Holiday-Makers Taken by Storm
Butler, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
EVER SURVIVED a direct hit by a hurricane, or wondered what it might do to you? Towards the end of last year, my wife Jacqui and I, and our 19-month-old son David, set off for the Caribbean, to St Martin, a small island not far from the British Virgin Islands. It has the delightful eccentricity of being half Dutch and half French. Pretty, friendly and not over-exploited, it was the place we had chosen for our holiday of a lifetime.
We were staying at the Sea Palace, a timeshare resort right on the beach in the capital of the Dutch side, Philipsburg. The view from the bedroom window was stunning: a serene expanse of the bluest blue sea, luxury yachts rocking gently in the bay, a vision familiar from adverts but not from life - not my life, anyway.
We arrived on Saturday. On Sunday the news was that a hurricane was close by; on Monday, that it was almost sure to hit us head on. The days that followed unrolled like a bizarre dream.
Forecasters cannot predict exactly where the wrath of a hurricane will fall. And certainly when the skies are jovially blue, and the sun looks a benevolent and permanent feature, it is all too easy to believe that a hurricane is a figment of a weatherman's imagination. This is the phoney war. While locals were stocking up and hammering boards over windows, we bought up as many provisions as we could carry. Still, the threat did not seem real, the only sign of what might be coming were the swollen seas into which local lads were somersaulting with carefree abandon.
The period following the phoney war was a time of increasing expectancy as people listened intently to the TV forecast of the path of the storm. As the hurricane advanced ever nearer, hope welled up that it would merely clip us, or take a sudden turn away. The information was never quite enough; updates on the hurricane's position came out only every three hours.
The hotel owners had seen it all before. They talked of 12ft waves and devastation with Hurricane Hugo (the coming storm has already been named Luis). It was a comfort that the hotel, despite being a few feet from the sea, had clearly survived. With luck, it might survive again. Some guests departed - where, I knew not, since the airport was shut and there could not have been many buildings much safer than ours. Other guests, American mainly, talked of the dreadful hurricanes they had experienced. We chose the British stiff upper lip. It would take more than a hurricane to bowl us over. The management tried to cheer everyone up by throwing a rum punch party.
The hurricane took a long time coming, partly I suppose because we were hoping for it to be over quickly. Cruelly, it slowed down its advance from 12mph to 9mph, thus lengthening the torture to come. We were told it was 250 miles across, and it did not take a degree in mathematics to work out that we might suffer its effects for 20 hours or more.
We put David to bed at about 9pm on Monday. He had been excited by the rum punch party. I went to bed about lam after the latest hurricane-watch position came through. The Governor General of St Martin was on television advising people to take the hurricane very seriously - batten down the hatches; remove debris from your yards; move to a government-designated shelter if you feel the need. We did not. We weren't in some flimsy shack. We had all the comforts of civilisation, too - a television, air-conditioning, bath, shower, fridge, oven and a telephone. We didn't need to think twice. Not even when, towards the end of the evening, the cable channels disappeared, leaving only a government information channel and the French channel from the other side of the island showing a dubbed American film.
Tuesday: My wife and I sleep fitfully through the night. I decide to record events in my diary, as they happen - if I can. At about 4am David wakes up, disturbed by the …
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Publication information: Article title: Holiday-Makers Taken by Storm. Contributors: Butler, Chris - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 4, 1996. Page number: 48,49,50. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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