HOLIDAY-MAKERS TAKEN BY STORM

TRAVEL A hurricane turned a paradise island into a hellish cauldron. As the winds screamed and the roofs went flying a terrified Chris Butler kept a diary
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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 wind, but we haul him into bed between us and he drops off again. Whenever I stir I look over to the digital time display on the TV set, reassuring myself that the power has not cut out.

By 7am the digital display was gone, but the other electrical goods were still working. We rose happily. Could it be that we had slept through the worst of it? Not much of a hurricane, that: just heavy winds and high seas that we could still glimpse through a chink in the boarding shielding our veranda.

The television had not quite petered out. The government information service was giving warnings that Luis was heading straight for us. By mid-morning even this channel had gone. Never mind, there was still a local radio signal, albeit faint. The message was bleak: "Expect the worst." Far from our having weathered the brunt of the storm, the height was not expected before 3pm and it would continue to rage until 8pm at least. Messages from nearby islands told of being pounded for 20 hours without let up. For people whose roofs had blown away the official advice was to crawl into a cupboard or squat beneath the kitchen sink wearing a crash helmet. A wet towel around one's head would be an alternative protection. Why wet, I wondered.

By 3pm the power was cut. No more radio, no more air conditioning. Things began to get sticky. Although we had amused ourselves with David and by occasionally playing cards, such frivolity now seemed somehow inappropriate. I had taken the precaution of filling up our bath with water. This was just as well because we soon discovered that our toilets first filled up with sewage when flushed then failed to work at all. We were beginning to lose our grappling hooks on civilisation.

During the few quiet moments we ventured out of our apartment. The boarding that hotel staff had resolutely hammered up to shield the ground and first floors had been largely destroyed, leaving the central atrium scattered with pieces of wood, glass and nails. The stairwell gave us our only view of the world outside: we could see roofs blowing off and windows being smashed in. The wind was from the north-east and it was some comfort that our apartment was in the south-west corner of the hotel.

At 5pm there was a sudden, almost complete lull. Dazed guests and staff began appearing from the relative safety of their rooms and assessing the damage around them. The management shouted that we should stay in our rooms. I met Sam, a brave American staying on the fifth floor on the north-east side. He reported incredible sights, houses being lifted up, for instance. But he politely refused our offer to join us on the leeward side where we were still intact. Another American reckoned sagely that the storm was over. "Seen worse," he remarked. When I suggested that the lull was merely the eye of the storm passing over, he demurred. "Nope, that's the end of it." He was wrong.

About half an hour later, the reawakening of the storm sent us scurrying back to our rooms. The wind screamed more violently than ever; it groaned, shrieked, seemed malevolently alive. The variation in the air pressure was so intense our ears hurt.

We abandoned the front room for the inner security of the bedroom. The boarding covering the sliding glass panels leading to the balcony was working loose; we reckoned that the glass panes would soon give in. The sounds from the front room, two doors away, were terrifying.

The storm was relentless. We were buffeted by the sounds of piercing shrieks, of debris and roofing flying about and landing on the hotel, just outside. I was particularly scared because I felt responsible not only for myself, but also for my wife and child. Jacqui was all for playing cards by candlelight but with my heart racing it wasn't on. At the height of the storm, about 9pm, she coolly crawled in next to me on the bed and promptly fell asleep.

I am alert to every menacing sound. Fears crowd in. Will the ceiling cave in on us, the hotel slide into the sea, some lump of jagged metal suddenly come flying through the bedroom window? With the boarding at the entrance now gone the only thing that shields us from the elements is three doors: the first to the atrium, under serious threat given the destruction already wreaked in that quarter; the second to the front room, now, I feel sure, open to the elements; and, our last bastion, the bedroom door. Should that go, we will retreat behind the bathroom door where a sink, a cupboard and a wet towel beckon.

By midnight I am still highly agitated. Little boy and wife asleep. Winds as high as ever. The candlelight by which I am writing these words burning low. Will it last the night? My nervousness is making me sweat in an already steamy tropical night. Will the storm never end, never relent, never even temporarily subside? I comfort myself that each hour takes the storm a further nine miles away. All the while, I can hear the sound of glass breaking, of furniture on the move. In the middle of the night I think I can hear cries for help.

Wednesday: The continuous howling began to abate by about 3am, and I felt safe enough to doze. The light woke us both at 6.30am. The winds were still heavy, but the worst of the storm was over. Do hurricanes ever turn back, I wondered. Gingerly opening the door of the front room against the still considerable breeze, we were surprised to find it still there. The hotel staff were making initial efforts at cleaning up the wreckage..

In mid-morning, I crept out in search of a shop that might be open. The winds were still very gusty, and the streets awash with dangerous obstacles - nails, glass, splinters. Hazards loomed overhead - like the air-conditioning unit hanging off the fifth floor of the hotel by its flex. I found a shack open selling sodas. I ran into blocked streets, tropical rain... and looters.

A pack of local youths was jogging purposefully along the street. All carried bags of electronic equipment and clothes. One glanced at the pale, bespectacled, sodden spectacle that was me.

"You buyin' or lootin', man?"

"I'm buyin'. What you doin'?" I tried to mimic the local lingo.

"I'm lootin', man."

"What about your conscience?" I ventured, trotting by him.

"Conscience?" He stared at me in disbelief. "I just lost my home... They're insured."

Thursday: There are no services yet restored, no radio to tell us what is happening. The rumour is that the Food Centre has been completely looted; from time to time we see youths swaggering down the street with their booty beneath their arms. We hear another rumour that the hurricane is coming back; the weather is still poor and we are agitated enough to believe it.

Later, given a good tip, we found the remains of a Chinese supermarket at the end of town. Beneath its half-destroyed roof, it was still well stocked with detergent and liquor.

That evening, as shadows began to encourage the looters into chancing it, we peered over the balcony of the hotel down what was left of Front Street. We spotted three very nervous young Dutch soldiers moving slowly along the street, their rifles searching out trouble. "Authority!" I thought.

I rushed out. "Do you know when the power will be on again?" I asked. "Have you any advice for us?" A soldier scanned for threat, answered robotically: "Go to your rooms and protect your property. Soldiers will be on patrol tonight." Then he was off. He seemed even more on edge than I felt.

In the middle of the night we heard loud banging nearby. I thought it might be looters trying to force their way into what was left of the restaurant, or trying to beat down a side entrance to the hotel. It tumed out it was the army firing at looters.

Friday: The hotel staff talk of the prospect of power being restored because the power lines to the hotel are underground; power does not materialise. The odd shop is selling its remaining food stocks. A local radio station emerges, but authority is still strangely absent. The highest official willing to talk can discuss only the state of the roads. Rubbish along streets should be collected into piles. There is talk of the airport being opened tomorrow and of priority to be given to those who hold tickets out dated before Saturday. What this means for us is unclear.

We hear that there is now one telephone line available for those wishing to make calls off the island. We rush round, find a queue policed by an armed guard and join it. We are rationed to two minutes. I manage to get through to my sister, and ask her to distribute messages. At least, our families will know we are alive.

Our front room now has a midden of rubbish and decaying food in one corner. Tomorrow is a good time to leave.

Saturday: We have seats reserved on a flight at 3.30pm but a reservation in a situation like this must be considered precarious. The hotel has managed to book a taxi for 7am, and - wonders - it turns up. The road is already blocked by traffic trying to get to the airport, and by cars queuing up at petrol stations now the army has lifted the petrol embargo, temporarily. Our driver careers through front gardens, overtakes quarter- mile queues by driving on the wrong side of the road, cutting up army jeeps.

We arrive at the airport at 7.30am, only to find many thousands of would- be emigrants already encamped outside.

For six hours we stand outside in the sweltering heat. At about lpm the airport's glass doors open. Time passes, but there is no movement in the crowd. One American, shouting dramatically that his baby is "burning up", clambers over bodies and over a camper van to get up to the airport doors. I feel that the surging crowd will not bear similar histrionics from me.

The only answer is to deploy Jacqui at full volume. The only hope lies in her barging her way to the front and remonstrating as a mother with the soldiers guarding the door that our baby son is in distress and must be granted priority. She jostles up to the thronged entrance and starts shouting at the young Dutch soldiers inside. The soldiers refuse to take any notice of her. After half an hour one of them relents.

At last, we get to the front of the queue. Valid tickets, valid passports presented - and scrutinised. "I'm afraid we only have one seat left." Thud. In seconds it is clear to me what to do. "You go. Take David. Get out of this nightmare. I'll follow you when I can." Jacqui does not want to abandon me, but nothing else makes sense. Not going back to our hotel, now without a drop of water to wash in and candles all consumed.

We begin dividing up our documentation. Our agitation is noticed by a supervisor; she looks between us and the boy, uncomplaining in his buggy; she manages to conjure up one more precious seat from the first-class section - bless her.

Only when our jet takes off past the wrecks of planes beside the airstrip can I really believe that we are escaping the horror. We reach San Juan, some 140 miles away, about an hour later. The storm, despite passing so close, has had a minimal impact here. They enjoy electricity, stocked shops, running water and flush lavatories - and so do we. !

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