IRMA: John Dalton, Part II – What My Fixed-Grips Looked Like After the Hurricane Hit

January 9, 2018

September 6th was the day Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten.
Our eco-park was ten days away from opening with the two new fixed-grip installations having already run for ten months during construction. The lifts were explicitly designed for hurricane forces, and although we knew they would get tested, we didn’t think that would happen so soon.

According to the United States National Hurricane Center (NHC), “a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane is one that is considered to have had sustained wind speeds greater than 136 knots, 157 mph, on the Saffir–Simpson scale.” Hurricane Irma winds were sustained 185+ mph with its arrival at St. Maarten with gusts to 235 mph – strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

Pre-storm countdown

Five days out.

It looked like Irma was going North of us with the potential to be serious. Our first move is we cleaned up the park’s site as there was a lot of loose construction debris that would fly around in the high winds.

We saw the hurricane was approaching closer to St. Maarten and getting increasingly dangerous. We put additional planning into place and began placing concrete blocks on top of containers, lighter objects, and exposed equipment. We started pulling chairs off of Lift #2, which is the upper lift on the mountain, using shipping straps with trucker ratchets to belt down the nested chairs. We did leave a few chairs on for access to the summit during preparations. We also began taking chairs off of Lift #1, our base area to mid-station lift, with other tasks taking place simultaneously.

Three days out.

It was on this third day we sent our crews home and kept just a skeleton crew to keep the progress moving forward. The staff needed to take care of their own homes and secure their family’s safety. With those matters complete, they could come back and proceed with park preparations.

Lowered ziprider cables into the bush.

Two days before the hurricane hit.

The second day prior the storm was quite busy. We finished packing the chairs on Lift #1 in earnest, leaving four access chairs for tools and workers on the lift. We strapped down the motor room covers in tandem with preparations for our zip rider. There, we lowered the cables and all the retrieval lines down to the ground, then tied off the cables so they wouldn’t flog themselves to death. Where the equipment was adjacent to steel structures, we tied them off and then lowered the rest of the cables into the bush. Back down around the base area, along with the other employees, we secured the doors, screwed plywood up and around the windows, closed the hurricane shutters and fastened boards across them to make sure everything was good and tight.

Motor room cover getting reinstalled.

One day countdown to zero hours.

We spent the last day taking the remaining chairs off the lifts. We wrapped and secured all of the control boxes and anything electrical in heavy-duty plastic covers. Most of the remaining work was allocated to the decking and construction supplies at the top of the mountain as we tucked everything away and screwed everything down. At that end of that last day, the General Manager, Shaydar Edelmann and I were the last two people at the top of the mountain to finish up and do final inspections before we rode down to the base in AT vehicles. Then we said a prayer, wished each person good luck, and everyone went to their hiding holes for the storm.

Plantation house survived with roof intact and minor nicks and cuts

Leaves coming back.

I went back to my boat late that afternoon before the storm hit as we received a notification that it was going to be a Category 5 with winds over 157mph going right over the top of us. I packed up all my paperwork, electronics and valuables and moved everything, along with myself to a friend’s villa. This particular home structure survived twenty years ago through Hurricane Louis, also a Category 5 and a very violent storm. Here is where I holed up, and in fact, I’m still there today because my boat flew away. A bit of a heartbreaker but fortunately insured.

My boat from last year’s article.

Found my boat.

After the storm

After the storm, transportation was very difficult. I was in a location where I couldn’t drive to the park. I had word from Mike Walker, our operations manager, who had hiked across the island to see what happened there and the news was very positive. The buildings in the park all survived with just nicks and cuts. The park didn’t lose any roofs, and we didn’t have any blow-through water damage, only very minor stuff. We did lose our Tubby Tube Run. We had modified the design of the tube run to handle high winds, but Irma was just too much for it. The Run was constructed from fabricated sheet metal and when the wind got underneath it peeled up like a strip of tape and flew into the forest. That equipment was a total write-off.

First look at cable.

What’s left of the tube run.

Lift #2 was our second biggest hit. Its location is in a saddle on the ridge, so it sits in an area where the wind accelerates as it funnels through. We found the cable on the ground 100‘ off of the lift line. From what I surmise after seeing it in detail, I believe a huge gust blew the cable off to the side and when the cable rebounded it jumped off the bullwheel before bouncing around to its limits and finally coming to rest on the other side of several 35 ft trees. It destroyed both of the pressure transducers on the hydraulic tension system and caused cosmetic cracking in the machinery grout where the frame flexed. How this damage occurred was very impressive, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Transportation challenges.

Unfortunate proof of 185 mph winds.

Hurricane design

In the last article, I spoke about how I worked very closely with Skytrac to come up with a hurricane design that was still economically feasible. I’m happy with the design what we came up with because it pretty much worked as planned.

The plan was that our towers were to be heavily loaded. The main idea is if the storms are not too aggressive, the cables were going to stay put. If the storm is too destructive, the leeward side is going to blow off the tower. We had to make the tower strong enough for the force on the windward cable to be resisted and not bend the tower. If the towers bent or failed, the material costs would be astronomical to fix as it would require a long ferry for a heavy lift helicopter. We recognized that the sheave trains and tower components could be replaced piece by piece if necessary, so we focused on strong towers. The guys at Skytrac shipped out the replacement parts right away. In the mean time, we dragged those cables back under the lift and hoisted them back on the sheaves, bending components back into alignment well enough to turn the lift again until parts arrived. We were most concerned about the cable itself because it was jammed into one of the sheave trains and wedged between a sheave and an interior anti-derail. Once we got that cable out and under tension, it didn’t look as bad. Terry Zakotnik from Above & Beyond flew in on a special charter flight to do magnetic resistance testing on the cable and straighten out a few wires. When we got a clean bill of health on the cable, we started turning it the lift in earnest.

Ironwood tree. Known as the hardest wood in the world, has a hardness of 5,060 lbs per foot.

Electrical mysteries.

After the storm, there was one tree in particular that we noticed, called an Ironwood tree. Like its name, a very dense, hard, strong, and heavy tree.

It looked like the cable got hung up on it during the storm, as it was lying at the base of the tree trunk when we found it. The top of the tree was blown off by lightning, all scarred and scorched.That’s at least one lightning hit we are aware of. Once we got the lift running on the diesel engine, we started through the safeties and after changing a card cleared all the faults through the PLC. We didn’t realize initially but the lightning strikes had affected the majority of the system. Getting into the guts of it, there were melted cards and drive components among and other issues, so we had to replace the whole drive.

Rebuilding by camera phone

The tech support with ABB along with the electrical support from John and Wu from Skytrac was amazingly helpful. Shaydar and our electrical team put in some very serious effort to get through replacing the drive, resetting parameters, troubleshooting, and finding all the burnt relays to be replaced. Located far from supply sources and technicians on this island, where we will have lightning problems in the future, it was a valuable learning process on how to deal with lightning strikes and what components we are going to have to carry on the shelf.

I found it amazing that we replaced a drive ourselves using only phone support. WhatsApp was a very useful tool. When you can point your phone at the board and say “Look, its burnt over here and this lights not on” and you’ve got John on the other end looking at the problem, it’s second to him being right there with you.

Getting cable back on.

We are looking at putting lightning clamps on the cable and better earthing – that gives the lightning an easier path to ground instead of through the drive – hopefully. Short of an electrical grounding system like they’ve got in Telluride, at a prodigious cost, it is more economical for us to put parts on the shelf.

At the first assessment after the storm, I will admit that it was a bit intimidating. We sent photos and called Dave Metivier (President of Skytrac). After discussing the situation, he put Alex McCann (Parts and Customer Service) on a plane and sent him down. After a complex series of flights, he finally showed up. Alex was a huge help in getting the cable back on and going through all the mechanical components. Knowing the parts intimately helped us with the list of everything we needed. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate as many of the businesses here in St. Maarten are going to take a year or more to recover. I don’t know why we deserve to come out so well compared to others, but we’ll take that piece of luck.

Above the carnage.

We have 700 square meters of wood decking at the top of the mountain that amazingly stayed put. There was one section of stairs that flew away because it wasn’t bolted down yet, and we never did find it.

There was one unexpected advantage we gleaned from the hurricane recovery. As we put the cable back on Lift #2 with no tension, we realized how well the ground profile follows the cable. Since the clearance on this single span lift is minimal, we decided to change the evacuation procedure.

Now, with the lift is locked out, we de-tension and lower the chairs so the passengers can just step out of their seat and onto solid ground without the use of evacuation ropes. We performed evacuation practice using the new method and were very happy with the result.

Single span, Lift #2

The future of business

We are going to have a tough season coming up. Our projections were for a full-on tourist season, and we were expecting to use the revenues to service our loans. Next season I believe we’ll be back at about 90 percent with tourism. No one is sitting still and St. Maarten is recuperating quite well.There is aid coming from Holland. Tourism operators and cruise lines are committed to rebuilding and are anxious to get back in full force. St Maarten is an important destination to these industries and has a will to build back, better.

First ride post Irma.


It is the first time I‘ve ever been in a major hurricane like this and I was encouraged by the way people came together to help each other. These challenges have had positive aspects. Our crew has taken ownership of the park here and stepped up to protect it from the storm which bodes well; they are very proud of what they’ve built here, as they well should be and are thinking of their future with the park. Although there is still finishing work being done, we opened for business on the 24th of November after a two month hurricane delay.

8 thoughts on “IRMA: John Dalton, Part II – What My Fixed-Grips Looked Like After the Hurricane Hit

  1. Alex McCann

    Great article John!
    I am honored to have had the ability to come and help you guys rebuild after Irma. From my time there working with you it is clear that it was not a “piece of luck” that got you through that devastation. It was the hard work of every person I met while being there (and certainly more people I didn’t get to meet). I will forever be inspired by you and your team for their ability to come together during such a crisis. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your efforts, it was an experience that I will never forget. Congratulation to you and everyone involved for getting through it!

  2. Drew Rader

    Thanks for the article and pictures. Sorry to see that your boat was destroyed, but glad that everyone is safe. Just got back from a sailing trip around St Maartin and the carnage 4 months after Irma was unbelievable. The boat we were on is similar to the boat at the end of your article (Lagoon 440) leaning against the condo. The boat weighs 27,000 lbs. It was only one of two boats still floating in Simpson Bay. They were able to install a new mast and fix the other damage so that we could go sailing.

    I will stop and take a lift ride next time i am in St. Maartin. Really like the new evacuation method.


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