Two weeks after one of the worst hurricanes in history made a direct hit on Grand Cayman Island, the Westin Casuarina reopened. Doormen who days before were shoveling sand and fishing pieces of roof from the pool returned to their posts in crisp white uniforms.
During the Sept. 12 assault by Ivan, employees ran through the building nailing boards across gaping wind tunnels that had been patio doors. Today, scraggly foliage offers the only hint that the Westin sits on an island that was buffeted by sustained winds of 160 mph for 12 hours and gusts of 250 mph.
Even the flora at the Westin will be fixed in a few days, when full-grown palm trees and tropical bushes airlifted from Florida complete their quarantine period and are planted.
Yet drive a half-hour or less up the road and see entire apartment complexes that were lifted from their foundations and swept across the road like dust before a broom. The scenes, set against a backdrop of pristine blue waters and glaringly white beaches, are mind-boggling. Houses collapsed into piles of rubble. Strips of metal roofing wrapped around splintered telephone poles. A chair hanging in a tree. Towering dunes created when bulldozers pushed sand from the road.
In other words, it's a mixed bag. But to my mind, there will never be a better time to visit. First of all, you'll never again find the glorious beaches of this Western Caribbean island so lightly touristed. Secondly, you'll get a warm welcome from locals who are desperate for reminders that they are not alone in the world, after all.
Seeing what was endured, and the islanders' fighting spirit to overcome, comes as a surprising bonus. Cathy Finkel, a Westin employee, exemplifies the spirit.
"Initially when people asked how we fared I'd say, 'We lost everything,' " Finkel said. "Two days later I was saying, 'We have four walls and a roof, and so we're fine.' "
Should you take my advice, you'll find that the most heavily touristed areas of Grand Cayman -- downtown George Town and the resorts along Seven Mile Beach -- suffered minimal damage compared with the southern and eastern portions. All roads are open.
Visitors were banned until this month from Grand Cayman, which suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Cruise passengers were the first allowed to visit, and when they arrived Nov. 1, the week I was there, islanders celebrated
Overnight visitors were invited back as of yesterday. Until then, the island was struggling to restore basic services to residents. Additionally, both the government and the tourism industry agreed that tourist areas should look good before visitors are invited back.
"We wanted to take our time and do it right, to resist the urge for short-term gains," said Mark Bastis, general manager of the Hyatt Regency and president of the island's tourism association. "Cayman's always been an upscale destination. We want it to remain that way, and reopen that way."
Initially, only 529 rooms of about 3,000 will be available to visitors, a figure that should grow substantially by Christmas. Resorts must pass government inspections before they can reopen, and from what I could see, those slated to open soon are truly ready. Along Seven Mile Beach, those hotels not yet open are basically dealing with mold, mildew and missing roof tiles, not devastation.
Most restaurants have reopened -- 75 of them to date. You can also be confident of finding beautiful beaches. Deep-sea reefs used by divers are said to be better than before because they were cleaned and polished by the churning of the ocean. The soft corals on close-in reefs took a beating, but the colorful fish swimming among hard corals seem not to care.
To my mind, the stingrays that gather at a sandbar visited by tour boats are the most extraordinary attraction on the island, and I'm thrilled to report that the rays remain, ready to sway and cavort with swimmers, eager to check your fist to see if it might be holding a squid snack.
The rays began gathering at the so-called Stingray City years ago, when fishermen routinely cleaned their catch at the sandbar before heading home. Today, dozens at a time cluster because of the tourists who feed and play with them. The people who conduct the tours took no chances and fed the rays even in the midst of personal disaster.
The two other islands of the Caymans, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, were lightly touched and never closed to guests.
The recovery of Grand Cayman, although not complete, is coming along at an amazing rate. Reconstruction of damaged homes is slow because materials can be hard to come by -- everything has to be shipped from Florida, which has its own extraordinary demands on drywall and roofing supplies. Some homeowners also must wait for insurance money to rebuild. But numerous islanders volunteered praise for the water and power companies. They also speak well of government efforts to clean the roads quickly.
Business owners and their employees, meanwhile, have been working double time for months. First they had to prepare for the hurricane -- not just boarding up but also doing such things as knocking down all the coconuts from trees to prevent them from becoming projectiles. Then they had to respond to the mess. Most showed up for work even though their own lives were in ruin. Half of the staff at the Hyatt Regency, for example, lost everything, said Bastis. Another 40 percent lost "almost everything."
Suzi Soto, owner of the Cracked Conch restaurant, said her workers showed up and slept on tables when they weren't helping her clean up. Since she has business interruption insurance, she could have sat back and collected checks equal to normal earnings. Instead, she and her employees pushed themselves to exhaustion to reopen, in part because they knew a restaurant would be a welcome relief to those islanders living in a disaster zone.
Ten days after the hurricane, despite having no running water, the Cracked Conch began providing free lunch to all comers -- an offer good for three days. The food was paid for by a local law firm, and Soto and her staff cooked and served meals to more than 2,000 people.
Dive companies from all over the island offered free gear to snorkelers and divers who agreed to pick up debris found on reefs. According to Cobalt Coast Resort owner Arie Barendrecht, once people got their electricity back, they'd pass on their camping stoves, lanterns and grills to those still lacking it. Resort owners said job descriptions disappeared immediately after the hurricane, with everyone pitching in to clean and repair.
And who knew that insurance companies had SWAT teams that respond to disasters all over the world?
Days after the hurricane, a mechanical and electrical restoration team arrived in corporate planes filled with generators and other supplies, said Bastis, of the Hyatt Regency. The commercial drying team and mold specialists were not far behind.
Even with the SWAT approach, it takes three weeks to restore a room that suffered only water damage, given a process that involves encapsulating the room, disassembling each piece of hardware, testing every wall and piece of furniture for mold, scrubbing the air, cleaning and testing again.