Ten years ago, John stumbled into an amazing opportunity to teach med students at the American University of the Caribbean on the island of Sint Maarten. Every spring, he spent about 6 weeks teaching, usually splitting the term with another ER physician from St. Louis. The pay basically covered expenses, making the time feel like a free vacation, even if John worked for part of the day. Over the years, we discovered the best places to snorkel, the best French pastry, and fell in love with the island’s slower way of life. “Island time” (in other words, it’s not happening today) became our normal for a short while.
That all changed 16 months ago.
September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5, surged the island. Winds were clocked at 180 mph, with gusts up to 225. The videos posted online of the neighborhood we had lived in and the Marigot harbor were shocking. Old growth trees and landscaping were gone- entire buildings demolished. Familiar landmarks no longer existed, and we were in disbelief when we finally recognized a location in a video.
Parts of the island were without power or water for weeks. Entire neighborhoods were under water, not to mention roads being washed out and debris piled in unusual places. Add a poor existing infrastructure and the typical slow island response, and a tragic disaster beyond the magnitude of Katrina is born. While the press reported widespread looting (because the viewing public loves chaos), most of the grocery stores left standing after the storm opened their doors and gave food away- the alternative was to let it go bad. Surviving became the priority for anyone remaining on the island.
The medical school had little external damage due to its location and construction, but water damaged the school’s electronics and power making the building unusable. DeVry made a decision to relocate students to a school in Manchester, England for the 2017-18 school year. Our expectations of ever returning to the island were low. The school administration had indicated a desire to limit part-time faculty even prior to the hurricane. Enrollment numbers always dictate faculty needs each year and enrollment dropped significantly for the year after Irma.
When John was asked to teach this year, we didn’t know what to expect. We packed a grateful attitude along with our sun gear. Despite the damage on the island and the loss of many of our favorite places, we both felt like we came home. The best part of the past ten years has always been the wonderful friendships forged with people from Europe and North America. We had our own little expat community that we slipped back into upon returning, and we spent the past few weeks catching up on everyone.
Sunday, we went to 9 am Mass at Mary Star of the Sea, our favorite church on the island. The roof is gone, but the choir still sings with jubilation. The pews were packed, and the handshake of peace took forever, because everyone knows each other or acts as if they do. It was reassurance that the generous, loving spirit of the island did not blow away.