About 100 guests and hotel staff at the Riu Palace St. Martin waited at the hotel for five days with no electricity or running water after Hurricane Irma battered the island, before a special flight evacuated them to Punta Cana on Sept 10. 

Joachim Schoenfeldt, Riu Hotels & Resorts regional director of sales for the Caribbean and Mexico, recounted how he helped to coordinate the rescue with limited communication between his base in Punta Cana and the St. Martin hotel.

"For the staff and the guests, it was difficult. There was no electricity, no running water, only bottled water even for washing," he said, adding that the toilets didn't flush. There was a limited amount of food but plenty of drinking water, he said.

Hotel staff stayed with the guests during the storm and its aftermath, awaiting evacuation from the battered island. Schoenfeldt said employees remained with guests despite many not knowing the condition of their own homes and loved ones, he said.

"The most difficult part was the lack of electricity and communication," he said. "We couldn't advise them, their families couldn't get through to know how their loved ones were doing. That was the biggest challenge."

The Riu St Martin Is located in a remote part of the French side of the island, making communication even more difficult.

Despite roads being in very bad condition, Riu and partner TUI Group were able to arrange for buses to take guests to Princess Juliana Airport, which was wrecked by Irma and only being used by military planes. However, a Sunwing plane was permitted to fly evacuees to Punta Cana. (TUI is a Sunwing stakeholder.)

"They got special permission to take the flight and had to land and take off without a control tower, based only on what they could see. No systems were working," he said.

Schoenfeldt said the storm was the worst hurricane disaster he can remember.

"There have been other hurricanes but not like this, not when 90% of a destination has been destroyed," he said.

Schoenfeldt said the Riu Palace St. Martin will likely be closed until the end of April 2018.

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