My young children woke me up way too early on Christmas morning. There were a few random balloons in their bedrooms and streamers leading down the stairs, where a gift frenzy awaited them under the tree. This is probably quite a normal scenario in most lucky households. I can’t help but think about how it must be for a lot of people in the Caribbean this year. My children for one, are completely unaware of how lucky they are.
I spent most of my 30’s living on my boat sailing around or living on the island of St.Maarten in the Caribbean. St.Maarten was where we went when we started to run out of cruising money, and we easily got jobs and we easily fitted into the transient community of young people from all over the Caribbean and all over the world. We were all working hard (especially on those massive 9 cruise ship days when thousands of tourists needed to be entertained) and then playing hard in the downtimes. We were so young, and life was good.
We had a few hurricanes while we were there, little category 3’s that just really disrupted our lives for a week or so. The day before the hurricanes was spent boarding up the windows of our houses, securing the boat, and packing away the garden furniture. During the storms we had power and internet and mobile reception most of the time. The week following was spent unboarding up everything, cleaning up the garden mess, helping others who had been less fortunate. For 2 hurricanes I had the added responsibility of 16 stores and a massive warehouse as I was the General Manager of a chain of gift shops. I had a team of awesome hard workers to get everything prepared, and to dig out the beach sand that was half way up the front doors of beach stores after the storms.
Within a week, cruise ships were back and everything was open. Life was back to normal.
This September’s visit by the SUPER-Hurricane IRMA was a whole different story. Now if you look at the hurricane scale…
Category 1 is 74-95 mph
Category 2 is 96-110 mph
Category 3 is 111-129 mph
Category 4 is 130-156 mph
Category 5 is 157 mph and higher
How does Irma compare? Irma was 185 mph, Katrina was 175 mph
to see this interesting article I found with different major storms to hit the USA mainland over the years they have been recording.
Irma first touched land over the tiny little island of Barbuda. 95% of the buildings were torn apart. I read with horror of a young mother who lost her 2 year old son as her house was torn away from around her. Can you even begin to fathom such a disaster.
Irma then moved onto St.Maarten unleashing the same amount of fury. I had been flying from Australia to Florida in the days leading up to this, and on my phone I have found a series of screen shots of the proposed track of Irma before she hit St.Maarten. Every chance to connect to internet had me checking on the track and trying to WILL her away. She soldiered on. The night she hit I did not sleep. I spent the night on FaceBook, switching between Island 92’s
live updates, and those of all of my friends. All night they were there, we are ok, we are ok, we are ok. 4am they all went silent. NOTHING. I fell asleep.
I woke with horror to know they had been annihilated. No one was on Facebook, information was scarce, but there were several ex-St.Maarteners (which I will always consider myself) living back in Holland, South Africa, USA, Canada who were getting little updates out. I had this mental list of hundreds of friends, that over the following 5 days I gradually one by one ticked them off, as I found out they were ok.
Meanwhile Irma tracked on through the island chain, destroying island by island and adding to the number of friends I needed to add to my list to check on. It was really difficult to comprehend all of this…. then there was the fact that I was in Florida (on the other side of the world from my babies), and my warehouse is in Florida and HERE SHE COMES !!! She tore the Key’s apart, and tore up the West Coast of Florida, but where I was we were ok. I breathed a massive sigh of relief, put the warehouse back together (after we had moved everything to higher ground) and started out on my 24 to 30 hour journey home to small town Australia.
I walked through the doors of my little home airport, and there was my husband. I might be the dynamite in this family, but he is my ROCK. Captain of our boat, calm in all emergencies, when I always panic. I fell into his giant bear hug and cried. "Take me home to my babies” I said.
That was by far the hardest business trip I have ever taken. West Indies Wear is my baby, something I have nurtured for 12 years, and grown from a line in just 5 stores in the Caribbean to over 200 stores all over the world…. but we are still just a small family business. Just me designing island clothing I love, and an awesome group of island friends selling the line as sales reps in different area’s, my right hand woman Lauren doing everything for me in USA, Jodi in the warehouse and one of my oldest school friends just joined the team as my accounts lady. That’s it ! We are small, and our customers are all friends. This is not a big corporate America set up!
SO that actually made it easy when it came to coming up with ideas of how to help my islands. Actually on my return to Australia after Irma, I sat idle for 3 weeks. I did no eblasts, no blog posts, no fundraising, NOTHING. It was like I was NUMB. I actually felt like NOTHING I could do from the other side of the planet would make the least bit of difference anyway. Finally I woke up one morning and went into overdrive. We did a series of eblasts out to tell hurricane stories from the islands, we gave away free stuff and we donated a % of all sales to various post-hurricane charities. Again we are a small family business, there is no corporate funding here behind us…. just little old me, growing something out of nothing and self funding as we grow. I had no one to answer to though, so DONATE WE DID !
Then the 2018 collection started to arrive in the warehouse, and I soon figured that there is not enough space in the warehouse for last season stock AND new season stock…. SO DONATE AGAIN WE WILL. Right before Thanksgiving, when all the other brands were going on massive CyberMonday SALE, I decided we were going to give our sale stuff away, so I took it all down off the website, and I asked Lauren and Jodi to pack up all of the last season left overs….. 12 cartons, 1119 units were packed up and we shipped them down to our freight company in Miami John Cassidy & Sons
. These guys have handled all of my freight for 10 years, and they were kind enough to DONATE the freight to ship all 12 cartons to St.Maarten for FREE.
Next I teamed up with Heather & John Caputo of Domino’s Pizza in St.Maarten
. John is also the President of St.Maarten’s Rotary Club. These guys are old friends, but I also knew they do a LOT for the people of St.Maarten. Right after the hurricane they borrowed a generator so that they could fire up the ovens at Domino’s and made FREE PIZZA for all of the volunteers helping to clean up the roads. Heather is always saving some animal or other on island, and I remembered that every year she organises a massive TOY DRIVE, where toys are packed onto the back of their truck, and driven into the poorest of suburbs in St.Maarten and given out to kids who’s ONLY toy for the year, is that one that is handed over by Heather and her team of helpers at Christmas. Look at this little boy (below) who has just been given this soccer ball by Soc from Island 92, just 2 days ago. Look how chuffed he looks. Amazing. YES, Heather....there is no one better to handle this for me !!
So on Boxing Day while most of us were lounging around trying to figure out why we ate so much the day before, Heather was out there distributing toys to the kids and new clothes to the women who have lost everything. These people still have no power, no water, and they are literally living in shacks that have been put together out of hurricane scraps. They have no jobs, and until St.Maarten can fully get back on its feet, there is no likelihood of an income. Heather handed out 600 items of our clothing to women who literally have NOTHING. This lovely lady looks so happy with her new tops.
This weekend, Heather is going to take the rest of the clothing to a new suburb which has sprung up since the hurricane. Families are living in tents and crude shacks in Carnival Village - the big stadium on the island that was built specially for the amazing Carnival shows on island every April. John & Heather have organised a “movie night” in the village. So they have borrowed a big projector and a big screen to put on the show. Is that not amazing? The mom’s will get a new tunic or dress while the kids watch a movie.
These pictures made me cry. I feel so lucky to have found a way to DO SOMETHING for my island friends who are still suffering.
One love St.Maarten friends....
and Merry Christmas to you all x