PHILIPSBURG–When he asked for help from the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) for reconstruction of his hurricane-ravaged house, Jeffrey Jeffers (37) was told only private homes of seniors were eligible. Eugenie Hanna (83) did get a new roof and windows, but when construction company Liccom left, her house was still uninhabitable. Hanna and Jeffers are two of a considerable number of people who, five years after Irma, are still barely surviving financially due to the hurricane.
St. Maarten is the birthplace of Hanna’s parents. She came from Curaçao to St. Maarten with her late husband, a police officer. Their house in St. Peters is a spacious, ground-floor house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a detached studio in a walled yard.
In 1995 Hurricane Luis blew away part of the roof of the house. But the house itself had limited damage. When Hurricane Irma was approaching in September 2017, Hanna was worried about her daughter and other family members, but less worried about her home.
“I thought I had a strong house,” said Hanna, who decided to sit out the passing of the hurricane together with family, at their house. When she returned home a few days later, she was shocked. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. The whole roof was gone. Inside it was a mess. All my furniture was broken, including the kitchen cabinets and the bathroom sinks. There was really nothing left of my house as I knew it.”
Barely recovered from the initial shock, then 78-year-old Hanna and her middle-aged daughter joined other St. Maarten residents on a rescue flight to Curaçao. “At least we were safe,” she said. “But I missed my home.”
Hanna was determined to rebuild. She had saved money all her life. “My mother taught me as a young girl to save for later and during my years working at the ambulance service, I followed her advice. I also made extra money doing odd jobs, selling food and offering my services as a beautician.”
She thought she could bring her house back to its former state. “But while we were in Curaçao my daughter suffered a stroke,” Hanna said with a face that reflects pain. “She couldn’t do anything anymore; don’t talk, don’t walk. As a mother, I had to help her and do what I can.” Hanna paid for medication, therapy and nurses for daily care for her daughter.
Back in St. Maarten, with the help of White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation, Hanna continued to take care of her daughter. Mother and daughter moved into the studio next to the house with no roof. They would end up living in this former laundry area for three years.
Jeffers has spent five years to date in a room under his childhood home on St. Peters Hill which is a complete ruin since the passing of Hurricane Irma. Of the house built in the ’60s with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, only heavily damaged walls are still standing. The roof, windows, doors, kitchen and bathrooms – nothing is there anymore.
The foundation of the former house rests on a room in one corner, like a pillar that keeps the ruin upright. Jeffers refuses to leave this unit. “People ask me: ‘Why do you stay?’ You have to understand that this is the house that I grew up in. This is where my father, stepmother, my brother, sister and I have been living for as long as I can remember.”
Those were happy times, he said, until his father collapsed on the living room floor in 2015. He did not survive. “This house is my father’s legacy, which I inherited,” Jeffers said. “Little did I know, at the time, that it came with a large debt in taxes, which I also inherited. I wish my father had told me years earlier. That way a lot of my current problems could have been avoided.”
Jeffers senior had not taken out insurance on the house. “If he had, I wouldn’t be in this predicament,” his son said. “I did not know at the time what I would be facing today, but I am determined not to give up. I am working hard to pay off the debt.”
The salary from his job at the airport would not cut it. A little over a year ago Jeffers started his own company importing goods from China, following in the footsteps of the late owner of the parent company in St. Maarten, his teacher. “I am so grateful for this opportunity,” Jeffers said. “Considering that his business had been successful for many years, I assumed that I could qualify for support from NRPB to grow my company, but to my surprise they said that my company had not existed long enough. “
Jeffers also received zero on request at NRPB with regard to the reconstruction of the house. “They told me that only private homes owned by seniors were eligible for reconstruction. The fact that I inherited the house from my late father didn’t matter.”
In 2020, Jeffers received a WhatsApp message on his phone informing him that applications for new roofs had been closed in December 2019.
“Some people suggested that I applied for help too late,” he said. “You must understand that I went through a lot: the shock of my father’s death, inheriting the house and all that came with it, to then witness Hurricane Irma destroy it completely, my family seeking refuge in other parts of the island. I had to come to terms with all of the loss before I could think about starting to rebuild.”
An attempt to rebuild part of the house himself proved too costly and time-consuming. “I really need help, at least with a roof on the house,” Jeffers said. “If I only had a roof and windows, I could make a plan to renovate the house step by step.” He is still hoping for help from the government, almost against his better judgment, after knocking in vain on many doors.
However, the young entrepreneur did successfully obtain small financial support for his business from Microcredit provider St. Maarten Qredits, and plans to work his way out of debt, even though it will take years of hard work and sacrifices. “I am alone, but I am thinking of building a family. I want to preserve this house for the next generation,” Jeffers said. “After all, this is my father’s legacy, and I want to keep his memory alive.”
Because Hanna no longer had the means to rebuild after her daughter suffered a stroke, her house was included in NRPB’s reconstruction project. Construction company Liccom built a new roof and installed windows and doors. However, the house was still uninhabitable when the company left. “Inside there was cement everywhere, the house looked like it was still under construction,” said Hanna, who was left without a functional kitchen and bathrooms. Not a single room was painted.
“I am very happy with my new roof, don’t get me wrong,” she said in 2020, after the team of construction company Liccom said their goodbyes. “But how are we to live in this unfinished house?”
Five years after Irma, she is doing okay, said Hanna, who, thanks to financial and practical help from neighbours and other members of the St. Peters community, was able to have a kitchen installed and the interior of her home painted. Today the house is again fully furnished with furniture.
“Only I wouldn’t have been able to realise this,” Hanna said, “I’m forever grateful to Koto Wilson and other neighbours for their help. I can always count on them.”
From the outside, the house still looks like Liccom left it, grey plaster around the window frames and under the eaves. There is no money to paint the house. The property is not insured. Suppose a new hurricane destroys the house, what does Hanna do then? “If that happens, I will go with it, that will be the end for me,” she said. “Because I have spent my last money on this house. There is no more.”