we were sure about and it was that we would do whatever we could once we were off the island to help.
The day we left the island was so bittersweet. The 5 days since the hurricane hit had felt like weeks. We hadn’t been sleeping, showering, or really eating at all. There was no clear answer if we were able to bring our sweet rescue dog on the evacuation flight with us (and we weren’t going to leave without him). We had waited 8 hours in the hot sun for planes that we were told may or may not come. During that day, all our friends, who were from France, Holland, and Canada, had been split up into different lines so we couldn’t even sit or try to make any light of the situation with them. Finally, we were told the US Marines had finally landed with 2 C-130’s and they would evacuate as many people as possible. I can’t put into words the relief we felt when we got on that plane (with our dog in our arms). We were finally leaving this place that had felt almost like a warzone for the past week.
But with that relief, came guilt. We were blessed beyond words to have a safe, beautiful home and community to come back to – but so, so many people, including many friends of ours, did not. Everything they and their families had were taken from them in a matter of one day. Not only were homes destroyed, but schools, businesses, supermarkets, restaurants. Every single person on the island was affected in more ways then one.
Now it is our turn to help the friendly and kind people of St. Maarten get back on their feet just like they did for us when we first arrived. From our amazing community in Southborough and the surrounding towns, we hope to pass on love and light to the locals who are now struggling to rebuild their lives. In the upcoming weeks, we are going to be hosting a silent auction and asking for donations. Any help and contributions would be amazing. The funds that we raise will be going directly to a few local families who lost everything to help them get back on their feet.
If you are interested in helping organize – please reach out to us by email!
Kimhixson7@gmail.com and Mattfloyd015@gmail.com