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Irma no Isabel: Former Perquimans resident rides out storm on Sint Maarten

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This photo by former Perquimans County resident James Baggett shows the Fahrenheit Road Community in Cole Bay, Sint Maarten, following the devastation of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6. The red-outlined boxes are sites flagged by Baggett, who has lived on the Dutch side of the island since graduating from Elizabeth City State University in 2013.

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By Peter Williams
The Perquimans Weekly

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HERTFORD — Riding out Hurricane Isabel at the Hertford Café in 2003 was no preparation for Hurricane Irma.

So says 31-year-old James Baggett, who was raised in Perquimans County, graduated from Elizabeth City State University and has lived in the Caribbean since 2013. He wrote of surviving the recent hurricane and spoke briefly to The Perquimans Weekly Tuesday afternoon over a G-mail voice program from his home in Sint Maarten.

Sint Maarten is the southern part of an island in the northeast Caribbean Sea, located about 190 miles east of Puerto Rico. It’s part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands while the island’s northern part, known as Saint Martin, is overseen by the French. Sint Maarteen/Saint Martin is the world’s smallest island divided between two nations.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm packing winds of up to 185 miles an hour, tore across Sint Maarteen/St. Martin on Sept. 6. In addition to the widespread destruction the storm cause, the French government has reported an official death toll of 11. Some island officials, however, say that hundreds may have died in the storm. An official report on the full extent of the storm’s impact on the island may be weeks or months away, according to published reports.  

Baggett’s mother, Merle Benge and her husband Byron, live in the Bear Swamp community of Perquimans.

During Isabel, Baggett remembers being holed up in the Hertford Café on Church Street where he worked as a dishwasher. Hurricane Irma was “nothing like that,” he said.

“In a little under six hours Irma paralyzed the St. Martin/St Maarten communication network, the power and water companies and all businesses,” Baggett said. “Shockingly, though, there were no storm-related deaths on the Dutch side of the island where I reside … but the devastation was widespread.

“As someone who grew up an hour from the Outer Banks, I made the grave mistake of thinking I knew what to expect with this storm. My education began at 4 a.m. that day,” he said.

Baggett said the Sint Maarten government had already issued a curfew and closed down a majority of businesses, including the airport.

“People had battened down their hatches,” he said in an email. “I, however, was angry that I couldn’t get a hurricane window in our living room closed so at the last minute I decided to strap some plastic coated cardboard to it with two old belts to sort of deflect the wind if it blew into our home. This was the equivalent of stopping a rampaging bull with a lasso made of dental floss.

“Still … that morning I sprang out of bed into a dark living room and peered across to see my neighbor’s mango tree was already flailing in the wind,” he continued. “There was an audible ‘pop” and the screen on the still open window came inside with a spray of rainwater. I grabbed the frame and clicked it back into place.

“By now, my wife had joined me and sat nearby holding the transistor radio and flashlight. Bracing my arms and back I stood holding the frame of the window screen in place for the next three hours … fighting Irma’s invasive blasts that threatened to throw me backwards into my kitchen. At one point my wife’s arms braced alongside mine and still we were skidding our feet as the aluminum frame shuddered and bulged against us like the sail of a ship. Around 5 a.m. as we watched our streetlights flicker and die one at a time. It was like Irma had officially introduced herself to us, but not in the friendly Caribbean way. More along Jack Nicholson’s famous line from ‘The Shining’ — ‘Heeeeeere’s Irma.’

By 6 a.m., Baggett continued, the wind gusts had faded, his home’s windows had stopped “shuddering” and sheet metal roofs had also grown quiet. The sky had taken on a “strange gray twilight,” he remembered.

It wasn’t good news, however. 

“We were in the eye of Irma … the very heart of the storm,” he said.

Baggett said he left his house to look around but returned because he knew what would happen when the eye passed and the other side of Irma hit.

“Knowing that like a boxer seated on a stool between rounds, Irma was just catching her breath and round two would begin at the bell’s ring,” he said.

It wasn’t long before the bell rang.

“At 7 a.m. ... Irma returned from the other direction,” he said. “This time the storm lived up to her namesake: the Germanic war goddess.”

Baggett said he returned to task of using his body to keep the window closed.

“However, this time there was a new trick as the wind was sucking air through our apartment and then pausing,” he said. “It would blow me backwards again. The wind had shrieked with an ethereal rage earlier. This time it was the angry roar of a low flying jet, or some wild beast. Over this I could hear and feel the concrete walls of our apartment shuddering, and somewhere sheets of metal were flying past outside like playing cards. A discarded refrigerator bounced down the street.”

Baggett said he yelled to his wife to grab their dog, go into the bathroom shut the door and not come out until he told her to. She did that, carrying the radio and flashlight with her.

“The pressure wave inside the building made me heave for air and work my jaw to pop my ears,” he recalled. “You could feel ground shaking as if a locomotive was barreling past.”

Finally, after what he described as “an eternity,” the wind began to die down. 

“I released the warped window screen and got my wife to come out,” he said. “The radio was just static … all stations were effectively silent. (There was) no power or water.”

Next door, the roof on a Chinese family’s corner market had completely collapsed. But what happened next showed him, he said, how disasters can bring out the best in people. 

“Immediately the owner of the market down at the corner started yelling for us to come and get as much perishable items from his store as we could carry and split it amongst our neighbors,” he said. “This man had spent part of the storm huddled in a closet with his cousin, brother, wife and their young 4-year-old daughter but (was) now trying to make sure we all have enough food to survive the aftermath.”

But Baggett also witnessed looting from a nearby appliance store.

“Its front half ripped open like a beer can ... the local Harley Davidson dealership was imploded. … (there were) fuel tanks, and tail pipes scattering the area around it.”

Baggett said he originally moved to Sint Maarten in search for a job. His wife Sharona’s father works for the school board there and the school had an opening for an art teacher. The person who held the job, however, decided not to retire so Baggett had to look for something else. He earns his living now as an editorial cartoonist for a newspaper on the island.

Baggett said he’s not sure if he’ll stay on Sint Maarten following Irma’s walloping of the island. For now, however, he wants to stay and help people get their lives back together.

“As much as I’d like to end this story on a happy note, I cannot due to the fact the cleanup continues and people are still in the process of cleaning up,” he said. “But I will in my own small way do what I can to help others who are less fortunate than I.”

There will be plenty to do. According to The New York Times, a week after the storm there was still little to no fuel, electricity or food delivery on the island. Nearly all of the schools were destroyed and are expected to be closed for months, The Times said.

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