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No sign of Ivan at the Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa or at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
No sign of Ivan at the Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa or at the Cayman Turtle Farm. (Photos by David Lyon/For The Boston Globe)
 If you go: Grand Cayman

Lives on land and sea regenerate -- again

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / March 26, 2006

Almost everyone on Grand Cayman has a tale to tell about Hurricane Ivan, the Category 4 storm that pummeled the island in September 2004.

''I had 3 1/2 feet of saltwater in my yard," said Kenneth Hurlson, a cab driver, in a Scots-Irish-inflected lilt. ''It came within an inch of my door, but I had the house up on four blocks." His home suffered wind and water damage, but survived the storm.

By far the largest of the three land masses that make up the Cayman Islands, which lie south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica, Grand Cayman is still a small target in a big ocean. But it was in Ivan's path, and islanders were lucky the damage wasn't much worse.

''It came in from the northeast and swept over the island twice," Hurlson said. ''But it was fighting against the sea. The wind and the sea were running against each other. If it'd come across from the south, there wouldn't be no Seven Mile Beach."

Although Ivan's eye didn't make landfall, the hurricane was the worst to hit the Cayman Islands since at least 1932 -- perhaps the worst ever. Winds of 130-135 miles per hour, with gusts up to 165, slammed Grand Cayman for 18 hours. Waves rose as high as 15 to 20 feet, and storm surges of 6 to 9 feet washed over the island.

Only two lives were lost in the British overseas territory of 44,000 residents, but roughly 5,000 homes were destroyed. All the island's hotels were damaged, with many smaller facilities destroyed, or nearly so. The Cayman government reported storm damage to the hotel industry totaling $132.2 million. Trees were down all over the island, which was in no shape to receive the tourists who provide its economic lifeblood.

Yet by the time we visited last November, the resilient subtropical vegetation was growing back, and the hotels were rebuilding. By the end of this month, the government estimates hotel and villa rooms will be back at 94 percent of pre-storm levels. There was even an upside to the storm: Ivan added heaps of white sand to Seven Mile Beach, already considered one of the finest swimming beaches in the West Indies and the home of most Cayman Island resort hotels.

Hurlson deposited us at the Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa next door to the governor's house. The resort sits on an 800-foot stretch of Seven Mile Beach and its namesake casuarina trees, which resemble wispy pines, had regrown the leaves stripped from their branches by Ivan.

Guests were dragging lounge chairs into the dappled shade after spending the day swimming, snorkeling a reef some 50 yards offshore, or plying the turquoise waters with kayaks and jet skis. The resort was the first to recover after the hurricane. Most rooms, the elegant spa, and the restaurants opened within two months.

But the lessons learned from the hurricane's wrath were evident. When a passing storm cut off power while we were eating dinner at the resort's Casa Havana restaurant, the staff didn't miss a beat. They brought lanterns to the dining room, reassured us that the kitchen was cooking with gas, and let us know that a generator, installed after Ivan, would kick in shortly. It did.

Just a 10-minute drive north at Boatswain's Beach, the Cayman Turtle Farm survived Ivan unscathed. The only facility in the world to breed green sea turtles, it was completely rebuilt on safer ground after Hurricane Michelle's glancing blow wrecked the original operation in 2001.

''We used to be across the road, right on the water," Marsha Ebanks, a guide, told us. ''We got a lot of damage. We lost turtles and the breeding pond was damaged." Althoughin 1503, Columbus had dubbed Grand and nearby Little Cayman ''Las Tortugas" for their abundance of turtles, the green sea turtle was hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s. ''They've been around since the dinosaurs, but their survival is so low," Ebanks explained.

During the May-September breeding season, the females crawl onto the nearby sandy beach and lay clutches of eggs, which staff members quickly carry to incubators. Since 1980, Cayman Turtle Farm has released 30,000 sea turtles back into Cayman waters.

Most visitors to Grand Cayman come to explore the undersea scenery by snorkeling or with scuba gear. On a helicopter tour, we could see the coral reefs. Divers are drawn by the variety of creatures they can see at different depths in ''wall" dives, where the shallow turquoise water suddenly drops off to the black depths of the 24,000-foot Cayman Trench.

Jerome Begot, our pilot, had just launched his sightseeing company when Ivan destroyed everything. ''We waited five years to get all the permits. We lost our van and our first helicopter," he said, adding, ''When you want to be part of an island, you have to take the good and the bad." Besides, he joked, he'd rather fly than work in the family wine business back home in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Begot flew low over the ''Stingray City" sandbar, where fishermen used to clean their catch and toss the remains overboard to waiting stingrays. The rays came to count on a free lunch, and grew relatively tame. Now feeding the rays is the island's most popular attraction. Aided by an overcast sky that minimized glare, we looked down at tourists from a dozen boats wading in the thigh-deep water as rays with 3-foot wing spans flapped past them. ''They're very friendly," Begot insisted. ''They only bite if you step on their tail."

Later, we drove out to the largely residential eastern end of Grand Cayman, where Ivan's fury hit hardest. In contrast to the fully restored Westin and the rest of Seven Mile Beach, here we found roofless structures, ''For Sale" signs outside private villas, and concrete slabs where homes once stood. Roofers were at work all along the shore.

Outside Bodden Town, Nell Connor sat behind her little pink house reading a magazine, her Bible laid aside on a chair. Connor lived through Ivan, as well as the unnamed but legendary storm of 1932. ''I was 12 years old in 1932," she said. ''Let me tell you, 1932 was nothing compared to Ivan."

During the more recent storm, she fled to a shelter on high ground as the winds and rain tore apart a wing of her house, which has since been repaired.

After talking with Connor, we decided to search out Grand Cayman's blue iguana, the most endangered iguana in the world. In the mid-1990s, only about 30 survived, but a breeding program at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park has brought the numbers up over 300. A few dozen are allowed to prowl the park's grounds. As we started down a path to the bloom gardens, we spotted a large female stretched out on a picnic table. Later, a less sociable male lumbered through the grass.

The park is a study in tropical regeneration. ''We cleared brush for 3 1/2 months after Ivan," said John Lawrus, the deputy general manager. ''We lost a lot of the canopy of existing trees and smaller plants, but our large palms stood up. They evolved with storms, so they just shed their leaves and grow new ones from the tip." But other trees fell, providing sun for lower plantings. ''The park probably looks better than before the storm," Lawrus said.

In the capital of George Town, a big cruise ship port, we caught a look at undersea life by visiting the gallery of underwater photographer Cathy Church. She started diving in these waters four decades ago. She seems to know every clump of sponge and accretion of coral on the reef she visits from a ladder outside her back door.

After Ivan, Church said, the reef was scoured, but it remains a thing of great natural beauty. The angelfish and parrot fish have returned in numbers and the sea fans are growing back.

''Storms prune the reef, just like the trees," she said. ''They'll grow back. The storms are just part of nature. They clean off the substrate and let it start from scratch." Church pointed to one of her famous dive shots, explaining how the details have changed after the storm. ''Things may get knocked over," she said, ''but never permanently destroyed."

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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