In the lobby bar of the Ritz-Carlton in Montego Bay last Saturday, Carl Simpson upended a glass of rum punch, looked at the cloudless sky and strolled out to a stretch of white sand for a mid-afternoon sprawl in the sun.
"Hurricane? What hurricane?" the vacationer from Southern California asked with a shrug. "Downtown L.A. looks more like the scene of a disaster than this."
The dive shop above was just one of several damaged places in Negril.
(Gary Lee -- The Washington Post)
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Last weekend, as I toured Jamaica surveying the damage caused by Hurricane Ivan in early September, that attitude of nonchalance prevailed everywhere. Even though a few hotels remain closed 2 1/2 months after the storm and clean-up efforts are still underway, the island's signature carefree spirit reigns.
Even Negril, which along with the coastal parishes of St. Elizabeth, Manchester and Clarendon was given the sharpest kick by Ivan, seemed unfazed. At the Rockhouse Hotel, a boutique property perched along oceanfront cliffs and favored by a hip young set, a massive stone wall toppled by the waves of Ivan had been rebuilt in time to serve as a backdrop for wedding photos. The pool, filled with boulders and mounds of sand two months ago, was aglitter in the sun and lined with bathers.
A few miles away at Norma's, a restaurant much admired for its oceanview candlelight dinners, the tables, chairs and kitchen supplies had been crushed or swept to sea. But one evening last week, in a makeshift dining spot a few feet from the debris of the old restaurant, chef Norma Shirley was serving snapper in citrus sauce and other specialties. The restaurant is set to reopen Dec. 2.
Down the coast a couple of miles at Sandals Negril Beach Resort & Spa, one of this town's big-draw all-inclusives, exterior damage has been repaired and toppled palms have been replanted. A crew of more than 100 was painting and banging to get the place back in shape for its reopening last week.
Still, a casual visitor doesn't have to look hard to catch the lingering blemishes of Ivan, which battered the western and southern coasts of the island with torrential winds of up to 170 mph and rain. In a 1 1/2-hour drive west along the North Coast Highway from Montego Bay to Negril, battered properties were clearly evident: Tattered shingles hung from the rooftops of a few homes; plywood covered the occasional storefront; fallen palms and brush were piled in yards; and garbage cluttered areas of Negril's famously wide beach. Side trips into some of the mountain towns showed more clusters of homes missing roofs or windows. The storm left more destruction than any that has hit the island since Gilbert struck in 1988. Ivan killed 15 people and left more than $425,000 in damage, compared with 45 dead and more than $1 billion in damage from Gilbert.
For the most part, however, the eyesores were isolated and overshadowed by the dozens of hotels, bars, beaches and other sites untouched by the hurricane. Sunbathers sprawled on the beach in Montego Bay. Revelers paused to watch the sunset and catch a local band break into a medley of reggae hits at Alfred's, a popular Friday night gathering spot in Negril. Weekend shoppers thronged the open market in the town of Lucea. Partiers wandered the streets of Ocho Rios.
Ivan was the only one of the season's storms that hit Jamaica with enough force to cause damage. On Sept. 11, the hurricane stalled off the coast for several hours, long enough for hotels to evacuate guests and locals to board up storefronts. Although it lost force by the time it hit, waves as high as 30 feet and winds exceeding 140 miles per hour were reported in Negril, St. Elizabeth and Port Antonio. Following two days of storms, winds and rain continued to deluge the island for four days, felling palms and other flora, blowing off roofs, spreading debris along beaches and flooding some low-lying regions.
"We held our breath for a day or two, but then got back to business as usual," said Verona Carter, regional director of public affairs for Ritz-Carlton hotels in the Caribbean. "The island did not experience any lasting damage."