International vacation spots should have international support in times of disaster

Credit: Alka  Earathu/ Credit: Alka Earathu/
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The “Friendly Island” of Saint Martin and its neighboring company are in for a not-so-friendly time after the region surrounding the Caribbean was battered by Hurricane Irma, a category four storm and one of the strongest of its kind to hit the area in several years. In its wake, Irma left the popular island destinations barely habitable and in chaos. Every picture that surfaces on the internet or Facebook is a testament to total destruction of the entire island. Both sides of the island, the Dutch and the French, look as though a massive bomb has exploded and left everything, including the palm trees, broken and in shambles.

As an international vacation spot, the economy there relies almost entirely on tourism — but in the off season, while the main tourist spell is over, the native community including many foreigners who provide services for tourists, are being left to fend for themselves. After the initial uproar of the hurricane hitting the island, the tragedy has not been given very much more attention in the news. While the French and the Dutch government did send their armies to help restore security and will pour a lot of their own resources to rebuild the infrastructure and the economy, shouldn’t the same people who come for the resorts and the beaches and the sun-soaked fun times refuse to turn their backs when it’s not so fun anymore?

With most of the infrastructure left destroyed and splintered in the streets, resources have depleted rapidly, and with most of the food gone, Saint Martin has been left in despair. With nowhere to go and nowhere to turn to, many of its inhabitants have resorted to plundering any of the remaining supplies, resulting in fighting breaking out among the streets — a rather stark and dark contrast to its affectionate moniker as “The Friendly Island.”

It has been almost a week. There should be a massive international effort for relief right now. Instead, the international community consciously leaving the island on its own in such catastrophic condition amounts to nothing more than leisure-based exploitation at its finest. After all, the island has been a summer destination for the middle, but mostly upper, classes from all over the world. Dr. John Markoff, a sociology professor from the University of Pittsburgh, has visited the island numerous times and has met people from many South American countries, Europe, as well as lots of Americans. “We met people even from Russia and Poland, and often found ourselves speaking Spanish as often as French while staying there,” he said in a brief interview with me, markedly illustrating the vast international diversity among the tourist population that floods to the island during its most popular summer months.

The last time the 100 square km region was left ravaged in such epic proportions was under the intensity of Hurricane Luis during the hurricane season of 1995, rendering much of the island of Saint Martin entirely uninhabitable. This was over twenty years ago — and now it's happening again with no better efforts and no better preparations. 20 years ago some of the little towns and communities in Saint Martin and Sint Maarten were left without water and electricity for three months. Today, the French and the Dutch army need to protect citizens against armed gangs trying to steal water and food, scarce commodities. Yet, despite the immediate efforts of the French and the Dutch, sleeping in the street may be the only option for many days to come for the numerous people who have lost their homes.

I was hoping that the international community of Saint Martin’s vacationers would react to immediately start organizing fundraising, just as we are doing for those afflicted by Hurricane Harvey, even if it means only helping one victim of the hurricane at a time to restore their lives. I am not the only one who is concerned that the devastated Saint Martin may need the help of the very people who used to flock to it when it looked like a paradise.

Dr. Markoff is also afraid that, once the hurricane has vanished, so will the global attention to the island. He and his wife are trying to get in touch with the people who work there and whom they got to know throughout years, but it has taken a long time to find even the first person by posting and using their connections via Facebook.

With Saint Martin being a speckle of land in a vast body of water and its international airport destroyed by the hurricane, even the people who love this place and would like to help feel powerless. Unless there is an international and outside relief effort spurred by an organization with the means for sending goods and donations to Saint Martin, the people of the tiny paradise will live in an isolated hell for a long time to come.