If you look at an atlas, you’ll find a small, dark-green dot in the Caribbean Sea marked Saba. Located in the Lesser Antilles, this volcanic island has withstood the tests of time and has remained what the Dutch call “the unspoiled queen.”
But on the morning of September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma barrelled toward the three-by-eight-mile stretch of land as a Category 4 storm. What had started as a tropical wave off the West African coast quickly developed into the strongest storm on record in the open Atlantic region.
And just like that, Saba was struck.
Winds between 130 and 156 mph left catastrophic damage to the small municipality of the Netherlands. Well-built homes lost their roofs and exterior walls. The rainforest was stripped of large sections of trees that had stood tall for hundreds of years. Landslides sent boulders tumbling onto the harbor roadway. The fisherman’s pier was wiped away as if it had never existed at all.
And less than two weeks later, a second hurricane swept the region, leaving a lesser mark, but a mark nonetheless.
When I arrived at the dormant volcanic land tucked between the northeastern Caribbean Sea and the western Atlantic Ocean, just four months later, I saw no trace of the damage.
I had walked through what was left of the airport in St. Maarten before boarding my connecting flight to Saba, just 32 miles away, sat under E-Z Ups where airport personnel sold soft drinks from coolers, and picked up my luggage beneath a cardboard sign labeled “Baggage Claim.” But on Saba, it seemed as if nothing had shifted.
I drove its steep, winding roads; swam above its coral reefs; traversed its jungles; wandered its villages and squares; and shared meals with its people. But its roads were smooth and clear, its waters clean, its forests mysteriously beautiful, its homes put-together, and its people friendly, welcoming, and giving.
I knew that the hurricanes had affected the Dutch Caribbean, but there was no sign that Saba had been in distress.
When asked about the hurricanes, locals and expats spoke openly. They shared their personal accounts of uncertainty and terror over curries and fresh sandwiches, recalling the specifics of what it was like to be held up in their homes during a Category 4 storm and candidly stating that they did not know what would happen to them, their loved ones, their houses, or their island.
But in hearing their stories, I learned what made Saba special — why it stood so calm and united after the storms. It’s because its foundation was set the very same way before disaster struck its shores.
Just hours after Hurricane Irma hit the island, locals went to work clearing the streets of debris, helping others sort through their damaged homes, and ensuring that the island’s power be turned back on the very same day — a feat that often takes up to a month to accomplish.
And they didn’t stop there. They kept working to restore their communal home to its former self, day in and day out.
Local fishermen steered boats to St. Maarten and brought home the Sabans who were stranded there. Schools on the island, including the Saba University School of Medicine, reopened and resumed classes in record time. Logistical strategies for the transportation of food and supplies to the island were rapidly put in place by a collaborative effort between the Saban government and local businesses.
But this isn’t just an example of a proper or positive reaction to a natural disaster; it is a telling portrait of the mindset that Sabans have had for a long time.
The buildings, culture, and infrastructure of Saba were not built for the quick-turnover of a tourist hub; they were built to support and to withstand with the tenacity of its community. This small, but mighty island was able to bounce back after catastrophe because its people were prepared to stand together, the way they’ve been standing since they first docked upon its shores.
There is no debating that the 1,900-strong population of Saba has endured hardship and has worked tirelessly to restore the island to the state it is in today. And although there are countless reasons as to why the island has been capable of such moves, it is clear that the people of Saba care deeply about the land.
That is why Saba remains the unspoiled queen.
All photos were taken by Cees Timmers.