Saint Martin - With the sound of helicopters overhead, Stephen Payne described how Hurricane Irma ravaged the island of St. Martin.
“We’re lucky,” Payne said. Payne and his wife spent much of the storm huddled in a hotel bathroom shower with his wife and German Shephard.
Payne was once co-owner of Desert Shadows Inn in Palm Springs. He’s now Managing Director of Club Orient, a resort on the French side of the Caribbean Island.
Club Orient sits below sea level. “When it went to Category 5… we knew we couldn’t stay,” Payne said. He and his wife packed up to head to a friend’s beach club to weather out the deadly hurricane.
The gentle breezes that followed didn’t hint at the severe storm that was ahead. Payne said they settled in, watching television with friends. Then, at about 5 a.m., they heard what sounded like an explosion.
The hurricane shutters blew out. Glass was flying. “We’re lucky we only got small shards,” Payne recalled.
The second floor of the building collapsed above them, Payne said. The winds blew tables and chairs. That’s when Payne, his wife, and their dog sought shelter in the bathroom.
“Every wall was vibrating,” Payne said. When the storm rolled through it sounded “like a freight train.”
They peeked out a window at sunrise, watching waves from the storm surge hit the hotel. The couple was trapped in the bathroom because debris had blocked the door. They considered escaping through the balcony despite the dangers outside. Eventually, they pushed a hole through the door with a tension rod. His wife crawled through and moved enough debris to get out.
Payne recalls finding a co-worker and friend with a severe head injury. A shard of glass had cut his skull. They tried to treat it as best they could on site, even washing it with gin. “You can’t call for an ambulance,” Payne said. Eighteen hours later, they found their way to a fire station, where first responders stitched the wound by the light of a flashlight, Payne said.
Once he was able to get out to see the damage of the storm, he saw that Club Orient was heavily damaged. He says the streets are full of glass. All of the windows of his car were blown out. An SUV was blown onto a porch. A house was on the top of a hill, its roof resting on the bottom of the hill. Looting is widespread; he says crime is “rampant.” Food is rotting and covered in maggots. He can see helicopters from offshore conducting airdrops, but he hasn’t seen any supplies land near him yet.
Now, Payne and others are bracing for another possible impact, this time from Hurricane Jose. Payne says they are rationing the water they have. They’ve dug holes for men’s and women’s “latrines.” They take some food out of a hotel freezer twice a day. They are deciding if they should barricade in a hallway if Jose hits, or if the storm surge could reach them there. There’s no opportunity to prepare supplies for a possible hit by Jose as that storm looms.
When asked about what's next after the storm clears, Payne said, “We’re in serious trouble.” The island is reliant on tourism. He has to tell 132 employees they no longer have a job. Payne worries about how they will eat, pay rent, raise their kids, all without work at Club Orient.
Payne hopes those living in the Caribbean aren’t forgotten. “The whole world reacts to Houston,” Payne says. Payne notes that as a serious storm threatens the U.S. mainland, “there are tens of thousands of people on the way” on tropical islands.
ABC News reports at least 8 people have died so far on St. Martin island, and the number is expected to rise.