Hurricane Irma was the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. On September 6th, Irma left a string of small Caribbean islands devastated.
Lucky Stables, owned by Roderick and Alexandra Halley, is located on the Dutch side of the island (the other half is French), near the waters of Colebay. The ranch was opened in 1984 when Roderick began taking tourists out on his horses. He is a seventh generation St. Martiner whose family is part of the island’s eclectic history. Roderick had previously owned a casino on the island, but, in 1995 when Hurricane Luis destroyed the facility, he decided to focus his undivided attention on Lucky Stables.
Alexandra, a psychologist, was born and grew up in the Netherlands. After she visited the Caribbean islands in her 20s, she ditched her 9-5 office job. Enamored by Roderick, St. Martin and Lucky Stables, Alexandra moved to the island. Since 2003, she and Roderick have been working to turn their dreams into reality. In 2008, the couple relocated to a part of the island called Seaside Nature Park.
Fast forward to 2017. “The initial hurricane preparation kicked off as usual, all under the optimistic assumption that this system would pass through the island without problem,” said Alexandra. “Despite the optimism, the serious preparations all took place in a timely manner. But the closer the hurricane came, the more frantic we became. The weather was calm…but the storm kept moving closer and closer until it became clear that we were going to feel the full fury of this catastrophe. [When] we realized a monster was coming for us, fear gripped us by the throat.”
The Lucky Stables team did whatever they could to secure the surroundings, but Alexandra and Roderick were unsure how to keep their 70 horses safe. “Our biggest challenge was what to do with the horses,” said Alexandra. “Since they are used to being free to roam the park at night, and are in the stables during the day, we figured our best option was to set them free and let them trust their natural intuitive behaviour. Most of them knew the land well, as they’ve spent their entire lives at Lucky Stables. Letting them free hours before the storm has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
That night, Alexandra and Roderick left the horses and the ranch to find a safe place for their three children and Roderick’s parents. With heavy hearts, they walked away from their life’s work and the horses they’d raised since birth. The family spent the night in a friend’s concrete house.
While they hid, they felt the house incessantly shaking as if they were in the middle of a major earthquake. As the house shook, large chunks of the foundation broke off. “We sat huddled, wondering in silence if the horses would be able to survive the unprecedented winds. All night the noise of the island being eradicated created a constant panic which invaded my mind,” recalled Alexandra.
At dusk the next day, she and Roderick ventured out of the house to check on their beloved horses. The roads were littered with debris and flooded with water from the ocean. Houses had been smashed apart. Shattered doors and windows lay in mucky sea water entangled with beach sand, seaweed and cement remnants from collapsed buildings. Thousand-year-old trees had been blown over. It was as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped on the tiny island, but somehow, the couple navigated their way through the storm’s aftermath and managed to arrive close enough to the stables to continue their journey on foot.
With pounding hearts they reached the grounds of Seaside Nature Park. Their beautiful house on the hill had lost its roof. It was now the skeleton of a home where they had raised their family. Alexandra recalled, “Our hearts dropped. We ran around and saw the horses standing in little groups, visibly exhausted. They looked like they’d been to war, but, amazingly, they had all somehow survived the horrific conditions. The fences had been obliterated by the powerful winds, but these horses used their instincts to survive. They didn’t wander off into parts of the island they didn’t recognize. Instead, our horses stayed together and used their knowledge of the land to their advantage.”
When the storm’s fury peaked, the wind gusts reached 215 miles per hour, which could easily topple over a full grown horse. Alexandra is still amazed they survived. She believes it was a miracle.
“The border between sea and land was disappearing,” said Roderick. “The horses [must have] moved from spot to spot. Somehow they managed to stay alive. Perhaps they relied on their knowledge of the lands and experiencing earlier hurricanes, and found shelter on the hilltops. The unquestionable leadership by the older mares that withstood Hurricane Luis 22 years ago probably allowed the horses to move as one [to safe areas.]”
According to the local news, numerous horses on the French side drowned in the seawater, because, most likely, they weren’t able to escape rising water, or they were blown into the sea. If it weren’t for Roderick and Alexandra’s last-minute decision to allow the horses to roam free, many may have perished. Lucky Stables indeed.