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Nov 2, 2008

Cyclone Omar : More Bark Than Bite

Cyclone Omar

Saint Barth thought it had escaped the entire hurricane season without any problems, when suddenly during the night of Wednesday to Thursday, October 15 to 16, hurricane Omar decided to take a north/northeast route and skirted the island.

Since the beginning of that week, the population in the Northern Islands was preparing for the passage of a large tropical storm gathering in the Caribbean Sea north of Panama, but nobody expected that Omar would become a category three hurricane in the space of two days. On Wednesday evening, October 15, businesses and homes in Saint Barth and Saint Martin were closed and the residents were requested to stay inside, waiting for the storm to pass, their eyes glues to the Internet’s weather sites to follow the evolution of the hurricane as it heading north-northwest until it came within 60 miles to the southwest of Saint Martin.

In Saint Barth, the effects of the storm were felt between 1am and 5am. There was little rainfall—less than two inches—with winds of 60/mph and gusts up to 90 mph between 4am and 5am. The worst damage came from strong seas, which hit the southwest coast of the island, and especially the Port of Gustavia. The beaches of Gouverneur, Saline, Shell Beach, Public, Corossol, and Colombier lost sand, but within two weeks after Omar, the natural beaches like Saline and Gouverneur began to get their sand back little by little thanks to the movement of the waves. Before being enlarged with sand and shells from the bottom of the harbor in the early 80s, Shell Beach was called Grand Galet, and at the time it was a bay without a real beach, but bordered by large blocks of volcanic rock. The bay looks much as it did back then, and again after the passage of hurricane Luis in September 1995, yet the sand from the beach is at the bottom of the bay and the natural movement of the waves will bring the sand back to the shore within a few years.

By 6am on Thursday morning, Omar was 70 miles to the northwest St Martin and moving away at a speed of 25 mph as the storm weakened until it disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. In Saline, Lorient, and Petit Cul-de-Sac, the hurricane did not disturb the residents. There was only some slight damage to gardens with broken branches and fallen leaves. The worst damage was in Gustavia, a zone that is usually protected expect for swells from the southwest. During the night, the waves crashed past the Ti Saints islets, damaging the basketball court of Petit Galet on their way to flood the Rue Courbet by way of Mireille Choisy junior high school, and certain ground floor houses. The basketball court was destroyed and since the schools reopened on Monday, October 20, this activity has been moved to the elementary school in Gustavia. In the courtyard of the junior high, the high water mark was about eight inches, and several ground-floor classrooms were flooded. At the Hotel de la Collectivity, only a few traces of water were found on the interior, and in a public message, the president thanks all of the volunteers and the entire staff of the collectivity for their help with getting the infrastructure back in working order.

At the entrance to Gustavia, the road in front of the pharmacy and the parking lot were covered with rocks brought ashore by the waves; similar damage occurred in front of the Wall House and the Hotel de la Collectivity. Water also crashed against the fish market and ferry terminal, both of which were damaged by the pounding of the waves. The boardwalk along the dock was splintered apart and the plants along the docks were ripped up or ruined by the salt water. The number is not definitive, but it seems as if seven or eight boats disappeared in the storm. A 45’ sailboat sank in front of the Capitainerie, and another washed up on the parking lot of the Hotel de la Collectivity, while a third broke its ropes and knocked against the commercial dock in Public. As of Thursday morning, the employees of the technical services department were out with tractors to clear the roads before the fireman washed them down with their hoses. The streets in town were reopened to traffic by 5pm Thursday. The next day, boat owners and fishermen helped the port staff begin to clean up the algae, broken wood, and other items that had floated into the port. The water treatment plant, which had stopped production on Tuesday evening as the storm began, was open again by Friday and started production on Saturday when the sea was once again calm. In Public, the deck at the sailing school had disappeared by hurricane shutters served to protect the interior of the building, with the school’s small boats safely resting inside. As of Thursday morning, the airport was open as well, and the ferries were running to and from the island.

Fifteen days after Omar hit St Barth, the only vestiges of the storm were visible in Gustavia, where the grass and plants are still missing along the docks, and the boardwalk will not be replaced this season. Many businesses around town had some damage but for the most part had reopened by early the next week. The first cruise ship arrived on October 26, and the first motor-yacht anchored at the Quai Général de Gaulle on October 30. The fish market reopened on Monday, October 27 and the current renovation of the ferry terminal has not interfered with the regular service to the island. Sophie Oliveaud, technical services director, estimates that the total repairs of public structures would be in the neighborhood of 750,000 and 1 million Euros. The boardwalk was scheduled for removal at the end of the season anyway, and will be replaced with a concrete walkway (like at the other end of the docks) during the summer of 2009. On Monday, October 27, the president finally decided to contact the Prefect for the Northern Islands, Dominique Lacroix, and request that the southern sector of the island—including Gustavia, Corossol, and Public—be classified as a natural disaster zone.

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Cécile Lucot


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