The flight from St. Martin to St Barth’s can drain the blood from the knuckles. The Twin Otter plane scuds awfully close to a couple of hills and dives onto the tarmac with a bounce. I arrived in paradise on a late October afternoon, just as the island completed its annual spit and polish in preparation for the winter tourist season. The next day, I woke up to white sunshine and fleshy clouds over the Baie de St. Jean, as calm as a lake, filled with preposterously green water the color of Scope mouthwash. Croissants were freshly scooped from a baking sheet at Carambole Pâtisserie and placed into a basket that was deposited on my patio. I grabbed one for a breakfast-to-go amble along one of the world’s most glamorous beaches. This pale comma of sand extends from Hotel les Ilets de la Plage, my home for the week, past the airport, ending at Eden Rock St. Barth’s, which claims its ever regal perch despite being under a clamor of cranes and scaffolding. In just four weeks, the hotel will reopen after two years of renovations. Even unfinished, it wears its allure in spectacular style.
It is the first day of the 2019–20 season at Les Ilets, and the hotel is bright with flowering frangipani and hibiscus trees. The French word is chaleureux, for warm and inviting, and this very intimacy makes this cluster of pristine villas along a quiet private road a case study in hurricane recovery, and a metaphor for the resilient island that it inhabits.
Irma’s Messy Aftermath
On August 30, 2017, a tropical storm formed off the Cape Verde islands, and as it moved westward it turned into Hurricane Irma, a wrecking ball that would eventually register among the highest winds ever recorded from an Atlantic storm. Compared with 2019’s Dorian, which parked for 48 hours over the Bahamas, Irma battered St. Barth’s for only six hours, but waves, storm surge, 200 m.p.h. winds, and micro-tornadoes caused nearly one billion dollars’ worth of damage. “The short duration saved us, and so we were in a sense lucky, relatively speaking,” said Nils Dufau, vice president of St. Barth’s for communications and tourism. “Still, there was a lot of work to do.” Hotels on the beach were washed out, and much of the island’s vegetation, roads, and infrastructure disappeared.
Uprooted palm trees torpedoed clear across the bay to Les Ilets on the opposite side, and hurled into the bungalows like battering rams. “The storm surge brought the ocean straight into the rooms,” says manager Laurie Smith. The destruction was severe, but as the hotel is small and privately owned within the Lédée family, members of which also own the entire peninsula including the land on which the airport was built, there was no corporate headquarters from which to await marching orders. “We could make our own decisions, and make them quickly,” Smith says.
“The storm surge brought the ocean straight into the rooms.”
In the undamaged rooms, the hotel sheltered families whose houses were uninhabitable on behalf of the Collectivité of St. Barth’s, the semi-autonomous local government, which set up a crisis center at the airport. It helped that Xavier David, one of the island’s engineers, was able to assemble a 100-person-strong team almost instantaneously. He showed me the reinforced shutters they fashioned out of metal and wood, and walked me to the bunker they call “the Safe House,” a state-of-the-art command center his crew built post-Irma for electricity, phone, cable, and Internet. Within six weeks, the property was cleaned up enough to welcome guests. Rather than patch up the damage as quickly as possible, the owners moved ahead on innovations that had been planned for a few years down the line.
A Tradition of Preparedness
Even before Irma, the most powerful hurricane since Luis, which hit in 1995, St. Barth’s was arguably the Caribbean island best prepared to withstand tropical storms, in part because of its stringent building codes. “The structures are mostly concrete, which is why most of the damage affected the roofs,” says Dufau. Another reason is the can-do attitude of the locals. “Everyone grabbed a chain saw and went to work,” says Randy Gurley, who owns Maya’s Restaurant and Maya’s to Go.
But it was the island’s thriving, stable economy—no debts, no loans, and, most importantly, a $66 million budget surplus—that allowed the recovery to begin so quickly, according the Dufau. Rather than wait for plodding bureaucratic wheels to start turning in Paris, the island’s plentiful coffers allowed the Collectivité to invest on day one. In addition, the mother country paused the mandatory payroll taxes as an incentive for all companies to keep paying their employees and avoid layoffs.
As Les Ilets was thoughtfully rebuilt to exceed safety, technological, and aesthetic standards, Irma had a similar, ancillary effect on the entire island. “The hurricane blew up the economy, but it was a little rocket as well. It has given us a boost,” says Dufau.
As a whole, the island has nearly completed an initiative to move all power poles, electrical grids, and fiber-optic networks underground. A desalination plant is powered by energy transfer from a garbage-processing facility, and the island has recently invested in overhauling sidewalks and roads. The island has also put in new safeguards for development and declared 66 percent of St. Barth’s a green zone. “Quality in innovation, not quantity,” says Dufau. “This is what is going to future-proof our island.”
“The hurricane blew up the economy, but it was a little rocket as well. It has given us a boost.”
The strategy to upgrade and refresh post-Irma was shared by other hotels on the island. The Guanahani, located in the middle of a nature preserve on two separate beaches, has had perhaps the most complicated rebuild; it is scheduled to reopen in October 2020. “The hurricane really provided the opportunity to do things better, with new ecological considerations, among other things,” says managing director Martein van Wagenberg.
Hotel Christopher took six months to recover after serious storm damage, only to have its sparkling new restaurant, now called Christo, gutted by a fire days before reopening. “We worked with the architects to make the hotel even better than before,” says general manager Olivier Leroy. The orange and gray enclave on a bluff, with a Sisley spa that floats above the water, was open a year after Irma, and this December it will unveil three private four-bedroom villas with private pools. “We know that there will be a hurricane every 15 or so years,” says Leroy. “And should that happen, we all are ready.”
In a sense, the new normal in St. Barth’s is neither more nor less than what the rest of us contend with, whether it’s wildfires in California or flooding in the Mississippi River basin. One N.O.A.A. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) chart indicates that St. Barth’s has been within 50 miles of 15 major hurricanes since 1851, usually patterned by two or so decades of quiet followed by two or so decades of activity. St. Barth’s, in the northern corner of the Leeward Islands, is vulnerable on all sides. Like most disasters, it comes down to luck, good or bad.
A few miles away, St. Martin struggles to rebuild its ailing tourist economy, dealt a potentially mortal blow by Irma. St. Barth’s is the fortunate one. From the balcony of one of Les Ilets’ hilltop rooms, it could not be a more serene October afternoon. The sea is imperturbable, and there is no breeze for bougainvillea stems even to sway in. Guests arrive, the first of the season, to their freshly glossed white villas. Should the wind pick up—hurricanes can, after all, form until November—the guests are, above all, safe. “We did more than was required,” said Xavier David. “Les Ilets is stronger than before.” Like St. Barth’s itself, rebuilt in splendid style, ready for the next one. Because surely, eventually, it will come.
Marcia DeSanctis is a writer based in Litchfield County, Connecticut