Saint Martin

After Irma, no-one on this island wants zinc roofing

Hurricane Irma hit the small Dutch-French island of Saint Martin on September 6, destroying homes, boats, businesses and vegetation. It also taught the island a lesson: that houses should have concrete roofs. These two Venezuelan architects tell Univision how the hurricane will affect building codes going forward.

By Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda

They transformed their apartment in the Cupecoy neighborhood into a bunker. Six layers of pure pine wood protected the walls outside. The door was locked with five deadbolts. Two small holes in the wood were the only way to peer through the window.

During the storm, Gabriel Antúnez pushed his body against the main door to resist the wind. His wife, Susana Díaz-Granados, locked herself in the bathroom with her seven-year-old son, a flashlight, an iPad and a pair of headphones to block the deafening roar of the hurricane.

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“If the hurricane had lasted an hour longer, there was no chance that [our door] would have held,” Antúnez says.

At just 34 square miles, Saint Martin is split into two parts, overseen by the governments of France and the Netherlands. It was one of the islands hit hardest by Irma.

This couple, both architects from Venezuela, have lived on the Dutch side of Saint Martin for more than 13 years. Their home survived the hurricane, but many of their neighbors weren’t as lucky. Objects smashed into windows and broke doors. The wind sucked out the contents of apartments. The government on the Dutch side of Saint Martin estimates that some 70% of homes suffered damage.

The Saint Martin neighborhood most affected by Hurricane Irma
Dominican mechanic Jose Duchene spent the hurricane in Sandy Ground: "Cars were flying and the wind moved entire containers," he says. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Sandy Ground is one of the most vulnerable areas of Saint Martin. In the image: a pile of debris from the hurricane almost three months after Irma. Esther Poveda / Univision
"The sea covered everything," recalls Louise Dossouse, a Haitian immigrant who has been in Saint Martin for 28 years. Dossouse experienced hurricanes in Haiti, but never as devastating as this one. She lost part of her business, a small market. Esther Poveda / Univision
A large part of the Sandy Ground population are low-income immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On the French side of the island, one third of the population of Saint Martin is an immigrant; 38% of the population are Haitians and 14% are Dominicans, according to 2012 data from the French census office. Nacho Corbella / Univision
David, 21, is the son of Dominican immigrants. Born in Saint Martin, he has a cell phone business in Sandy Ground. "After the hurricane we were disconnected from the world," he says. He did not reopen his shop until a month after the hurricane. Nacho Corbella / Univision
Two months after the storm, Lindiurelie Carole, another Haitian immigrant from Saint Martin, still has goosebumps when she thinks of it: "I am going to the psychologist, I was shocked, many people have lost everything," she says. Esther Poveda / Univision
"I would not want to live through that again, that was not easy," says Mario Zapata, a Dominican immigrant. The water flooded his house and wind broke through the shutters he put over his windows. Without electricity or water months after the hurricane, he believes the French government will help "fix everything soon." Esther Poveda / Univision
Mario's neighbor, Digna Ruan, is also Dominican and has been in Saint Martin for 31 years. The woman spent the hurricane in her son's house after the government ordered mandatory evacuation. When she returned, she found her house completely flooded. In the picture, Digna's granddaughters play in front of their house. Esther Poveda / Univision
While in the Dutch part of the island, most of the electrical system is underground, the French part of Saint Martin maintains traditional electric poles. Five weeks after the storm, the government declared electricity completely restored. Esther Poveda / Univision
Micael moved to Sandy Ground after Irma trashed his barbershop. "Now I work here on the street for those who want a cut," he explains. The young man, of Dominican origin, borrowed two machines to keep working. Esther Poveda / Univision
Children returned to school in early November, two months after the hurricane. Students in schools that suffered great damage were reassigned. In the picture, friends Adonis Sajulus and Brooks Agustin Alexander return from school in Sandy Ground. Esther Poveda / Univision

When the storm ended, they stepped out of her home to a horrible scene: it looked as if time had stopped. “I saw people walking with bags like zombies, like in a horror movie. It was a very sad moment,” Díaz-Granados says.

Irma was a wake-up call. Now, the architects are working with residents to rebuild homes that are more hurricane resistant. “People now see the importance of concrete roofs,” Antúnez says.

Lessons from Hurricane Luis

Irma destroyed the island’s vegetation, swept beaches clean, and destroyed countless cars and hotels, devastating businesses and homes. Roofs took the brunt of the storm. Across the island, homes are now covered with blue tarps.

After Hurricane Luis in 1995, Saint Martin learned how to build homes made of concrete. But either due to the cost or a lack of information, many people continued to use roofs made of zinc, a type of metal. Those flew off easily during Irma.

Now, people are rebuilding. In mid-November, James, a 70-year-old builder, instructed workers to build a concrete roof on his 90-year-old mother’s home, who lives in the Cole Bay neighborhood.

“Hurricane Donna blew the roof in 1960 and we rebuilt it with zinc. That roof survived Luis in ’95, but during Irma, an object broke its structure and water and wind got in,” James says.

Until Irma, Luis had been the main point of reference when it came to destruction on Saint Martin. After that storm knocked out the electrical grid for months, authorities decided to put a good part of the electrical system underground. It was expensive and an inconvenience to the public, but it was worth it.

“We’re an easy target; we’re the first to receive the hurricanes that come in from the Atlantic,” says Ramiro Hernández, the chief of operations of the water and electricity company, GEBE, on the Dutch side of Saint Martin.

After Irma, the island restored electricity fast with the new system: by mid-December, 90% of the population had lights, and 100% had running water.

Tourism takes a hit

If Luis taught the importance of an improved electrical system, Irma showed that the island needs cement roofs. As Antúnez explains, roofs made of tile or zinc can fly away easily, damaging other properties.

“Concrete prevents projectiles and keeps trash from entering the living space, and I believe that this is the foundation upon which we should focus hurricane-resistant design,” he says.

But concrete can run for double or even triple the cost of zinc, and often has to be shipped from the United States.

Lizzy, owner of Lizzy’s Kitchen and Bar, says cost is a factor in her rebuilding plans. Her colorful restaurant in Phillipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of the island, was totally destroyed by wind and water during Irma.

She plans to rebuild with cement and zinc, but the bar will still be made of wood. “In the event of another hurricane, I’ll bring everything inside,” she says. “I’d like to rebuild entirely of concrete, but I can’t,” says the woman, who is of Guyanese origin.

Meanwhile, a dozen construction workers are trying to rebuild her bar in time for high season, which lasts throughout the winter.

Irma’s 185 mph winds made a shipwreck of the yachts that normally dock in the island’s ports and scared away cruisers and tourists who arrive each week to sunbathe and shop.

According to tourism director Rolando Brison, the Dutch part of the island lost 70% of its hotels as a result of the hurricane. Across the island, luxury hotels are totally destroyed, like Sonesta Maho, which lost its roof and part of its structure, or Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, where the storm damaged a large part of the solar panel system that provided electricity.

Gabriel Antunez and his wife, Susana Diaz Granados, have lived in Saint Martin for 13 years. Irma was the first category 5 hurricane they experienced. Esther Poveda / Univision

In addition, the Princess Juliana airport, known around the world for its proximity to the beach, was closed for more than a month. Because of the extensive damage suffered by the building, improvised counters have been made beneath tarps to serve as the arrivals and departures area since the airport reopened in October.

“We can’t hang up a ‘Closed’ sign. We depend upon tourism,” Antúnez says. “We don’t want to lose the high season. We don’t want people to come to an island that was ruined by a hurricane, but rather, to an island that is capable of pulling itself back up again.”

For that reason, he insists rebuilding is needed urgently. But, he says, it needs to be smart.

“If beforehand our parameters were for winds of between 160 to 180 mph, now we know that the materials have to have a tolerance for the 200 mph barrier,” he says.

A special report by Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda
All Credits

Project: Univision Noticias

Texts: Lorena Arroyo, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez (Cuba)

Video: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Almudena Toral, Andrea Patiño, Laura Prieto, José Luis Osuna, Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn

Design and dev: Juanje Gómez

Project coordination: Nathalie Alvaray, Selymar Colón, José López

Photo: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Lorena Arroyo

Text editing: María Sánchez Díez

Data: Ronny Rojas, Dilia Márquez, Antonio Cucho

Social networks: María Carolina Hurtado, Esther Poveda, Nacho Corbella, Ricardo Weibezahn

Digital product: Daniela Jaramillo

Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo, Melvin Félix

English texts editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss, Mónica Isola

Additional thanks: Maye Primera, Inger Díaz, Alejandra Vargas, Patricia Clarembaux, Patricia Vélez, Carmen Graciela Díaz, Luis Velarde, David Maris,Angélica Gallón