It Takes an Island
Originally published in Polo Lifestyles magazine, republished with permission and gratitude
The role of charitable giving & philanthropy in rebuilding St-Barths. In this month’s focus on philanthropy, we look more deeply into the people, organizations, and businesses that contributed to the rebuilding of beloved St-Barths.
You are no doubt familiar with the concept of “It takes a village.” Perhaps your reference point is the originating African proverb. Perhaps its from the 1996 book by former US First Lady Hilary Clinton. Whatever the case, the underlying sentiment is the same: the best problem-solving requires collective action by all members of a community. And in the case of addressing the unprecedented devastation wreaked upon St-Barths when Hurricane Irma unleashed her wrath on September 6, 2017, it has truly taken a village- in this case, an island- to bring the Caribbean paradise back.
In this month’s focus on philanthropy, we look more deeply into the people, organizations, and businesses that contributed to the rebuilding of beloved St-Barths.
First, it’s important to summarize the profound nature of the damage, as it makes the recovery all the more miraculous. Hurricane Irma was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Packing winds up to 180 miles per hour and accompanying horrific storm surges, the storm was so devastating the losses were calculated at over $1.4 billion- this in a small French territorial island collectivity of only 10,000 full-time residents and a total land mass of 10 square miles. From roofs torn from homes to entire luxury hotels virtually destroyed, very little remained unscathed, especially as it related to the all-important tourist industry and its paramount impact on the economy.
I have fond memories myself of arriving at Gustavia’s port, enjoying some shopping at the wide array of boutiques in town, indulging in a quick, but civilized lunch, and then setting off for Anse du Gouverneur. A large segment of visitors and products typically arrive via that quaint port, but for more than a week following Irma, the waters were unnavigable. Sunken vessels and the lack of ability to properly survey the waters for such dangers in the immediate aftermath of the storm, meant the small airport in the villa of St Jean was the only real lifeline for supplies.
Within a day, the runway at St Barths’ Gustaf III airport had been cleared and reopened. Tradewind Aviation, based in Connecticut, jumped at the opportunity to assist in the island’s relief efforts. Tradewind operates regularly scheduled service into St-Barths from San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Related: they also serve other destinations in the Caribbean including Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua and are an excellent option for weekend getaways to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard via New York City). Tradewind flew about 60 flights into St-Barths at their own expense, delivering the commodities in need.
The deliveries that originated from Tradewind’s hangar in San Juan represented a mammoth effort. Doug Foregger, Director of International Real Estate for WIMCO and a leading real estate agent in St-Barths, was part of the effort to organize supplies for delivery into St Barths. He related that the immediate focus was on finding generators to ship to the island, given that the electrical network was knocked out. “This was important, but it was only helping two or three families at a time,” said Foregger. “in those first few days, we thought the solution was generators, when it was really work gloves, chainsaws and tarps.”
In other words, what the island really needed first was the equipment to do the clearing of debris, and so the efforts shifted in that direction. Foregger, other WIMCO employees and dozens of volunteers canvassed hardware stores in the Northeast and Florida, purchased thousands of pairs of gloves, untold numbers of tarps and over one hundred chainsaws. All of this gear was flown in to St Barths by Tradewind. That enabled the work of clearing sharp debris and vegetation so the roads were once again passable. And of course, food supplies also took precedence. were sent to help ensure safety in removing sharp debris that littered once posh neighborhoods and placid streets.
“People from all over the world bonded together,” said Foregger. Jimmy Buffet lent his and gave a free concert for solidarity three months after the storm, boosting the spirits of locals. Jet Blue also flew in relief materials for free. In time, roads were cleared. Electricity was restored. Glimmers of hope were found, like two newly constructed hotels: the Hotel Manapay and Villa Marie, which, due to higher constructions standards, went mostly unscathed. Within a week, French President Macron set foot on St-Barths, assessed the damage, and granted a waiver for the 2.9 million Euros annual payment to France for services. Several Go Fund Me pages solicited funds for relief. Even the luxury French retailers who call St-Barths home joined in, with Hermes funding the replanting of vegetation at the island’s airport. The co-founder of Tradewind Aviation, David Zipkin, summarized it well in the publication Stuff, saying “What was amazing is how quick they got it together. They started rebuilding right away.”
Beyond the more spontaneous and heartfelt impulses shed upon St-Barths in the aftermath of the storm, more official efforts also took hold. The St-Barths Foundation was established by the Collectivity of St-Barthelemy and officially chartered to coordinate longer term efforts to rebuild.
On the civil society front, Foregger teamed up with his partner in business and life, Mai Norton, and Annelisa Gee, wife of one of the most notable builders on St-Barths. Together they moved from immediate relief to creating the longer-term-focused Help St-Barths. Established as a legal nonprofit in both the US and in France, the trio remain committed to not just addressing the impact of Irma, but establishing a long-term philanthropic vehicle to enhance the quality of life on St-Barths. At present, Foregger said they are still building seven homes in partnership with others such as the Red Cross for families without wealth or who are experiencing other challengers. The financial need to finish this current slate of homes is in the neighborhood of a quarter million euros.
As is the human condition, we frequently look for some silver lining even in the face of such incomprehensible loss as that which befell St-Barths and its residents. For example, construction standards have been elevated to ensure newer structures are better able to withstand future storms. All electrical lines are now buried below ground. And many villas and hotels, while already luxe before the storm, have been completely renovated from top to bottom with superior materials.
Finally, in a piece such as this, I have no doubt missed contributions both big and small that were part of the recovery and quickly facilitated St-Barths’ return as the hallmark luxury destination in the Caribbean. To the point, it’s taken an entire island and the people who love it to see St-Barths bounce back. And bounce back it has.