“The beauty & splendour of the Caribbean Islands is hard to match but their vulnerability is evident when their lifeblood is at the mercy of mother nature. The islands need you to visit to help them reignite the economy.”
The Bahamas, US & British Virgin Islands & St-Martin/Sint Maarten
Having spent the last 5 months touring around the Caribbean (read my Blog Post for more details), I have never been far from a conversation about hurricanes. Whether it is where people were, the personal impact, the property damage, moving boats for safety or preparing for the upcoming season, the potential for these monumental storms & the damage they cause is never far from people’s minds. As we are now into the 2018 season (June – October) with predictions that this year could be even worse than last, I felt the time was right to share my experience & hand over some Top Tips to bear in mind if you are planning a visit to the area over the next year.
I arrived in The Bahamas a month after Hurricane Matthew had hit in October 2016. Matthew was a Category 4 hurricane which battered the islands with winds of up to 145mph, causing widespread flooding & disruption. In 2018, I visited a number of islands in the Caribbean which were in the path of Hurricanes Irma & Maria, both Category 5 storms, following each other by 10 days. I discovered that 6 months after the destruction caused by the worst season on record, the islands have done an amazing job to get up & running and are desperate to have the income generated by tourism back on track. I also found islands & people who have been left so devastated that the healing process will take many years still to come.
What do you need to know?
Before I start it’s important to point out that the tips I’m sharing are very much practical considerations on visiting the area after the impact of a hurricane has been felt. During my time I spoke to many people who had lost everything – houses, businesses & even family histories, wiped out.
Thankfully no-one I met had lost loved ones but when I was in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) I heard that 45 people had died from heart attacks (they called it heartbreak) in the weeks following. To me, this demonstrates the emotional toll & stress of a nation coming to terms with their lives being devastated.
I spoke to people who had spent hours upon hours locked in a bathroom with friends as it was deemed to be the safest place. I spoke to people who showed videos of a house over the valley which had literally been blown away.
“I spoke to people who had lost their homes when neighbours on either side had barely been touched. I spoke to people with children who had panic attacks whenever they heard a toilet flush or an electric hand dryer as it took them back to the noise & fear of the hurricane.”
I spoke to people whose eyes welled up as soon as they started to speak about the event and those who avoided getting into a conversation about it. Basically, a whole region suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by the unpredictable power of mother nature. The impact on the people will take a much longer time to heal than any of the ‘minor inconveniences’ I mention below.
So, in terms of understanding how this might affect you as a traveller, I have put together the following 6 Top Tips:
1. Check your flight time
I was flying from Havana to Freeport, Grand Bahama via Nassau. Originally the connection was fine as it gave me 4 hours in Nassau which, with the Cuban inefficiency & Bahamas running on “Island Time”, I figured would be plenty to allow for delays in either location. Then I discovered that my flight to Grand Bahama had been moved forward by 2 hours & things were suddenly a bit too tight (for a person who will happily arrive at the airport 4 hours ahead of a flight!). Due to delays, I missed my connection in Nassau, was given a hotel room by the airline & a flight the next morning. I later discovered that the reason my flight had been changed was due to the hurricane damage which meant that planes could no longer land safely into Freeport during darkness.
2. Check your hotel is OPEN!
When I was delayed overnight in Nassau, I met a British guy who was trying to get hold of his hotel to explain why he had not arrived the night before (in case they sold his room). He was saying how much he was looking forward to relaxing & treating himself to a 4-Star All-Inclusive Resort for his last few days. He had emailed them but failed to get a response. When we reached the airport for our very early flight, he called the hotel to find out that they were only opening tomorrow (meaning it would be open 2 nights of his 4-night stay). He contacted the agents he had booked through (Trivago) & they appeared to be unaware of any issues. When we boarded the plane, he had no idea if he had a room for that night. When I spoke to the locals it became clear that the property had been hit hard, needed to repair the roof & been shut for a month as a result. The booking agents it seems were completely unaware of the situation, not provided him with information or alternative accommodation but taken his payment nonetheless.
In US Virgin Islands (USVI), a number of the big hotels were still closed 6 months after the hurricane. My understanding from the locals was that there were many which had ‘chosen’ to remain shut for an extended period of time, to increase the loss of earnings & hence get higher insurance premiums. Rather than making repairs from the damage they are planning on having a complete refurbishment.
“It made me realise the much broader impact of the storms and the vulnerabilities of these small island economies who rely so heavily on tourism. I can only imagine how the loss of jobs & the lower number of tourists is affecting the local workers & small businesses.”
There may not be enough rooms for people who need them…
In USVI, there were also a high number of employees staying to either work for the insurance companies, or to help with the repairs to the islands. With the big hotels closed, they were staying in apartments & condos in the area which again limited the rooms available for tourists. I took part in the STIR regatta, which was 50% smaller than usual as there were so few rooms for competitors on the island. You can read all about my experience in the Regatta here, or see what it was like in my Video Diary.
3. Make sure you have plenty of cash
Things cost more on the islands…
I got some money out before I left for Grand Bahama (US$100) & on the morning I arrived was very kindly offered a lift to get supplies from the owner of my Airbnb apartment. At the supermarket I stocked up on breakfast & snacks, only to realise as I was at the front of the queue that it was adding up to way more than the US$80 I had left. The credit card machines weren’t working. As panic ensued, I had to ask the cashier to start to take items off the bill to reduce my charges, much to the frustration of the ever-growing line of people behind me. Thankfully my lovely Airbnb host then came to my aid & lent me US$20 to reduce my embarrassment & get me moving again. Above & beyond the call of duty!
Don’t rely on cash machines once you’re there…
In Grand Bahama, the first ATM I visited wasn’t working which meant I was totally reliant on my one last chance to get enough cash for my trip, & now pay my debts to my host. After 3 attempts (& increased desperation) to get out Bahamian dollars, reducing the amount I requested each time (here they offer a choice, but Bahamian & US dollars are interchangeable). On my last attempt, I asked for US$ & thankfully hit the jackpot. Big relief all round!
Don’t rely on your credit card either…
The issue with the supermarket I then realised was that none of the credit card machines across the area were working because the phone lines had still not been fully connected.
“This had a big impact when you think that cash was required pretty much everywhere. It was also the case in USVI & BVI as credit card machines were also taking a much longer time to get reconnected.”
4. Don’t expect all the home comforts
Wires & cabling take time to replace….
In USVI, Wi-Fi & TV cable networks were all affected & not back up to 100% efficiency. In my Airbnb, they didn’t have the WiFi back or the full TV coverage 6 months after the storm. To compensate, they have designated special areas across the island where you can get onto a Wi-Fi zone as the connection to individual houses takes a lot longer. The earliest anywhere had their water & electricity reconnected after the hurricanes of 2017 was 3 weeks, the latest was at least 7 months. In the meantime, everything is run on emergency generators.
As does the water…
Drink bottled, just in case
5. Don’t trust the guidebooks
Sopers Hole, BVI
“Journey to the most picturesque and friendly anchorage in the British Virgin Islands, whether by sea or by land. Our marina complex offers the best in facilities, shopping, dining, services and more. This will be one of your most memorable stops.”
On my first night in BVI, we stopped for the immigration office, which was a gazebo at the marina as the office had literally been razed to the ground by the storms. The marina used to be a key entry point, shopping & restaurant area. That evening there was nobody there. The pavements looked like piles of rubble. The shops were shut. The restaurants closed.
Spanish Town, BVI
“The second largest town on BVI, Spanish Town offers numerous shopping possibilities. The heart of the town is its Yacht Harbor marina, with many bareboat sailing activities every day.”
I was sailing in the BVI & once we had passed immigration we headed to see a friend docked at Spanish Town, a bustling & busy marina on Virgin Gorda. Except, following the hurricanes, a lot of the boats have been destroyed, the yard is full of vessels needing some serious repair work, but the marina empty. The bars & restaurants are shut & my friend said it was now like living in a zombie apocalypse.
It may look like the storm came through yesterday…
Bitter End Yacht Club, BVI
“THE place to stay in the most beautiful place on earth” “Everything about this place is magical” & “A vast waterfront playground”
In BVI, I sailed with a couple I met in USVI. They were desperate to get back to the islands but didn’t have a boat (theirs had been destroyed in the hurricane). I had a boat but didn’t know how to sail. It was a match made in heaven! They knew the islands very well & I toured around hearing stories of legendary meeting points for the yachties & drunken nights out. One of the places was the Bitter End Yacht Club at the top of Virgin Gorda but, as we sailed past, it literally looked like it had been destroyed yesterday. The chalets up the hill were without roofs & the clubhouse looked like a bomb site. Tragic.
It might resemble a boat graveyard…
“The Gem of St-Martin”
I visited the French side of the island where the lagoon used to be a bustling anchoring bay full of boats. As we gingerly explored in our dinghy we had to be on constant lookout for sunken boats or parts which were sticking up from the water. What we thought from a distance may have been submarines, turned out to be catamarans which were turned upside down. Yachts on their sides which refused to go down had been sprayed with the line “Life is too short to sink completely”. It seemed to sum up the tragedy & spirit of the people all in one go.
6. Don’t judge a book by its cover
It all depends on where you started from….
When I visited USVI I saw an island returning to its former glory. The cruise ships were back which brought the tourists & the money, the roofs were covered, the streets were cleaned up & the debris collected in distinct areas.
“When I arrived in BVI it looked like the hurricane had been through very recently. Boats were still strewn along the coastline & piled up in marina’s, pavements were piles of rubble, shops & businesses shut.”
I initially thought that they weren’t doing as well or moving as quickly until I realised how much harder hit the islands were (through the eye of 2 storms within 10 days of each other). When I commented to a taxi driver that it was clear to see the impact he corrected me & said it looked amazing now in comparison to how it had been. The clean-up was enormous & highly successful, but the starting point was a long way back from USVI.
And don’t expect anything to be perfect…
On the first day in USVI, I saw a car which looked like it was being held together by Sellotape – think roof, back window & a couple of side windows all just tape. Initially, it amused me as I left the airport. After a few days, I realised that pretty much every car was missing at least 1 window which was taped up. It turns out that this was caused by flying debris as it was thrown around by the winds. There are limited numbers of people who supply replacements & so the whole island is in a queue for the next car window.
The beauty & splendour of the Caribbean Islands is hard to match but their vulnerability is evident when their lifeblood is at the mercy of mother nature. The islands need you to visit to help them reignite the economy. This is why I was determined to take part in the STIR Regatta in USVI. Before I left I watched a video from BVI which you can see HERE & sums up the destruction caused, the strength & resilience of its people & that they need YOU!
What do you think?
What has been your experience of visiting after a natural disaster?
What advise can you give to anyone who wants to help in the aftermath of a natural disaster?
To see more of my photos from The Caribbean please visit my Gallery page!