Published On: Fri, Sep 22nd, 2017

Diary of a hurricane

By Hilbert Haar

MONT VERNON – On Wednesday, September 20, at 12.15 p.m. the power came back at our condo in Mont Vernon, just fifteen days after Hurricane Irma devastated the island. I still have no internet and no phone connection, but I am not complaining. Just yesterday, Phyllis Meit said on Laser 101 that she had lived through Hurricane Luis in 1995 – four months without water and electricity!

This report chronicles my personal experiences at Residence Mont Vernon – located at the top of Orient Bay on the French side – during and after Hurricane Irma. It contains some profanity – without apologies as Leopold James used to say, because those words, offensive as they may be to some, just expressed my feelings at the time.

Looking back on it all, I realize how darn lucky I have been. My apartment is in one piece, though the residence has taken a tough beating. Many apartments have been destroyed and many people have left the island. As the office of disaster management does not stop warning us: it only takes one. Now we know. Hurricane Irma has been classified as a category 6 – the worst hurricane the world has ever experienced.

Tuesday morning September 5, 2017, 3.54 a.m.

Waking up, the wind is howling. No way I’m going back to sleep. Amazed that we still have power.

Power up my laptop. There is still internet too, so I am able to get a look at the 2 a.m. hurricane update.

Doesn’t look good but that’s no surprise.

Shit is going to hit the fan.

building hurricane shutter sep 4 2017

Confident in the defense I built on the balcony side of my condo. Used floor boards of 85 mm to board it up, because transporting huge boards with my sedan was not an option. They were also sold out on Monday afternoon. My defense system isn’t going anywhere, I am sure of that.

Myriam, Elton and Steffie are awake too. We won’t sleep anymore as the wind howls and we hear material being ripped away outside. Don’t know what it is at the moment, but we’ll learn the awful truth soon enough – if we live to get to that point.

At 5 a.m. I catch the latest update from the NHC.

Half an hour later the internet goes and becomes internot.

I switch off my laptop and finish a detective novel on my Kindle. Thank God for  small electronic favors.

By 6.30 a.m. the wind is picking up and the rain is battering our front door. Looks like the damn door is going to fly, so we push our bodies against it. We’re not going to win this fight against the storm like this for ten hours.

Later I learn that the force of this wind equals the strength of a 6.6 earthquake on the Richter scale.

Myriam and Steffie are mopping the floor, as water comes in through the door.

Finally we decide to shove the brand new fridge and the also brand new washing machine in front of the door.  Samsung is doing us a favor this way. At 7 a.m. we seem to have things more or less under control, but we know that the worst of the hurricane still has to come.

Hadn’t reckoned with the rain though. It keeps pelting out front door, driving water inside through the inevitable cracks.

The four of us make a good team. We put pressure on the blockade of our front door and we hustle with towels to mop up the water, wringing them out in the bathroom, then sending them back to catch some more of the water that appears to be salty.

By 8.30 a.m. or so – who cares about the exact time at this moment – I fall into bed and sleep.

Mont Vernon4 sep 6 2017

Around 11 a.m. there is a first knock on the door from one of our neighbors. The worst of the storm has passed and even though the winds are still strong there are many residents milling around.

When we open the door and I step outside my jaw drops – and I see a part of the total destruction that has hit our residence. The sheet metal roofing is gone in many places. Supporting beams between floors have been ripped away. Part of the railing along the gallery of our third floor apartment is gone.

Our worst nightmare has become a reality, but hey: we’re alive, inside of our condo it’s a mess – what with all the water – but we have no real damages.

Mont Vernon sep 9 2017

The floor boards I screwed in front of our large bay windows on the other side of the building have withstood the wrath of Irma perfectly, making me think that I could still have a future as a small contractor. Walking around our property, I see neighbors milling around, looking at the same shit I see. “Thank you Irma,” one of my neighbors mumbles.

I cannot help but think about our government on the Dutch side. Finance Minister Richard Gibson has just submitted his third consecutive balanced budget – and now this. If I stop to think about it, I could cry.

Yes, Minister Gibson is of course closely associated with the Today newspaper. But over the past eleven hears I got to know him as a man of his word: the newspaper has to be independent – and he gave me all the maneuvering space I needed to make that a reality.

All the efforts of our government to get things right are blown away in one night with a terrible fucking hurricane. How cynical is that?

Mont Vernon sep 20 2017

On my tour of the Mont Vernon property, I see mighty palm trees that have fallen down, apartment doors smashed, sheet metal and wood debris everywhere.

I turn to the car park on the high ground where my car is parked. From a distance, it looks okay, but on closer inspection it shows that the windshield has been destroyed. Thank you Irma. Where can I send the invoice? But later I think, get real, it’s only a bloody car.

Parking lot Mont Vernon sep 6 2017

Turning the other way, toward that lagoon behind the Cadisco gas station, I realize that I have nothing to complain. Some poor sods have left their car behind our property’s tennis court on low grounds, bordering on the lagoon. And they are all swimming in the water; one car is even turned upside down.

The road out of the residence is blocked.  The street is flooded and there is so much debris that  taking a tour of the island – if that were at all possible with my damaged car – is out of the question.

I’m stuck in my condo for now without water from the tap, without electricity, without internet and with the last juice on my laptop. I find some level of happiness in the fact that the beautiful palm tree in front of my condo – stripped of coconuts and most of its palm fronts – is still standing strong. It will recover from this disaster too.

And I have my wife Myriam and I have our friends, Elton and Steffie who withstood the disaster hurricane with us; we are all alive and well.

I need a drink, Myriam tells me, and I agree. We poor ourselves a nifty glass of Captain Morgan’s rum and realize that we do love each other very much.

My neighbor Manuel says that he will stop paying rent for now and that this hurricane has indeed changed our lives. We’ll have to move away from here, he says. They are going to demolish this .property. Who is going to pay for the repairs?

Hmm, not so fast Manuel. We figure that insurance companies will get involved and that maybe there is a solution for this wonderful property. As long as our condo is safe, we’re not going anywhere.

cleanup crew Mont Vernon sep 17 2017

Saturday, September 9, 2017, 10.27 a.m.

Haven’t kept up the log for the past couple of days. Too much to do, and concern about the remaining battery power on my laptop. 73 percent left right now.

On Thursday I ventured out of the property; first to Leader Price supermarket. It’s a zoo out there. The building has half-collapsed, and people are freely moving in and out, some with shopping carts loaded up with food items. The atmosphere is eerily relaxed.

I am looking for drinking water, but in vain. So this is looting in action, but I feel I cannot blame the people for taking what they need.

I’m looking a bit lost, when a man says to me, take some wine. Over there. Man, the insurance will pay or it, the owners won’t lose anything.

I take a box of  Bordeaux –  Chateau Landonnet without thinking about what I am doing. But it hits me soon enough: this is how easily you become a thief. Later, at home, I decide that if we really don’t need the stuff, I will return the box to the store, or otherwise I’m determined to pay for it.

From Leader Price I move on to Hope Estate, where I suddenly see that L’Usine, a store that sells shoes, is wide open. I enter the place and notice that others have been here before me. All the shoeboxes that once contained sport shoes are empty.

Since my flip-flops broke down while I was at Leader Price, I start looking for another pair. I finally find them upstairs, from the Cool Shoe Corporation. Again, I take them without a second thought, and I pocket the labels, intent on paying the store for them after all this crap is over.

On my way out of Hope Estate, I notice that there are people at Leader Mat, the hardware store that sells tools, kitchens and, most importantly, wood. And I still needed wood to secure my front door against the wrath of Hurricane José that is on its way.

Mont Vernon3 sep 20 2017

It is 12.42 p.m. now, Saturday September 9 and the first rain starts coming down. No hurricane winds yet.

I see some guys loading plywood on a truck but I understand quickly enough that Leader Mat is not open for business. These guys are taking what they need to protect themselves and I am okay with that. I take a pack op ‘lame volet’ – the 85 mm interlocking floor boards that I also bought here to secure my bay window. Inside the store I find a box of screws and I take that too – again with the firm intention that I will pay the store for what I took as soon as this is possible.

I’m less pleased with a young rasta who is dragging a huge orange case out of the store. Apparently it contains a serious piece of equipment that he will probably sell on the streets later on. I don’t challenge him and he drives off on his bicycle with his prized item. What a world we live in.

I spend the rest of the day securing my front door with the floor boards. I give the remaining wood to a resident of the property who needs it.

The atmosphere at the residence is one of togetherness. People are ready to help each other, with tools, materials, anything anybody needs.

But there is an undercurrent of unrest and insecurity. It is going to get rough, my neighbor Manuel warns, saying that there are people on the road with weapons. We’re living in a war zone, I realize, but without the bombs.

The next day, we want to go to Philipsburg and get in touch with Minister Gibson, or with the manager of the Today newspaper, Terrance Rey.

My car had a full tank but a smashed windshield, so I attempt to siphon off the fuel to put it in the car of our friend Danny. An earlier attempt, with a piece of hose that is normally used to protect electrical wire, fails because the hose is too thick. It won’t go into the tank.

Now I decide to cut the hose from my shower. It is thinner and seems to meet all requirements. But I soon find out that my car must have some kind of anti-fuel-theft design, because I don’t manage to get the line deep enough into the tank to get to the fuel.

I decide then to take the car of our friend Danny; it has a quarter of a tank and I feel it’s enough to get us up and down. But as soon as we are on the road, the quarter tank drops back to a quarter of quarter and I doubt very much that it’s enough. Disappointed we turn back home.

Next plan: knock out more of my windshield and drive my own car – or what’s left of it. I manage to do that, and finally we get on our way, though Myriam says that there is not enough time to get up and down to Philipsburg before dark.

It is now 1.07 p.m. and the rainfall becomes heavier.

Anse Marcel marina3 sep 7 2017

Not to get into to many boring details, we hoof it to the hill overlooking Anse Marcel. There Myriam manages to get a phone call through to her sister Joelle in Belgium. Joelle and her mother have gone through sleepless nights, watching the horror of Hurricane Irma unfolding on TV without knowing whether we are okay. Joelle will send a message to my eldest daughter Herti in the Netherlands.

I go down into Anse Marcel to check on the Rui Resort. Rumors are that the place has collapsed and that there will be many fatalities. Turns out that there are no fatalities at all. The place is of course severely damaged, like everything else on the island, but everybody escaped the hurricane without a scratch. Something fell down and almost hit somebody, one hotel guest tells me. But we are okay.

In the midst of all this misery, the children’s play ground is still standing – and there are kids having a good time there.

Barbecue at Rui hotel sep 7 2017

In the garden, a couple of guys are putting chicken wings on an improvised barbecue. A bit of everyday happiness that makes the guys forget a little bit about the destruction all around them.

From Anse Marcel we move through Grand Case to the hill overlooking Agrément and Marigot. There we get a phone call through to my youngest daughter Jacqueline in the Netherlands. It’s an emotional call and the same story:  sleepless nights about what on earth had happened to us.

What can I say? We’re standing on a hill overlooking Marigot. There is no internet, no phone, no water and no electricity. But we are okay.

French flag Grand Case 21 sep 2017

On the way back to the car, I suddenly hear – Hé Hilbert – and when I turn around I see attorney Sjamira Roseburg pass by. I’m happy to see a smile on her face – it brightens my day.

Back at the property our concierge Hyppolite has called a meeting for 6 p.m. Everybody is there and the main issue is: security.

A decision is taken to form militia and to secure the property against looting during the night. Anybody has weapons? For the first time during my eleven years on the island, I’m happy to see a few hands going up. There is an upside to illegal weapons possession.

Already during the day, residents have stopped  a couple of guys who arrived with a cart, intent on stealing whatever they can get their hands on. The way I understand the story, there was some to and fro swearing – including the inevitable words ‘white ass’ and ‘black ass’ –  before the intruders were sent back to wherever they came from.

In the meantime, I have found one of the sturdy curtains from our old hotel (with a rubber coating) and used it to cover what was once the windshield of my car. That’s the best I can do to protect the interior against José.

It is now 1.28 p.m., Saturday September 9 and the rain has subsided. Earlier this morning I went to get water at the reception. There is a huge cistern under the reception and it is filled with clear rain water. We’ll use it for washing and maybe for cooking and if push comes to shove, we’ll boil it and drink it too. There is plenty for everyone and the atmosphere during the distribution of the water is relaxed.

On the way back to my condo, I find a bottle of Mount Gay rum in the garden. I take it home, but I have no idea what I am going to do with it (I drank it of course, but not in one go).

José, we’re ready for you. It is 1.32 p.m. on Saturday, September 9, and I have 54 percent of battery power left on my laptop.

Sunday, September 10, 2017, 8.39 p.m.

Well, José was a bit of a letdown (we joked), because the storm never hit us. Thank God for small favors from Mother Nature. So the rest of the Saturday was rather uneventful, though many people had been frantically preparing for this storm. It’s a category 4 now, one neighbor says; that may very well be, but it is not going to hit our island.

I’ll start writing backwards about Sunday now. It’s evening and I just come from a meeting with our residence militia. It’s a group of around ten to twelve people. Thierry organizes the group and he’s good at it.

I do not follow everything he says in French but Myriam, whose mother tongue is French, updates me. The military is blocking the entrance road to Mont Vernon and there is also a physical road blockage.

In my condo I hear the comforting sound of aircraft.

Thierry sets up a shift from 8.30 midnight and one from midnight until morning. The time between 1 and 2 a.m. is the most dangerous, he says, and I silently agree. That’s the favorite hour of people with bad intentions.

Myriam volunteers for the first shift and I volunteer for the midnight shift. I can’t believe I’m actually taking this decision on an evening where I normally would be battling friendly opponents at a poker table in the Princess Casino.

My only weapons will be a flashlight and a saw – for lack of a machete. I bought the saw just before Hurricane Irma and it has served me and some of my neighbors quite well in a rather peaceful manner. It has a titanium blade. I cannot imagine that tonight I just might use it to do some serious damage to someone I’ve never seen in my life before.

But I have felt a shift in my approach to life. This is about survival and if push comes to shove I am ready to do the unthinkable.

This morning we got on the road early with a group of tourists who wanted to go to the airport and leave the island. There is a German couple and some Americans. We have agreed to head their little caravan of three cars to the airport on the Dutch side, anticipating road blocks where my hurricane pass could prove helpful.

Debris Marigot 21 sep 2017

Our trip leads us through the devastation in Marigot. Sarafina, our favorite hangout for a Saturday morning breakfast – gone. The place at the corner – gone. Claude’s mini club – toast.

On the road along the seafront opposite the cemetery there is a huge boat shoved halfway up the road. Another boat has even hit the wall of the cemetery and destroyed it. The building of the Tourist Office seems to be in one piece though.

We travel with our little caravan towards the border, wondering whether the causeway bridge is still there. It is.

We circle some of concrete blocks and cross the bridge without any trouble. Though we heard earlier on the radio an advice against traveling to the airport, traffic is light and we reach the place easily. We drop our cargo to friendly marines who handle the situation in a seemingly relaxed manner.  I thank them for helping St. Maarten in what must be one of our island’s darkest hours.

Evacuation sep 10 2017

The farewell to our tourists is emotional. The German lady whose name I do not even know cries in my arms as I comfort her and assure her that she will be okay. She will be going home now.

Our next mission is our first visit to Philipsburg after the hurricane – no sightseeing, strictly business. On the way we spot looters at the Great Bay Beach Hotel.

We drive towards the Today office and find there what I more or less expected. The statues in front of the building are down, the solar panels are gone, and there are gaping holes in the roof.

TODAY Newspaper Office damaged

Inside it’s a mess, but nobody has bothered to loot this place. I see a picture of me on a pillar, taken by Milton Pieters some years ago when I was so cold in the press room of the parliament building that I had pulled the hoody of my jacket tight over my head.

On we go to the government administration building. Mike Granger is sitting on the steps. The building is closed and the man I wanted to find there, Minister Gibson, is not there. Prime Minister Williams Marlin has just left, Granger tells me.

No point hanging around further. Since my phone does not work, I cannot call anybody either.

We head towards the Laser 101 radio station where we ask the team to send out a message to Minister Gibson and to our manager Terrance Rey. Just to let them know that we are okay and that our travel options are limited.

That also makes it near impossible to help out at the radio station as Glen Carty asks me. I just don’t have enough gas to travel up and down from the French side very day. And mind you, I want to contribute, but I do not want to leave Myriam to her own devices either.

Old street Philipsburg sep 12 2017

Before going to Laser, Myriam popped in in at the police station to report the looting at the Great Bay Beach hotel. At the station she encounters a couple of Polish tourists, who are staying at Captain Oliver’s in  Oyster pond and who have somehow made it into Philipsburg in a quest for information. To cut a long story short: they want to go home.

We take them back to their hotel to pick up their luggage and then travel with them to the airport as well. They are so happy. They pay us back with drinking water and the beers they haven’t managed to drink themselves.

Later I sit at the reception of our residence where a woman I do not know offers me a can of crab. I smile and decline: I’m a vegetarian. She promptly comes back with a tin of green beans and a tin of chick peas.

This seemingly small gesture touches me deeply. There is still some form of humanity left in this mess.

I have 38 percent of battery power left. Sunday, 9.27 p.m.

Monday, September 11 2017, 3.19 p.m.

Last night’s patrol was uneventful, Myriam went with the evening shift and I report for duty at midnight. Our team consists of five people – for able-bodied French guys, armed with machetes, a baton and a two-by-four, and one 67-year old journalist (that would be me) armed with a saw with a deadly titanium blade.

The first team has created fires at the perimeter of the property, most importantly at the swimming pool near the beach. Everybody agrees that this is the weakest point – this is where intruders with bad intention may come from. We feed the fire regularly on our rounds, but we do not encounter any trouble.

The French team members chatter and joke – I do not understand much of it, but the banter is light and there is a lot of laughter.

Nous sommes bien secu, I hear Thierry say at a certain moment. At least this I understand. The sturdy Frenchman has confidence in our defense system.

We call it a night when the most critical hours have passed, but I have no idea what time it is when I get back into my condo.

On Monday morning I sleep and when I finally wake up I figure it must be quite late. It isn’t, I realize much later. Time has become irrelevant.

I fetch water from the pool for our bathroom and water from the cistern. At the pool I decide to start collecting wood for this evenings’ security fire. After carrying six five-liter bottles during these two little jobs, I am already exhausted. Shit, I’m getting old.

I take a shower – two small containers of cold water over my head – and fall back into bed. I doze off for a while and when I wake up I know what my next project is going to be – using my titanium-bladed saw to cut down a bush that blocks the stairs that lead down to the swimming pool. We have to pass that point on our rounds during the night.

I know, it’s a small thing, not even a drop in the ocean amidst all the misery and destruction around me, but it makes me feel better and I’m sure the militia-members will appreciate it.

The military arrives at Mont Vernon with drinking water. We miss their arrival but our neighbor Nicole brings us a six pack of very welcome Karuline drinking water – 6 times 1.5 liter. Mon eau en toute confiance, it says on the pack.

Myriam at crisis meeting Mont Vernon sep 8 2017

Myriam wants to know what our future will be. Here or elsewhere? For now, I want to stay on our island. Once communication is back up and I will be able to get in touch with my manager Terrance Rey and with Minister Gibson, I will find out whether the Today newspaper that has become such a great part of my life since I started working there on April 1, 2007, will rise from its ashes.

The residence as a place to live remains a concern. Many people are leaving and what will security look like once most everyone has gone? The military won’t stay here forever either.

Nick Maley (That Yoda Guy) and his wife Gloria are staying here, neighbor Nicole as well, but neighbor Manuel will sooner or later join the exodus.

For now, I want to stay put in a condo for which paying rent has become a moot point.

We hear from Manuel that there is going to be a collection drive for St. Maarten on Dutch TV on Saturday. I wonder what the contribution from Minister Ronald Plasterk and from those two most critical parliamentarians, Ronald van Raak and André Bosman, will be.

At Cadisco, the gas station across the lagoon from our condo, the distribution of gas has begun, rationed at $20 per car.  We decide to go there tomorrow, since our tank is still more than half full and we have no plans to go anywhere.

queing for gas at Cadisco sep 12 2017

We also hear that Super U has reopened for business. That’s also on our to-do list for Tuesday.

It is now Monday, September 11 2017, 3.46 p.m. I have 27 percent power left on the battery of my laptop.

Friday, September15,  8.45 p.m.

I haven’t kept up the log for the past four days, because I have little battery power left and we still have no electricity.

A quickly flashback to last Tuesday when I went with my neighbor Nick Maley to Philipsburg to check on the store of the Yoda Guy. The store is in good condition. Nick has neatly wrapped up all art work in plastic. There is only a little bit of water leakage in the back.

Nick gives me two rolls of kitchen paper and a bottle of rum. Appreciated.

My neighbor Gemma has a landline telephone that works and I manage to get in touch with Mr. Gibson. His family is okay. Just some inconvenience, he says.

Crucial question for me: will there be a Today after all this misery?

First clean up and an assessment of the damages, Mr. Gibson says. Then there will be a decision.

On Wednesday I go to fill up at the end of the day at Cadisco. Before that I go with Myriam to Hope Estate near our house to get provisions.

Food distribution Hope Estate sep 14 2017

When Myriam sees the people standing at the back of the truck with their hands up in the air to grab some food, she cries. This is like Bangladesh, she says.

Fire brigade officers distribute frozen spinach, bread and an incredible amount of meat; that’s not for us vegetarians. We get some spinach, corn (that later turns out to be inedible), and bread.

The next day, Wednesday, I return to Philipsburg. I spend about six hours cleaning up the office. I drag plywood outside and swipe the floor. There is a lot of broken glass from shattered light fixtures. I put all the computers and other equipment in the server room to protect it from further rain damage.

The roof has been partially ripped off; the office of my manager Terrance is in one piece; nothing happened there, though the roof has taken a beating; I notice a cracked beam, but in the end, the structure held. Wonderful.

Still unable to get a hold of Terrance.

My memory is leaving me; I do not remember what I did yesterday – apart from the usual chores of getting water from the cistern at the reception and from the swimming pool.

Today is another matter. I travel with Myriam to Philipsburg for a couple of missions. One: Ace in Cole Bay. Two bottles of Coleman gas, some bleach and a gas lighter. Two: Motorworld, where we settle the claim for the damages to our car. I run in to Milton Pieters’ wife there, she says Milton has been looking for me all, over the place after the hurricane. Three: Today office, where I also meet Inez Fernandes and her son, the budding cricket hero Antonio. I manage to get messenger contact with Terrance, but later on lose the contact. I decide to go back on Saturday.

checkpoint Belvedere sep 12 2017

The trip to Philipsburg, and back is excruciating. Traffic is deadlocked around Marigot and we spend hours on the road.

On the way back we shop at Super U. Back home, I take a shower, drink a warm beer and drop into bed. I’m exhausted.

It’s Friday, September 15, 2017, 9.17 p.m. I have 8 per cent (14 minutes) of battery power left on my laptop.

Hilbert Haar
Managing Editor


Note from Terrance Rey, General Manager, TODAY Newspaper….
The day after the hurricane and after seeing the damage to the Today office building, I ran into Gromyko Wilson at the building of The Daily Herald. He told they had free wifi. The General Manager of The Daily Herald in the person of Steven De Windt was so kind to offer me a desk upstairs in their building that has a generator and highspeed internet, from where I have been able to keep the website up-to-date and the Facebook page going with news and especially with photo’s from our intrepid photo journalist, Milton Pieters. I am still here as I prepare to broadcast our newspaper in digital form to all our readers, subscribers and advertisers today.