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."
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 21/2 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 11/2-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."
There were some exceptions. Several thousand Jamaicans lost their homes and remain homeless. And on this island where begging is unabashed, some are turning to tourists for help. As I walked along the West End Road in Negril, Franklin Pierce stopped me to ask for money.
"My roof was the first thing to go," said the handyman. "The walls collapsed next. And then the bed and other furniture started blowing away. All I could do was stand in a neighbor's house and watch it all go. Now I'm staying with friends. Can't you help me out?"
Restoration is still incomplete at some well-known Negril locales.
Rick's Cafe, where visitors have gathered for more than 20 years to belt down margaritas, catch the sunset and watch divers jump from the cliffs into the ocean, was demolished by Ivan. Behind a bright orange concrete wall, the splinters of the building are still strewn about. The owners are planning an all-out overhaul, including a swim-up bar. A reopening is tentatively scheduled for February.
A few doors down at Tensing Pen, Ivan left six of its 14 cottages and rooms heavily damaged and trees fallen around the two-acre property. The owners plan not only to restore all of the damaged cottages but to construct an African-style lodge, to be used as a dining area. "We decided to use the occasion to make a few changes," said co-owner Richard Murray. It began accepting guests last Monday and will have a full reopening by mid-December.
At the Caves, an enclave of luxury cottages set around cliffside grottos, the clean-up is in full swing. Boulders blown in from the ocean had destroyed the wall of one cottage, and the thatched roof of another lodge had been swept away.
Here, too, the owners have taken advantage of the occasion to refurbish some of the cottages. "The most heartbreaking loss was the gardens," lamented co-owner Greer-Ann Saulter. "But fortunately, in the Caribbean climate, that should come back in good time."
Other damaged Negril hotels include the Beachcomber, set to reopen Dec. 15, and Merril's Beach Resort III, on Dec. 20. Negril properties that have not yet scheduled reopening dates include Catch a Falling Star, Drumville Cove, Mariner's Inn, Negril Inn and Paradise View hotel.
In Port Antonio, another popular tourist area, Jake's, a beloved boutique property, is partially reopened. Managers at Fern Hill Club and Trident Villas and Hotel said repairs are underway, but they have not set reopening dates. All other hotels there are operating.