How the Caribbean Is Recovering, One Year After Devastating Hurricanes
Last year, 17 named hurricanes tore across the Caribbean and Atlantic. It was a record-breaking season that left at least 460 people dead across the US, the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.
It's almost impossible to quantify the destruction, but hundreds of islands in the Caribbean were pummeled by the storms — Hurricanes Irma and Maria, in particular — and that's not even including the Florida Keys or the Texas coast.
Hurricane season in the Caribbean officially returned on June 1. Its peak is typically between August and October. And on Friday, July 6, the region's first named hurricane of the season, Beryl, emerged from the Atlantic. (By Saturday, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.)
But in a region that's still recovering from last year's battery of natural disasters, islanders have long been bracing for what this year, and the next, could bring. According to reports, hurricanes are likely to become larger, more severe and to last longer.
For people in certain parts of the world, however, hurricanes will continue to be simply a fact of life.
And for a region so dependent on tourism, there are few better ways to help them return to normalcy than by spending your tourism dollars on the islands. As Sylma Brown Bramble, director of the Caribbean Tourism Organization told TPG, their message to travelers is this: "We invite you to help the Caribbean by continuing to visit..."
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, we looked at a handful of the island nations hit hardest by the hurricanes, reflecting on what happened, checking in on where things are now and exploring how these beautiful, resilient places (and the people who call them home) are preparing for this year's season of storms.
For beautiful beaches, bioluminescent bays, festive music and delicious cuisine, you don’t need to venture farther than Puerto Rico — and you don’t need to bother with a passport, either. Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth encompassing more than 100 islands, only three of which are inhabited (the main island of Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra). Once you’ve heard the singsong of the coquí tree frogs and experienced the friendliness of the locals, you’ll know you’ve reached paradise.
Hurricanes typically hit Puerto Rico about once every three years, but few have been as catastrophic as 2017’s Hurricane Maria. The last time the island was hit by a storm of that caliber was in the 1930s, and the last major hurricane to cause severe problems in Puerto Rico was Hurricane Georges in 1998, which was a Category 4 (it was the first storm to directly hit the island since Hurricane San Ciprian in 1932).
In preparation for the 2018 hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stocked several warehouses with food and medical supplies, and plans to keep dozens of recovery centers open throughout the season. Almost 3,000 FEMA employees remain in Puerto Rico, ready to help if another disaster strikes. In June, personnel from FEMA's Emergency Operations Center participated in a course where they simulated crises so that management is better prepared for the next catastrophe.
When the TPG team went to help rebuild Puerto Rico four months after Maria, beaches were still littered with debris and homes in the La Perla neighborhood remained without roofs. About 70% of the island had power.
By April 2018, 97% of the island had power. And according to a June 18 update from the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, 100% of hospitals are operational, and many now have adequate generators (in some cases, solar power and backup, high-capacity generators) that will kick in if the power goes out. More fiber-optic cable has been installed underground since last year, including near Puerto Rico’s hard-hit central mountain towns, with providers investing in more generators to keep cell towers working.
More than 130 hotels are open and fully operational now (about 89%), including the new Serafina Beach Hotel in the Condado District near Old San Juan. The boutique, beachside resort was the first new hotel to open after last year’s devastating hurricane season — and it’s been sold out or close to it on many occasions since its March debut, proving demand for beds on the island has not wavered.
A few other hotels, including the iconic El Conquistador, are continuing with restorations even while welcoming guests. Several luxury hotels have yet to reopen, but most of those expect to welcome guests by the end of the year, beginning with Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (Oct. 1), the St. Regis at Bahia Beach (Oct. 29) and the W Retreat & Spa Vieques Island (Dec. 31).
About 28 new hotels, including at least two from the Aloft brand and the Four Seasons Cayo Largo Resort, are under construction and expected to debut in 2019.
The cruising season is trending toward record-breaking numbers this year, with 14 ships (four more than last year) calling the port of Puerto Rico home. Those include Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, the Windstar Pride, the Silversea Silver Wind and the Viking Sea.
Thanks to several newly established routes, more frequent flights and larger aircraft, there will be as many available airline seats coming to the island as there were the same time last year, when tourism was at its peak, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
More than a dozen golf courses and 16 casinos are officially open, and travelers will also discover a number of long-loved activities in Puerto Rico are available, including tours of the historic Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel — and meals at one of native son José Santaella’s popular restaurants. And even though it was thrashed by last year's hurricane, visitors to El Yunque National Forest, one of the island's crown jewels, have cited it as proof of the area's swift recovery. — Ana Connery
Antigua and Barbuda
Although Antigua and Barbuda are sister islands that share a single government, they were affected by the 2017 hurricanes quite differently. Before Hurricane Irma struck Barbuda, the island was home to a tight-knit population of 1,800 — all of whom were evacuated to Antigua when Irma hit.
Barbuda is still far from being rebuilt. Nearly nine in 10 structures were either damaged or destroyed in the storm, according to ReliefWeb.
Barbuda is just barely open for travel at this time, although the island's representatives are optimistic that there will be voluntourism opportunities in the near future.
"Recovery efforts have been steadily progressing," Sean Matthew, of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, told TPG. "We have seen the restoration of utilities, of hundreds of homes and a return of a third of [the residents] to the island."
"The beaches are still in fine fettle, the frigate birds are returning to the sanctuary and now tour operators have resumed day tours to Barbuda via boat and helicopter," Matthew added. And the island's popular Barbuda Belle beachfront hotel is expected to open in November.
Matthew said the government is working to "rebuild a better Barbuda — [one] that is fully reliant on renewable energy sources...a totally green island."
One of the best ways to help Barbuda is to contribute to charities on the ground. These include the Antigua & Barbuda Red Cross, The Coco Point Fund and the Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund.
Antigua, on the other hand, was not greatly affected by the hurricanes. Its major loss came from a decline in tourism following the storms. All of the major hotels, including the gorgeous Blue Waters Resort & Spa, are open for business. And vacationing in Antigua can help the joint government repair neighboring Barbuda. — Alyssa Cerchiai
British Virgin Islands
Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to this cluster of 36 islands favored by castaway wannabes. For the most part, though, the British Virgin Islands are back up and running. (A few resorts, however, decided to undertake more extensive renovations before reopening.)
The Moorings, a favorite among sailors since 1969, has catamaran and sailboat charters available for island hopping. Anegada Beach Club reopened in February with new luxury tents, an upgraded restaurant and an improved water-sports center. To the relief of the environmentally conscientious, the eco-friendly Cooper Island Beach Club opened its doors again in March. The majority of the villas and suites at Oil Nut Bay are available (except Poseidon’s Perch Ridge Villa and Montastraea Estate Villa), and all its amenities — including the restaurant, marina, kids' club and nature center — are back in business.
The island’s other notable resorts will be opening over the next few months. Guana Island is slated to reopen in August. Necker Island (Richard Branson’s private estate) and Scrub Island (a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection) will follow in October. Rosewood Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda and the Peter Island Resort & Spa are both undergoing more extensive renovations and will likely open in late 2019, as will the Bitter End Yacht Club. Norman Island is working on a new development, with more information to come soon. Meanwhile, the famed Baths of Virgin Gorda weathered the storms without any damage. — Laura Itzkowitz
St. Martin has made a strong comeback after Hurricane Irma. The storm, which slashed through the island at 182 miles per hour, caused $3 billion in damage, ripped apart the new roof of Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), turned Great Bay Beach Resort into a ghost town and halted the tourism industry.
Today, the island, home to around 40,000 people, is on its way to recovery. The Dutch and American governments, several airlines and various NGOs donated more than 300,000 pounds of food, water, tarps, tents and hygiene products in the weeks following the storm's aftermath.
Princess Juliana International Airport, which sustained $76 million in damage, reopened in October 2017 and has begun to resume regular flights from the major US carriers: JetBlue flies daily from New York-JFK (JFK), Delta flies three times per week out of Atlanta (ATL), United flies weekly from Newark (EWR) and American will add a daily nonstop flight from Charlotte (CLT) in November, followed by larger aircraft in December.
The airport is getting a new roof that will be able to survive winds up to 240 miles per hour. Still, the airport is not expected to be completely reconstructed until 2019 or fully operational until 2020.
Nevertheless, if you’re planning a trip to St. Martin, now is the perfect time. More than 80% of the restaurants, bars, cafes and beach shacks are open, nearly all of the island’s land amenities are open and electricity has (mostly) been restored. The hotels that are currently open include Divi Little Bay Beach Resort, Belair Beach Hotel, Sea Palace Resort, De Vila, Palm Court Hotel and Simpson Bay Resort, and a number of timeshares and villa properties are available. — Caroline Schagrin
Known for its lush, rainforest-covered mountains and dramatic waterfalls, Dominica has made significant progress in restoring infrastructure and services disrupted by Hurricane Maria.
The island is now connected by daily flights on regional carriers including LIAT, Air Sunshine, Seaborne Airlines, WINAIR, Coastal Express Carrier and InterCaribbean Airways. Nineteen of the island’s 23 major attractions are officially open to visitors, who can hike the Syndicate Nature Trail, kayak the Indian River and explore sites like Trafalgar Falls, Middleham Falls and Emerald Pool.
Dominica has two boutique luxury hotels, both owned by Gregor Nassief, who has been active in the recovery efforts. The Fort Young Hotel is partially open now (41 of its 72 guest rooms are functioning) and will receive upgrades as early as October before fully reopening in February 2019 with an expansion that will include upgraded public areas, new rooms, a conference facility, gym and spa. The resort’s pool, waterfront Warner’s Bar, a new poolside bar called Jacko’s, an expanded boardwalk and activities and diving concierge are now fully operational.
Its sister property, Secret Bay, a collection of sustainable luxury villas, is slated for a November reopening. The property is reducing its villa count from eight to six but will eventually add a collection of residences. Up until now, Secret Bay has only offered private in-villa dining, but it’s gearing up to launch its first restaurant as well as a new yoga, spa and wellness facility.
Want to aid the recovery efforts? You can join Dominica’s naturalists on a variety of restoration activities, including a coastal survey of the island’s reefs, clearing boat passageways along the Indian River, gardening at Secret Bay and walking the Syndicate Nature Trail with a birding expert. Prices start at $98 per night for a minimum of five nights with accommodation at Tibay Villas. — Laura Itzkowitz
Famous for its breathtakingly blue water, this archipelago is less than an hour by air from Miami and easily accessible via nonstop flights from many US airports. The Bahamas’ perch in the northwestern corner of the region shielded it from the worst of the 2017 storms, Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“The storms impacted only the southernmost Acklins and Crooked Islands and particularly Ragged Island, but the larger islands, our main tourism product, were not adversely impacted,” Joy Jibrilu, director general of the ministry of tourism, told TPG.
The Bahamas has enjoyed record-breaking arrivals so far in 2018. With 700 islands across 100,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean that enjoy 300 days of sunshine per year, it's rare for a storm to affect all of the islands, meaning chances are good your trip will be OK.
The new Baha Mar megaresort recently completed its debut with the opening of the Rosewood, the third and final hotel on Baha Mar's stretch of Cable Beach. It’s also home to the Caribbean’s largest casino; an 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course; and more than 30 restaurants and bars.
Not to be left behind, Atlantis has unveiled a multimillion-dollar redo of the adults-only Coral Tower, complete with redesigned guest rooms, a new pool by star-chitect Jeffrey Beers and several restaurants (including Fish from celebrity chef Jose Andres). A new Marina Village is also set to debut this fall. The romantic Kamalame Cay resort on Andros has added stylish beach bungalows, and the Four Seasons just took over the One & Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island.
Getting there is also easier than ever. Delta has added direct service between Atlanta and the Exumas (GGT), the Abacos (MHH) and Eleuthera (ELH). Bahamasair now offers nonstop flights between Houston (IAH) and Nassau (NAS), with Chicago O'Hare (ORD) up next. For those traveling from Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL), a new ferry shuttles you to Freeport (FPO), on Grand Bahama Island, in just four hours.
Most hotels participate in the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association's cancellation policy for hurricanes. The ministry of tourism recommends checking with your hotel directly to know what policy is in place in the rare event that your trip is affected. All hotels have preparedness plans that are rehearsed repeatedly should a hurricane brew.
“Hurricanes are a fact of life in our region and the islands of the Bahamas take hurricanes very seriously,” Jibrilu said. — Ana Connery
This British Caribbean island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma, which left 90% of roads blocked, 90% of electrical infrastructure damaged and the island’s key Blowing Point ferry terminal destroyed.
By December, Anguilla announced island-wide power restoration — and the Anguilla Stronger relief effort had alone raised more than $1 million. This was also when the UK government approved £60 million pounds sterling (nearly $80 million) for this Caribbean territory.
The funds were largely for the Albena Lake-Hodge Comprehensive School, the Blowing Point Passenger Terminal and the Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport (AXA).
Despite the sluggish delivery of financial aid, Anguilla has made a generally swift recovery. Anguilla's minister of tourism, Cardigan Connor, told TPG that Anguilla has been welcoming tourists since last December.
"Anguilla's tourism is roaring back, new and improved and better than ever," Connor said.
Today, ferry services have resumed their normal cadence, though the customs and immigration had to move into the adjacent police station. Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport (AXA) is operational — it opened shortly after the storm — but superficial damage from the hurricane is still evident.
This airport is serviced by regional airlines like Seaborne Airlines, and puddle-jumpers like Anguilla Air Services' Britten-Norman BN-2 Islanders, which run regular 10-minute flights between Anguilla and St. Martin (where most Anguilla-bound travelers will land when flying with a major airline).
Travelers headed to Anguilla this summer won't have a hard time finding a place to stay. The Zemi Beach House Hotel & Spa, the Reef by CuisinArt and the Four Seasons reopened between February and April of 2018. And the brand new Quintessence Hotel, a decade in the making, debuted its nine luxury suites on Jan. 1.
Arguably the island’s most famous hotel, Belmond Cap Juluca is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 17 with improvements including an infinity pool along the beach, new restaurants and a beach bar. All resorts, Connor said, should be open by the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Travelers can help the island’s continued recovery by donating to the Relief Committee of the National Disaster Management Committee, the British Red Cross or the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Agency. And, of course, taking a vacation to Anguilla.
"Anguillians are waiting to welcome you," Connor said. — Melanie Lieberman
US Virgin Islands
After Hurricane Irma barreled across St. John and St. Thomas with winds gusting more than 220 miles per hour, the US Virgin Islands endured a second blow when Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 storm, returned to take St. Croix.
"All islands were impacted by the back-to-back Category 5 storms. The St. Thomas-St. John district bore the greater brunt of the hurricanes compared to St. Croix,” Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the US Virgin Islands, told TPG.
Two months later, some 73% of residents remained in the dark. It wasn't until early 2018 that officials from the US Virgin Islands reported electricity had been restored to most — yet still not all (about 92%) — customers.
If you book a trip to the US Virgin Islands this summer, you’ll find that power is now fully functional, attractions and beaches are open, and restaurants are ready to take your order.
Despite the incredible damage from Hurricane Irma (the federal government approved more than $8 billion to fund repairs, according to Nicholson-Doty), the US Virgin Islands are almost entirely open for business and welcoming travelers.
Though airports are open and operational, flights across the US Virgin Islands are at just about 70%. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines are all offering regular service to the region. In May, Spirit launched new service from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to St. Croix (STX). The airline will also launch three weekly flights to St. Thomas (STT) from Orlando (MCO) in November.
A $230 million modernization plan for the Cyril E. King Airport (STT) on St. Thomas was recently unveiled to the community, and construction of a new roof is being completed in phases to address the most critical areas first. It should be finished by late November 2018.
Lodging is the one area you might want to keep an eye on (restoration is at approximately 50% across the territory).
Of the three islands, St. Croix's accommodations have recovered the most swiftly. So take your pick of St. Croix’s Inn at Salt River or the colorful The Fred, among many others. The Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa is expecting to reopen in the first quarter of 2019.
On St. John, Gallows Point Resort and Grande Bay Resort are open and accepting guests, but the island's most famous properties, Caneel Bay and the Westin St. John Resort & Villas, are still rebuilding. Neither expect to reopen until 2019, and only 40% of the island's accommodations have been restored.
Over on St. Thomas, where accommodations are at 45% capacity, Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and Marriott Frenchman's Cove are open. But Sugar Bay Resort & Spa; the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas; and Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort remain shuttered (the latter is not expected to reopen until Jan. 1, 2020). A 110-room hotel at Yacht Haven Grande on St. Thomas is also in the works (for fall 2019), according to Nicholson-Doty. This hotel will be the first new hotel built in the territory "in decades."
A number of new businesses, tour companies and attractions have opened in recent months, including restaurants and a new brewery on St. Croix.
Travelers interested in helping the US Virgin Islands with the ongoing restoration process can also look into Purpose in Paradise, the region's voluntourism vacation program.
Nicholson-Doty said "the initiative pairs visitors who are interested in helping the territory’s recovery efforts with local nonprofit organizations in need of assistance."
Of course, as the restoration work continues in earnest, the US Virgin Islands are already bracing for what future tempests may come. To stay up to date on any future storms or hurricanes, the department of tourism has launched a website for visitors and tourism stakeholders.
And, Nicholson-Doty said, "hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested to repair and make the electrical system more resilient, including burying power lines throughout the territory. [We] are also investing in a micro-grid system that will add renewable generation capacity."
Ultimately, it's the island way. "Every day is better than the previous day. We are celebrating life," Nicholson-Doty said. — Jane Frye
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