Thursday, December 14, 2017

La vie pas facile

Baie Orientale, St Martin, French West Indies
               I have been writing about the damage to our property in St. Martin, French West Indies in a multi-installment of my column in the Watertown Public Opinion.  I went down there this last week to survey the damage and this blog condenses and also expands Silja and my adventure to the island.  I know it is long but I decided dividing it for you my blog readers didn’t make any sense.  I also know many of friends also have property destroyed on the island and are NOT going to like my brutal honesty.  This was NOT a sun and fun vacation.  This trip was designed to survey dead birds and destroyed property and to see if there was any signs of life.
Let me bring you up to speed.  We have two properties on the island, One house was a week from closing to sell when Irma hit, and had some exterior damage but survived, our other house was destroyed….C’est la vie.   There is a better French saying which I saw printed on a back window of a small pickup.  La vie pas facile, or “life isn’t easy.”  That about sums up what we experienced and what we found.

September 6th, 2017 is a day that will live in infamy, at least for my family.  I can remember exactly where I was, too. I was sitting seat 3C on the 0530 Delta flight from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis.  I was watching the CNN feed into my video screen as the forward eyewall of Hurricane Irma hit Orient Beach on St. Martin, the Friendly island of the Caribbean.   I was in shock.
               The Stewardess came and asked me if I wanted something to drink and she looked at me like I was ill. 
‘I have two houses on that beach.”  I said pointing to the screen. “I was closing on selling one next week.”
“Oh, my.”  She said and then I asked for Scotch.  Funerals deserve Scotch, I thought.  “Dewars it is, sir.”
The guy in front of me hearing what was going on, said.  “Scotch all around.” 
As the plane pulled back from the gate, we had a little wake right there in the first class section of an airplane, toasting to the bad luck of a poor man in row 3C, whose dreams had just been shattered.
You know, one sees devastation on the television all of the time, from all sorts of disasters, but no matter how empathetic you feel, and no matter how much it moves you, it still isn’t quite the same until it happens to you.   I knew the news from the island would not be good, and we waited for quite a while to get the status of our home we had for sale, which was not as bad as it could have been, the 10 foot wall of the Atlantic ocean that met our other house was a pretty one-sided affair, the house lost.  Then came the other realizations including that there was French fine print on the insurance policy for the destroyed house including caps on total damages for the entire neighborhood to a number about 30-40% of the cost to rebuild and restrictions to the condo association bi-laws that could paralyze any response. 
Adding a little salt to my wounds, I had just finished a birding guide: Birds of St Martin.  I spent hundreds of hours in the field in the last few years compiling it.  The book had gone to the printer on the day of the hurricane, and it was too late to stop it.  I knew all the information I had compiled including birding locations and the best places to find species had instantly become obsolete.  I was on the hook for the first 500 copies which at least, I guess, it could have been worse.  I now knew what everyone would get for Christmas.  My publisher graciously allowed me to post it on Amazon, despite the fact that I would be surprised if I sold many, but it was a nice looking book.
It took 9 weeks for the airport to reopen after the winds destroyed the main airport.  It took us exactly three months to the day to get the courage to return last week along with Janet and Neil, Canadian-St Martin neighbors of ours, and a suitcase full of birding guides to give as gifts.  It was hard to know what the proper emotion was coming down and then when we arrived, it was so surreal, like I was reading a copy of National Geographic.
The airport experience both coming and going harkened me back to the days of yore, maybe 1995, maybe earlier.

Arrivals went to one tent, departures left through another with the gates now being in the bowels of luggage of the old terminal.  There is going to be a SIGNIFICANT problem with this airport trying to get more tourists in here as hotels and things open as this airport can maybe handle one more departure a day.  I did like the naked statues in the departure area, it was an interesting touch.

The island…it was as bad as I imagined, and this was after much had been cleaned up….but it was also better  The villages had generally hauled away the debris, and the roads were cleared.
storm surge destruction..

broken windows on cars

damaged ecosystems...

business devastation

there is gas and some restaurants are open

but the island isn't able to handle many tourists but they have done a lot of work



Our place on the hill, as suspected, was livable and slowly we got things sort of working…more on that a little later.  We got the storm shutters that had withstood 185 -200 mph winds open, the subsequent bow had pushed the outer set off its track, luckily we had a second set behind the first ones to protect our house.  We got in and we got the lights on but it turned out our water was disconnected somewhere down the line.  It ended being a campout in our house, but that was okay, many on the island had to do worse for weeks, we were just here for an action packed week. Views from the hill...

We only really lost a single tree.

Then things started to happen.  Janet, managed to cut herself on broken glass and we spent much of the first day on the island, in the Emergency Room as she got stitched up.  Finally, on the first afternoon, we got down to where our other house was, near the beach, got hit with 10 foot storm surge and well, was a mess.  It was like walking into a war zone.  To say the area was devastated does not give it justice, what was worse, now three months later, absolutely nothing has been done and it was like it had just happened.  Debris was everywhere as abandoned structures stood like dead hulks to a bygone era.  I had seen a similar view in Croatia years after the Bosnian war. 
The locals acted like the area was abandoned and to be fair, it looked abandoned as grass and vegetation have grown through the debris.  We observed looters coming through now for the tertiary loot.   Just after the hurricane, looters came through for things of value like food, alcohol, and the like (primary looting).  During this phase, every safe in the buildings were punched in, one by one, including ours.  Ours was empty.  Then they came for the secondary looting, slowly and methodically checking out abandoned closets for anything of value, taking repairable appliances, and especially, removing any circuitry or wiring.  I looked in one junction box.  They had clipped every inch of half inch or smaller wire, obviously the one inch main cable coming in was too big.  I was sort of surprised they hadn’t pulled up the main cables out of the ground, using a truck.   They had picked our cupboards of every unbroken plate and glass, neatly stacking the cracked ones on our only counter top that was still present.  Now with the tertiary looting happening, roofs are being picked for steel roofing and undamaged lumber.  I saw two guys hammering out roof beams for whatever rebuilding project they had.  I met a car that had two useful closet doors in the back seat.  They stopped and the friendly looters got out picking the dregs out of the former gift shop at the resort.
It was a family affair, three generations picked at the piles.  The gentleman found a useful straw hat.  “Nice hat.”  I said. 

“Hey, I found two, you want one?”  He asked me. 
“No, I already have a hat.”  I said pointing to my Duke University cap.  He looked happy to go away with both hats, a bag of treasures, and two useful closet doors.  I left with just pictures and a really odd feeling.  It was not like it was even real.  On a beach that even this time of year could have a thousand people on it, twenty people walked the beach like things were somewhat normal.  Police helicopters flew overhead.

Where the resort used to rent beach chairs and had a bar, an enterprising employee of the resort (still being paid) had built a beach bar and was selling drinks and renting recycled chairs for his own profit.  Unfortunately under French squatting laws, it might become impossible to remove this venture if and when the area is ever rebuilt.
I salvaged some brass cabinet handles for mementos of our destroyed house, and marveled at all of the toilets left behind where houses once stood.  The walls and everything else have floated away in the storm.  The neighborhood?  I'll let you decided....
My place....

go Packers!  My Cheesehead hat...

The neighborhood....

Janet and Neil by their freshly painted and former house across the street from us

they have more trees...

As there was nothing to do with my destroyed house, I headed off to see the status of the birds.  The water birds are still alive but one of the best waterfowl areas, Baie Lucas was an unreal scene.

A floating shipping container had scoured out the mangroves destroying the blind.  A pile of cars sat across the road and the Coralito Hotel, the few rooms with at least three walls on the second floor came complete with squatters.  Abandoned power wires laid strewn everywhere.

 At least there were a few white-cheeked pintails in the pond

In the nearby Orient Salt Pond, one of the best winter habitats for shorebirds, (where last winter I saw thousands out here, this day I counted 3 ruddy turnstones as a fifty foot wide channel (above) had been carved reconnecting the body of water to the sea, changing the whole habitat.  I walked around and saw few if any resident songbirds.  Where I saw 50 to 60 doves in May, now I saw one.  Where I saw hundreds of song birds, I saw none.  Even the intrepid local flock of royal terns looked diminished.

the mangroves here are such a can't get your hands around it to be honest

Earlier, I found a woman who had a single hummingbird at her feeder, so at least one of those survived, but as of yet, it is the only one I’ve found. 
               I sat there at the end of a road now blocked by the channel and I was overcome with the emotion of the moment.  I had to sit down, get a drink, or even leave the entire island, but I couldn’t.  There was so much damage and so much loss and the wildlife….it was terrible.  I had surveyed quite thoroughly the bird life on this corner of the island before, I knew what was supposed to be here and it didn’t look good. 
I wanted to have hope, I needed hope.  I had to go into the mountains and search for pigeons—my next project….well not quite, I still had this nagging water problem of our Villa Plage d’ Elan (house of the beach of the Elk)
               There is also an old saying.  “Water, water everywhere but nary a drop to drink,” or something like that.  We arrived at our house in St. Martin and we didn’t have water.  This wasn’t because of Hurricane Irma, and in fact, we had water and power right after the storm, or so I was told.  The water company had turned off our water, but they wouldn’t admit it.  Their computer showed that it was on, and the French believe what they are told. They refused to come over to turn it back on or they just didn’t understand us, as they only spoke French.  Eventually, they told us that they’d have a someone drive by.  The second morning we did have one of their trucks stop in front of our house for 15 seconds, but before we could run down the steps to grab them, they just drove away, apparently, here, having our technician “drive by,” means, they just drive by.  Luckily the pool was full to use to flush the toilet and we were thinking that we should only drink bottled water anyhow.  This made up our minds.  There is something about giving your spouse a shower by pouring cold pool-water on her in the backyard that says vacation fun.  
           There was plenty of bottled water on the island so we bought a car load to drink.  We went to our French speaking neighbor and tried to call again, then tried to get a plumber to come by.  In short we even tried to drive around in the hopes of coming across a person that worked for the water company.  I came home from going for a walk scouting and eventually a second water guy came back, if it took us laying down in the middle of the street to make them stop we would do it. He stopped and yes, our water was turned “on,” as it was the regional main that had been turned off across the street.  The French are never wrong.  A turn of a four foot tool gave us something that seemed like magic, water.

one of the best views of the trip....

  Then the plumber stopped by…everyone seemed to stop by.  It was a minor victory but then I refocused on the plight of the wildlife.
As I wrote before, I just had to go into the mountains and find pigeons.  Water was one thing, but I had to find the pigeons.  I just hoped that they had survived.  In short, I feel all of my work making a field guide for the island was for naught, but if species had become extirpated on the island…it would be so much worse.

Hey, someone bought one on Amazon yesterday....a shocker.

I also had doubt about the hummingbirds.  Three species used to be found on the island with the purple-throated carib being extremely rare.  I heard about the “crazy bird woman,” a local, who post-hurricane went door to door, bumming sugar to feed the birds.  She lives a block away from our house we had for sale. Her feeding station was like a packed tavern, with 100 bananquits drunk on sugar, as many as I’d seen in total around the whole rest of the island. 
There are some flowers starting to come back out so the critical period of time for these birds to live or starve has past.

I had put up feeders right when I arrived but only attracted a handful of bananaquits.

I staked out the bird woman’s house and then I spotted it, a lone male green-throated carib, which was the only hummingbird I saw anywhere on the island.   Eventually, probably the same one, found its way twice to my feeder before zipping back towards its previous confines.

My treks to find pigeons were more of a project and would involve me getting up into the forests where these skittish birds lived and also where danger lurked.  In 2002 on Pic Paradis, we were robbed.   There isn’t as much lawlessness around the island as a few months ago, but looting is still ongoing on our other property.  I used the term looting but to be honest, that property has been abandoned.  The management did not and has not put up a sign that states “occupied.”   There is no one watching anything.  I believe the French (or at least the locals) operate under the laws of the sea and if a boat flounders and is then abandoned, it is fair game for any person to lay claim to it.  Therefore, the term for what we were seeing might be put as “salvaging,” and not looting.  I didn’t initially get what a local meant about that property.  This is all ours now.  I guess it might be and so is what is left of our house.   

"salvagers"....pulling aluminum roofing off nearby houses to my destroyed house

Early in the mornings, my wife and I explored Anse Marcel, an area devastated, and climbed Pic Paradis—the central mountain.  It was a search for the threatened scaly-naped pigeon, that don’t typically move around much from island to island.  The other migrant species of pigeons, bare-eyed and white-crowned were never on St. Martin in enough numbers to breed.  All we found up Pic Paradis, unfortunately, were local hikers, a few resident songbirds including the rare scaly-breasted thrasher, and migrant North American warblers in for the winter.  A cheery Northern parula flited in a mango tree before posing for me in a bush.  There was a dearth of pigeons.  I have never not seen them up there before.  

We inspected the tourist stop called the Lotterie Farm, which had zip lines between huge trees that are now a mangled mess.

To be honest, though, the forest looked better than I expected.

 The mountain was littered with suspicious looking characters loitering about, and when the local hiking troop from Marigot left (they hike to the top every Sunday from the sea) we also left.  No use taking chances.  I then concentrated on the mountain by Anse Marcel.  
It took until the last full day, and after finding a mongoose pair, an established pest,

and many, many green iguana, also non-native, we flushed two scaly-naped pigeons.

Like many encounters with this bird, it was too quick for a photo, but at least they were here, a couple of them anyhow, so it gave me some hope.  It could have been so much worse.  It seemed quite odd to me then and almost like the birding gods spoke to me as I waited to leave for the airport the next morning, not 50 yards from my villa,  there appeared on a snag, in a perfect photo opportunity, a single scaly-naped pigeon.  I’d never seen one anywhere near there, and to have it wait for me to photograph it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Coincidence?  Fate?  A gift from the birds?

Except near my destroyed property, the island is cleaning up pretty well.  Insurance payouts are slow as it takes at least 90 days to get payment after a report is filed.  We haven’t seen the report on the property we had for sale.  We are unsure if the sale will ever go through.  I don’t expect to get anything for our other property except a large bill and what we will do with that is unknown.  We had planned on living there all winter but now we are getting the feeling of moving on.  This does not seem to be our island anymore and the places we liked to hang out will never be the same.  Many of our North American neighbors down here are still clinging to their dreams and seem hopeful, but the reality is stark and staring them in the face.  They do not live here full-time and I think all of the memories may be clouding their judgement.  I have other dreams and ambitions.   To them, all I can say, is good luck.  They are going to need it.
Life isn’t easy, that is true.  Birds, iguanas, mongoose, and even the local population are tough, much tougher than me.  Many thousands of birds died on that fateful day in September and in the weeks that followed, but eventually, the birds will multiply and come back.  I watched five endangered, Caribbean subspecies of the American Coot making nests.

 I viewed a juvenile pied-billed grebe and a parent on a small pond.

This young grebe had to be born after Irma as it still had the juvie plumage.  The 13 red-billed tropicbirds that live in the crevices of Green Key until they emerge in the late afternoon were chasing each other in a prelude to mating.  I have never seen them so close to the beach, maybe it is that there were only 20 people on a beach that typically has thousands...maybe next year there will be might be a good year for them.

A small flock of ruddy ducks have stopped by in migration

and despite the mortality of 90 to 95% of some local species and the destruction of the shorebird and mangrove habitat...It could have been worse

.In February I tallied 37 pearly-eyed thrashers in the same areas this visit I saw three (above).  I saw two in Anse Marcel on a trail I've never seen under ten before.  I did flush a lone unphotographed scaly-breasted thrasher, an ultra-rare resident bird here and my third sighting I guess  life goes on.
Material possessions are just junk we think is important when, in fact, our lives are what matters and we luckily weren’t here.  Living for a few days without water was bad enough and a reminder of the stark reality that others had to face and in some places, are still facing  and heck...I found pigeons........
La vie pas facile, My friends …life is not easy!

Enjoy the day,



  1. On facebook, people in SXM act like everything is normal. I do understand their only incomes are tourism, but I wouldn't want to go there now. Maybe in a few years.

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    2. The population is struggling but is not going to erupt. Please refrain from saying tourists will be hurt. That is fear mongering and is not going to happen. The island has abundant security now and most people on the island are helping each other, not looting and stealing. The island is as safe now as it was before the hurricane. That being said, we have a long way to go to full recovery.
      I am sorry for your losses. It's been rough on us all.
      Regarding birds, we have lots of bananaquits in our yard and several hummingbirds We have one or two thrushes.We also have a few doves and I saw some pigeons right after the hurricane.

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    4. Thanks for all of the info, we are headed back to the island in January to finish repairing our villa. I ordered your book for my wife who loves the island birds. We also set up feeders when we’re there.


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