By Michael Silverman
“Fine! I’m alive!”
I had just asked a native of St. Martin how he was, and got this emphatic reply.
On Sept. 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the small Caribbean island, pummeling it with 180 mph winds. Devastation was overwhelming; over 90 percent of all structures were severely damaged. Vehicles and boats lay upended and strewn across the landscape. No one knows how many perished.
St. Martin lies in the northern Caribbean, 230 miles east of Puerto Rico. It was discovered and named by Christopher Columbus who claimed it for Spain, but it was fought over by France and Holland. In 1648 the Treaty of Concordia was signed, dividing the island. France got the northern 21 square miles; the Dutch received the southern 16 square miles.
Early on, the economy depended on slave trade for the island’s sugar plantations. With slavery’s abolition, salt extraction became a source of income. That lasted until World War II. The island’s significance became as a base for Allied forces. The U.S. Army built air runways, which is how the island’s Princess Juliana Airport began in 1943. This opened up the island to tourism.
In the 1950s, the commercially minded Dutch, noting the island’s white sandy beaches, blue lagoons, verdant hillsides and subtropical climate, encouraged the building of hotels, resorts, luxury shops and ports for cruise ships and yachts. It took the French 20 years longer to get in on the action. The many French restaurants that sprouted up made St. Martin the “Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean.”
St. Martin is the smallest land mass occupied by two different countries. While officially Dutch in the south, English is widely spoken and dollars accepted. In the north, you know you are in France; French and euros prevail. There are no customs at the border crossings, only a French flag and a sign reading “Bienvenue en Partie Francaise.”
Arriving at Princess Juliana, I was greatly dismayed at how this newly renovated airport was now only a shell of its former self. Almost all the duty-free shops were gone. Still, had I arrived six months earlier, I would have been processed in a tent.
Driving around the island 16 months after Irma, I was struck by how much effort had been made on the Dutch side to resurrect the main port of Philipsburg. Cruise ships had returned, shops and restaurants had reopened, and reconstruction of resorts was well under way.
Not so much on the French side, where the parent nation had taken a much more laissez-faire approach. The port area of the capitol, Marigot, was a shambles of shuttered businesses and abandoned homes. The community of Grand Case, once chockablock with fine French restaurants, was struggling. Only a few restaurants had reopened. Resorts were slow to recover.
St. Martin is known as the Friendly Island. Natives greet visitors and each other with a smile. Though poverty exists, it is not that evident. Everyone seems to have their basics taken care of. In my nine trips to the island, I have never encountered a homeless person or beggar.
Animals here are free range. Rambling about, one often encounters goats, chickens, cows, horses, and dogs, known as “coconut retrievers.” Cats are feral, and keep the island vermin free. I have never seen a rodent.
Progress is being slowly made toward recovery. St. Martin has endured past hurricanes, but none as bad as Irma. Still, it was pleasing to awake each morning to the sounds of power tools and hammering. Men worked at repairing the wharf in the local marina.
On my morning walks along a windy coastal road I’d see crews rebuilding a guard rail, cleaning up roadside debris, and replanting flowering bushes. Signs proclaiming “SXM Strong” abound. People are resilient. They shall rebuild, and I shall return to the Friendly Island.
Michael Silverman, of Amherst, has visited St. Martin nine times.