An Island-by-Island Recount on the Heels of Hurricane Irma
Some of the most idyllic — and tourism-dependent — destinations in the Caribbean have been crippled in the wake of one of the most powerful Atlantic basin storms ever recorded.
Ferocious storms are nothing new to these islands, but Hurricane Irma, with its 185-mile-per-hour winds, was catastrophic. Cities, and some islands, are almost entirely in ruins.
Certain islands were better prepared than others as the storm roared from Barbuda, part of the state of Antigua and Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean, to the Florida Keys, destroying homes and infrastructure, including roads and hospitals; flooding hotels and restaurants; and leaving people without power, food and essential services.
In the hardest-hit places, like St. Martin and St. John, a slow and arduous recovery is underway.
Tourism is the most important economic driver and the main foreign exchange earner for the region, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Some places — including St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and Sint Eustatius — emerged mostly unscathed.
Yet, as of Thursday, the damage in other places was so extensive that despite the projected loss of crucial revenue, government officials were not focused on tourism; they were still struggling — and continue to struggle — to ensure people’s health and safety and evacuate stranded visitors.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, for instance, said that visits to St. Thomas and St. John should be postponed until further notice. Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line cruise ships went from being floating playgrounds to rescue vessels.
How badly the tourism industry will suffer is still being determined; in certain places the storm’s reverberations will likely to be felt for years. On some islands, hotels have closed for repairs until next year and cruise lines are changing itineraries for at least the next few months. Royal Caribbean said that future sailings will not stop at ports in Sint Maarten, St. Thomas or Key West until those islands have recovered. Norwegian said that all Norwegian Escape eastern Caribbean sailings until November will be changed to a western Caribbean itinerary.
The situation is changing day by day, and varies greatly from island to island. For example, Barbuda, where Hurricane Irma made landfall, is devastated, while Puerto Rico is not only open to tourists, it’s a hub for relief efforts, and is welcoming hundreds of people to its shores from battered neighboring islands.
“Most of our tourist attractions are operational and good to go,” said José Izquierdo, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the government agency in charge of tourism. “We were very much prepared and we were able to weather the storm.”
San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is open, and so is the Port of San Juan. Puerto Rico experienced widespread power outages and minor damage, but at most hotels (many of which have their own power plants), “it’s pretty much business as usual,” Mr. Izquierdo said.
The United States territory has been in a recession for more than a decade. In May, with more than $120 billion in debt and pension obligations, it sought a form of bankruptcy relief. Tourism, however, has been something of a bright spot. In the last year, the island has seen record numbers of cruise ship visitors, as well as record hotel occupancy rates.
Mr. Izquierdo said in an interview that he expects tourism to continue to play a key role in Puerto Rico’s economic resurgence, but that at the moment the island was focused on helping its less fortunate neighbors. The Puerto Rican government has been assisting the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services (as well as hotels and cruise lines) to get U.S. citizens stranded on other Caribbean islands onto American soil. Once in Puerto Rico, they have been able to get food and medical assistance, as well as help arranging travel back to the continental United States.
“We’re very much thinking of all of our neighbors,” Mr. Izquierdo said. “We’re in a position to help those in greater need.”
Antigua and Barbuda
This two-island nation, which has been struggling since 2009 amid the recession, depends heavily on tourism. Antigua, the Caribbean Tourism Organization said, was spared the worst of Irma. Its V.C. Bird International Airport is open and most hotels (including Carlisle Bay, Cocos Hotel and Keyonna Beach Resort), restaurants and businesses were largely unscathed. Cleanup efforts are underway.
Barbuda, Antigua’s little sister 28 miles to the north, on the other hand, is in ruins. Gaston Browne, the prime minister, has said that 95 percent of the island’s properties were damaged or destroyed. Cell towers snapped. The Barbuda Codrington Airport is unable to accommodate flights. “It is absolutely heart-wrenching,” Prime Minister Browne said on CNN.
Barbuda’s hotels were also damaged, yet as there were less than 100 rooms on the island, the overall effect on tourism is minimal, the Caribbean Tourism Organization said.
Barbuda’s population is much smaller than Antigua’s, though its unspoiled land made it an attractive getaway. The actor Robert De Niro and James Packer, the Australian businessman, were in the process of transforming the island’s former K Club Resort into the Paradise Found Nobu Resort when the hurricane struck.
“We are beyond saddened to learn of the devastation in Barbuda caused from Hurricane Irma and look forward to working with the Paradise Found Nobu Resort team, the Barbuda Council, GOAB and the entire Barbuda community to successfully rebuild what nature has taken away from us,” Mr. De Niro said in a statement to Deadline.com. He participated in a hurricane relief telethon broadcast on Sept. 12.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Tourism, particularly from cruise ships, is an economic mainstay here. Both St. John and St. Thomas took a beating. Hotels suffered major damage. Sugar Bay Resort and Spa, an all-inclusive hotel on St. Thomas, is planning to remain closed until next year. Windward Passage Hotel, overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor on St. Thomas, will be closed for six months. The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas and Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort are waiving hotel cancellation and change fees for certain arrival dates. Airlines are offering ticketed travelers area waivers through late October. Indeed, visitors are still being evacuated this week on airlines like Delta that would normally be bringing them in. No word yet on when scheduled service will resume.
St. Croix was luckier. Its Henry E. Rohlsen Airport is open (American Airlines and JetBlue flights have resumed), and its seaports are fully operational. The Buccaneer, one of the longest running family-owned (since 1947) resorts in the Caribbean, is also open. In an indication of just how bad things are on its sister islands, the governor on Sept. 10 encouraged families on St. Thomas and St. John to consider enrolling their children in public schools on St. Croix instead.
According to Central Intelligence Agency data, the economy of the Virgin Islands, while reliant on tourism, is a bit more diverse than other Caribbean islands. Additional sources of income include rum exports, trade and services.
British Virgin Islands
These 60 islands east of Puerto Rico, which include Tortola, are also extremely dependent on tourism and benefit from visitors from the nearby United States Virgin Islands. That’s unlikely to happen with St. Thomas and St. John in shambles. And the British Virgin Islands were themselves walloped by the storm. Sharon Flax-Brutus, the director of tourism, said in a statement that there are many homes without roofs, power outages and downed cellphone towers. The government said it’s working to restore commercial flights, but as of Monday , timing was unclear.
Luxury tourism is essential for this British dependency. However, some 90 percent of the electricity infrastructure was damaged, along with the main water supply, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Humanitarian aid experts from the United Kingdom are assessing the situation. The chief minister, the Honorable Victor Banks, said the island plans to open for business before the all-important Christmas season.
St. Kitts and Nevis
It appears that tourism won’t be greatly affected by the storm. The St. Kitts Tourism Authority said that St. Kitts was essentially unharmed and that its Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport, as well as its tourism providers are open for business. In Nevis, the Vance W. Amory International Airport is also open. Hotels, including the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, The Hermitage and the Great House and cottages at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club are in good shape.
A European Union territory and hideaway for the rich and famous, St. Barthelemy took a beating, including its first hotel, Eden Rock, where guests have included Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Bono. The resort, owned by David and Jane Matthews (Pippa Middleton’s in-laws), was closed for annual maintenance when the storm hit, but the damage was such that its early October re-opening has been postponed until further notice. The scramble is on to rebuild for the winter high season.
St. Martin / Sint Maarten
Most visitors arrive through the Princess Juliana International Airport in tourism-dependent Sint Maarten (on the Dutch side), which suffered severe damage. Here too, the focus is on evacuation flights. Sonesta Hotels said its resorts were damaged, and reservations from now through the end of the year have been canceled. Many hotels, including the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, Esmeralda Resort, Belair Beach Hotel, Oyster Bay Beach Resort, Riu Palace St. Martin and Summit Resort Hotel, reported significant damage.
Turks and Caicos Islands
Irma flooded roads, ripped off roofs, and took down trees and power lines. Many hotels reported that they were without power and water on this British overseas territory, which, besides tourism, also relies on offshore financial services and fishing, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Alexandra Resort, Blue Haven Resort and Beach House will be closed for arrivals through Oct. 8. Club Med Turkoise is not taking new guests through Sept. 30. Gansevoort Turks & Caicos is not accepting new guests until Nov. 1. A few hotels are open, including The Palms, Shore Club and Seven Stars Resort and Spa. Providenciales International Airport is also open. The damage to the island is still being assessed.
On Wednesday, the State Department issued a travel warning, advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba while hurricane recovery efforts are underway. The Department said that large parts of the country, including around Havana, are without power and running water, and that getting around is difficult.
The storm was yet another setback for the island nation, where the burgeoning tourism industry has provided much-needed income. North central Cuba, home to a number of resorts, suffered severe damage.
“The storm hit some of our principal tourist destinations but the damage will be repaired before the high season,” President Raul Castro wrote in a public message, according to The Associated Press.
The infrastructure on the island chain is being evaluated this week, and the tourism council has advised visitors to postpone any planned travel to the area in the near future.
Monroe County, the southernmost county in Florida, said in a statement earlier this week that for most of the Keys, there is no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service. General aviation at the Key West International and Florida Keys Marathon International airports are closed.
“The Keys are not open for business,” the county said.
Yet in some happy news from Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Key West, 54 six-toed cats, many of which are the descendants of the author’s cat, Snow White, were all safe and sound.
Source: The New York Times