Caribbean hotels prepare for new normals as hurricanes increase

Wimco Villas' Villa Silver Rainbow on St. Barths.
Photo credit: Wimco Villas

Just as the Carolinas and Virginia emerged from the devastation of Hurricane Florence, islands throughout the Caribbean are looking back at a year of recovery after Hurricane Irma. While many popular destinations throughout the region are seeing visitor numbers climbing again, the growing number of hurricanes, and the increasing severity of the storms, may encourage developers and designers to reconsider how and where they build hotels and vacation rentals. 

Mitigating Factors

The damage from Hurricane Irma, of course, varied from island to island. “Irma was an extraordinarily severe storm and it passed directly over St. Martin,” said Stiles Bennet, president and CMO of Wimco Villas, which oversees private vacation rentals in leisure destinations. Due to the path of the storm, St. Martin received the brunt of the storm, and Bennet expects only 45 percent of the 100 villas Wimco represents on the island to be open by November. St. Barths, on the other hand, is about 10 miles away to one side while Anguilla is about two miles away to the other side, and many of Wimco’s properties on these islands are operating again. The locations mitigated the damage from the storm and made it easier for hotels on the islands to begin repairs, as did the location of each property on the various islands. “Most villas in St. Barths and St. Martin are inland and up a little bit from the water,” Bennet said.

Most island hotels, however, are right down on the beach, making them susceptible not only to intense winds, but storm surges as well. “While a hotel may have been built to withstand extraordinary wind, in some cases the ocean was just too strong,” Bennet said. On St. Barths, most major hotels had to close for the entire season, with the exception of the Hotel Christopher, which is not at sea level, said Bennet. “Hotels like the Eden Rock and the Guanahani and Le Sereno, the Cheval-Blanc and Taiwana all were impacted by water more so than wind,” he said. (Le Sereno St. Barth is scheduled to reopen Dec. 1 after a complete renovation, including more than half the rooms and all of the public spaces.) “As they rebuild, they've got an additional complication that a private villa might not have to face, which is how to deal with the fury of the storm surge as well as the wind,” said Bennet

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The quality of construction also affected how quickly the inland villas could start repairs. “Villas are built like fortresses now in St Barths,” he said. “While you might have had some roof damage or maybe broken railings or trees falling, the main structures of most villas remained intact. The only areas where villas were really destroyed was when, under an extraordinary force, a hurricane shutter or hurricane door gave way. Then the inside of the villa was compromised.”

Construction quality isn’t limited to the hotels and villas themselves, but to the overall infrastructure. On St. Barths, the local government recently renovated many of the island’s roads, and used the opportunity to bury pipes for both utilities and water under the ground, making them less susceptible to high winds in a storm. “Power was able to be restored to most neighborhoods very quickly and water was able to be restored very quickly,” Bennet said of St. Barths. “That’s not so much the case in some other islands.”

Getting materials and experts to the islands to oversee renovation and repairs depended on how quickly the local airports could open. St. Barths’ airport reopened just days after the storm passed—“which is pretty extraordinary,” Bennet said—but the Princess Juliana Airport on St. Martin airport only reopened in October, and with limited operations. “That's a determinant in how quickly supplies can get in and how quickly relief people can get in,” said Bennet. The Princess Juliana Airport is expected to move arrivals and departures activity back to the ground floor of the main terminal this November, however, and airline lift is increasing as demand grows.

Design Solutions

As devastating hurricanes increase in both number and severity, Bennet sees a conundrum for developers: Tourists want beachfront properties, but these areas are most at risk for damage from severe storms. “People are not going to give up their beachfront locations, especially hotels, because so [many] of their amenities are built around access to the water and water sports,” he said.

The solution may lie in smart design. “There are a variety of techniques that can be used to protect against this kind of thing,” said Bennet. “It will usher in an era of new design, new enhancements—perhaps watertight doors or thicker glass or sea walls. The bar will be raised in how those techniques are used.”

Hurricane shutters also proved useful during the storm, Bennet added, but not all shutters are created equal. “The old traditional heavy wooden hurricane shutters really performed well, especially in larger windows,” he said. “The pull-down metal hurricane shutters didn't turn out to be the best thing on its own to protect a huge open space like that.” A happy compromise for large windows and open walls, he predicted, will likely be reinforced metal hurricane shutters that can be supported from the back with metal bars. “For smaller doors and windows, the traditional wooden hurricane shutters are still excellent.”

During the storm, Bennet added, railings were turned into projectiles, so new rails will be stronger—“secured into the decks around pools and in a more secure fashion,” he said. “Perhaps they're heavier and made of stronger materials [with] longer screws being used.”

If developers won’t change where they build their hotels in the Caribbean, implementing best practices like these may be the only way to protect investments. “You have to make them more secure in the event of an another catastrophic storm,” said Bennet.  

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