Anniversary getaway ends with escape from a paradise lost

After it was over, after Hurricane Irma had left nothing undamaged, undone or under water, after everything – communication, power, food, safety – was obliterated by the force of 200 mph-plus winds, a miracle of sorts happened.

Back in their seventh-floor hotel room in what had been the luxurious Villas at the Simpson Bay Resort on the small Caribbean island of St. Maarten, Santa Fe residents Betsy Siwula-Brandt and her husband, Wolfgang Brandt, snagged enough of an intermittent cellphone signal to send out a short message.

“We made it through,” the text read. “We’re OK.”

In those early hours after Irma hit Sept. 6, their phone seemed the only way for them and others to get word out to the rest of the world about their survival.

Betsy and Wolfgang Brandt of Santa Fe smile in relief after being rescued from St. Maarten by a U.S. Air Force cargo plane three days after Irma hit
Betsy and Wolfgang Brandt of Santa Fe smile in relief after being rescued from St. Maarten by a U.S. Air Force cargo plane three days after Irma hit. (Courtesy of Betsy Siwula-Brandt)

The island – the Dutch-ruled side known as St. Maarten, where the Brandts had stayed, and the French side, known as St. Martin – had been in the direct path of Irma, the eye passing overhead while she was at Category 5 strength, her fiercest.

An estimated 95 percent of the island was devastated. And what Irma hadn’t taken away, the looters had.

“It was terrifying and heartbreaking,” said Siwula-Brandt, a geophysicist who endured the wrath of Irma on what was supposed to be a romantic 18-year wedding anniversary getaway. “We love St. Maarten, but it’s hard to imagine how it will recover from this.”

Siwula-Brandt, back now in the comforts of her New Mexico home, shared her story in a riveting blog and with me in the hopes of raising awareness to the dire needs of a paradise lost. But she also spoke out as a warning.

“The oceans are angry,” she said. “We have not been good stewards. We have trashed the oceans. They are living organisms – as was Irma – and they are not done. They are fighting back.”

As if to prove that point, Hurricane Jose had threatened to hit St. Maarten days after Irma, then veered farther north. As Siwula-Brandt and I spoke Monday evening, out in the Caribbean Sea a hurricane dubbed Maria was quickly strengthening from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 behemoth, making it one of the more rapidly intensifying storms in recent memory.

That night, Maria appeared to be following the same path as Irma had, though later it, too, veered slightly away from St. Maarten, still pelting it with heavy rains and winds.

“It seems like these storms keep coming,” she said. “You can feel how disheartening it is there. It’s kind of like you’re just waiting to die.”

Siwula-Brandt said she and her husband have traveled often to these island paradises – three times to St. Maarten – to pursue their passion for snorkeling. This latest trip had been meticulously planned for months by her husband and was supposed to last for three weeks.

But as they awaited their flight Sept. 1, word came that Irma, then a tropical storm, might cause them some problems.

“I had a really bad feeling in my gut,” she said. “It kept saying, don’t get on that plane. But I thought, well, maybe it will skirt past us. Maybe it will be chaotic for a day or so and then we’d have the rest of the three weeks.”

By the time they arrived in St. Maarten, Irma had become a badass and was headed their way.

There were no flights off the island. They were stuck.

For the next four days, they stocked up on water and food. They also pensively took in the surreal beauty of the blue skies and clear waters off the island.

“It truly was the calm before the storm,” she said.

Irma hit around midnight Sept. 6, loudly roiling and ravaging the island for about three hours, shattering glass, splintering wood and sending cars, boats and corrugated siding flying. The Brandts ensconced themselves in a bathroom as the building shook and swayed. When the eye passed over and the winds died down, they were evacuated to a small windowless conference room on the third floor to wait out the rest of the hurricane.

At dawn, they emerged to a place they no longer recognized. Siwula-Brandt describes it in her blog:

“The resort looked nuclear. The trees looked like matchsticks. No water and no power. It looked worse than any movie I had ever seen. And the looting had already begun – yes, this was Irma-geddon.”

Hotel guests were robbed at gunpoint. Inmates who had escaped from jail when the winds splayed open their cells hauled away flat-screen televisions and bags of jewelry.

Dutch troops arrived two days later – two days too late to stop the looting.

“It was absolutely stunning to us that when there is no law and order how quickly everything becomes chaos, how quickly crime takes over,” she said, “how quickly it all falls to pieces.”

The Brandts were among those rescued Sept. 9, flown aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane to Puerto Rico, which is now in the path of Hurricane Maria.

It took four more days for the Brandts to make it back to Santa Fe. Siwula-Brandt spent those first hours home writing about the experience in her blog.

She thinks about those left behind in the aftermath, an estimated 70,000 people who call St. Maarten/St. Martin home – or did.

“We get to come home to our beautiful houses, but those people are left with nothing,” she said. “The cruise ships won’t stop there now. There’s no hope now. These people have no means to provide for their families. They did everything in their power to help us to the very last day we were there. They had tears in their eyes.”

So she is sending out another message: Please be generous to those who struggle to survive in paradise lost. And please become better stewards of the oceans, of the planet. Because things are not OK. Because survival is not guaranteed.


UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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