~ “If Irma was as long as Luis, we would have all died” ~
by Judy H. Fitzpatrick
ST. PETERS–St. Peters resident Gale Hodge is living life one day at a time as she attempts to piece together the fragments of her life and map out what her next move will be.
The mother-of-three went from being on top of her game as a gainfully employed woman working hard to care for her family and achieve her goals to someone who is now homeless, jobless and fearful of her future. Like many persons in St. Maarten, she lost everything in the devastating winds of Hurricane Irma, which hammered the country as a powerful category 5 storm on Wednesday, September 6.
With no roof over her head, the local St. Maartener slept in her car many nights after Irma until a friend welcomed her into his home, providing temporary shelter. Hodge’s situation reflects scores of persons in St. Maarten who lost their life’s possessions during the most powerful storm in the Atlantic to wreak havoc in St. Maarten.
“Before Irma I was trying to get a business set up and get my life together. Now I am living day by day, because it’s difficult for me to think ahead right now,” she told The Daily Herald.
She has been spending her days cleaning up her hurricane-ravaged, roofless home, now partially covered by tarpaulins, trying to salvage whatever little she can, but says seeing the memories she has now lost is more draining that the actual cleaning itself.
Hodge wants to work and become independent again, but with little to no possessions and with one of her three children still in school, she is hoping that authorities can help her and other persons in her position.
“Government should help us get back on our feet, or at least try to help us take care of our mental stability. This is more important, because once your mind is not stable you won’t be able to function effectively,” she said.
Prior to Irma, Hodge followed the drill and prepared as much as she could. Having survived Hurricane Luis, she was aware of how dangerous such a storm could be. She secured her home and purchased extra canned food and water. Although her home had survived Hurricane Luis and all the other storms in between, she felt uneasy and nervous about Irma. It was a feeling she never had about any other hurricane before.
The night before the storm, she planned to sleep early, so that she could be awake during the hurricane. Her nerves kept her up most of the night and she eventually dozed off, but was abruptly awakened in the wee hours of Wednesday, September 6, to the worst crashing and thundering noise she had ever heard.
“I woke up around 4:00am or 5:00am to noises outside. I think something tumbled on my roof and I peeped outside. All I saw was chaos,” she said, explaining that her home is a semi-attachment to her 85-year-old mother’s house.
“I knew I had to get out of my house and go over to my mom’s bigger house, where my two sons (ages 13 and 24), my mom and my dad had been, but when I went to the sliding door, all I saw was white. The wind was so bad that it was opening and closing the sliding door on its own. I went to the back door to try to get out, but it sounded like chaos and I didn’t even bother to open the door.”
Her only option to exit for what she felt was her safety was her bedroom window separating her home from her mother’s. The window had been secured with plywood nailed onto the concrete wall.
“It was a condemned window that I was going to block with concrete blocks, but thank God I didn’t do that. My eldest son was screaming my name and was trying to pull off the plywood for me to get out, but he couldn’t get it off,” she said.
“Water started to come in and I heard three loud tumbles on my roof and then a loud cracking sound. My ceiling then started to move rapidly up and down and everything in the room started to swirl around and was being pitched back and forth everywhere. I screamed out my big son’s name and he was frantically pounding on the window trying to get it open so I could get out.
“I don’t know where I found the strength from, but I managed to pull the plywood from off the window and my son grabbed me and pulled me through the window into my mother’s house. I was never so scared in my life.”
As soon as she entered her mother’s house, she realised that Irma had also swept away her mother’s roof and she was in the same predicament as she had been facing, in her own home.
“I had to be dodging a lot of things that were flying around,” she said.
Her elderly mother panicked and was trying to go to another daughter’s home, located in the same yard, because she has a concrete roof, but Hodge discouraged her from going because it was too dangerous. The entire family – Hodge, her two sons, her elderly mother and father and their pets – went into the bathroom and took shelter waiting for the first part of the storm to pass.
Waiting was an equally traumatic experience. Hodge said the walls of the bathroom were shaking violently.
“It felt as though the entire house would explode. Thank God, this storm was not as long as Luis. If Irma was as long as Luis, we would have all died. A lot of us would have died,” she opined.
“I cannot tell you how long we stayed the bathroom for. When my mom and my young son started to cry and my son asked if he was going to die, tears came out of my eyes, because I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know what to say.
“My big son passed through Luis when he was three years old and he was traumatized for years. And to see my eldest son’s face at age 25 and everyone’s faces was hard.
“We were just standing there listening to the sounds outside. The sounds in the living room were terrible, everything was hitting onto something. We were trying to hold the bathroom door in, but we eventually just let it go because it was going to hit one of us. The whole time I was praying to God to help us get through it, but with everything happening I didn’t know what to think.”
As soon as the family realised that the eye of the storm was passing and things were calm, they took the chance and hurried over to her sister’s house. “We had to climb over a mountain of things and move things to get through the back door to get to my sister’s home. It was total devastation outside. Luckily, the back door wasn’t blocked, but there was a lot of zinc in the yard and a big mango tree that we had, turned over.”
Over at her sister’s home, the doors were blown out, but it was safer, as the bedroom and bathroom were intact. The family sought shelter in a bedroom and bathroom. During the second part of the storm, Hodge witnessed roofs amongst the debris being pitched around by the storm’s winds. A lot of debris was blown into her sister’s home.
“It felt like forever sitting and waiting for it to pass and it didn’t pass fast enough. When it all ended and we went outside and looked around, it was sad to see all the damage Irma had caused. Irma was 10 times worse than Luis. With Luis, it was really bad, but not this bad. Not even close. My roof just came off like it was nothing. It was crazy.”
The days following Irma, Hodge and her family did as much cleaning as they could. She washed clothing that she could salvage until her hands were almost raw. She shed many a tear. Even as she tries to remain optimistic, the harsh realities of the damage the storm has done to the island make her wonder what lies ahead for her and her family.
Her job at American University of the Caribbean (AUC) School of Medicine no longer exists, as the school has temporarily relocated to the United Kingdom, although there are plans to return to St. Maarten eventually.
Her elderly mother has taken the storm hard and constantly cries about losing her possessions. It seems to have also worsened her Alzheimer’s disease. She said her mother, who survives on her pension, simply could not afford to insure her home and Hodge’s section was also without insurance, so there are no finances for rebuilding. The only good thing about the storm is that everyone survived, including all the family’s pets, which included a cat who is visually impaired in one eye.
As Hodge ponders her next move, she believes that Government should help persons like herself to get back on their feet so that they can again become productive citizens. With all the aid that is reaching St. Maarten, she says authorities should ensure that assistance gets to the St. Maarteners who really need it. (Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org)