After Irma, an uncertain future for evacuees of St. Martin

Donna Hodge, right, and her 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie, seen Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, evacuated from St. Martin after Hurricane Irma and are staying in Groton with one of Donna’s brothers for the time being. (Erica Moser/The Day)
Donna Hodge, right, and her 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie, seen Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, evacuated from St. Martin after Hurricane Irma and are staying in Groton with one of Donna’s brothers for the time being. (Erica Moser/The Day)

Jocelyn Curiel stood in her mother's living room, items donated by Waterford Youth Services at her feet: a backpack with school supplies, a bathrobe, a copy of "Lady and the Tramp," sidewalk chalk, blankets.

Her 8-year-old daughter, Maya, slipped on metallic silver flats, one of the few things her mother could bring from their home on the French side of St. Martin. They were off to Quaker Hill Elementary to get Maya in school.

The roof had been ripped off their home and the windows blown out, and Curiel was only able to take carry-on luggage onto the military plane. "Now, here I am as a mother, with two pairs of jeans and some yoga pants to my name," she said.

But her priority was getting Maya back in school. Maya was excited to go to an American school for the first time and started on Tuesday. Curiel said her daughter loves it.

They are two of many who evacuated St. Martin following the devastation from Hurricane Irma, which made landfall on the 37-square-mile island on Sept. 6.

Curiel is grateful for the help of the Committee of St. Martin Hurricane Relief Efforts, a group of New London residents who have family on the island. It includes Carol Richardson, whose husband is the cousin of Curiel's mother, Sheryl Carroll.

"It is what it is. My husband doesn't want to see the pictures," Richardson said. "It's heartbreaking, but at the same time, we're going to rebuild."

The group is holding meetings in the Lawrence + Memorial Hospital auditorium from 6 to 8 p.m. every Friday for the next few weeks, and Richardson said they will then ask for an extension to use the space.

Members use the meetings to coordinate fundraising efforts and determine how donated items can be delivered, and they use their Facebook page to update lists marking people as safe.

The committee is holding a steak night fundraiser at Birdseye Café on Oct. 13, and those interested in getting tickets can call (860) 917-8345.

Group members also are collecting items in the Martin Center in New London and have set up a YouCaring page with a $100,000 fundraising goal. What they are mostly asking for is money, children's items and nonperishable foods.

One of the lead organizers is Lisa Hodge Potter, whose cousin Donna Hodge and her daughter arrived in Groton from St. Martin on Monday. It was that same day that her daughter, Stephanie, turned 16.

"Don't be a soldier; just come home"

It took the two five days to get from St. Martin to Groton, where one of Hodge's three brothers lives. They hopped on a flight to Guadalupe to get medicine for Stephanie's kidney disease, but the flight was rerouted to Martinique.

They then flew to Montreal before flying to Newark and catching an airport shuttle to Connecticut.

"My family was following me along on Facebook to see where I was, but we're happy to be here, happy to have someplace to go," Hodge said, "because a lot of people don't have someplace to go."

Her two other brothers still are in St. Martin, along with her mother, aunt and sister-in-law. Hodge and Curiel are natives of New London and Waterford, respectively, and both went on to live in Grand Case on St. Martin.

Hodge had been living on the island for 20 years, and Curiel for more than a decade. Grand Case is a small resort town that bills itself as the "gourmet capital of the Caribbean."

Curiel presumes the restauranteurs whose establishments lined her street will go to France, and she doesn't know if they'll return.

The Monday after Irma hit, Curiel went to the airport to find out what was going on, and she was told that Delta and JetBlue flights would be leaving St. Martin on Tuesday.

"My family's like, 'Get home. Don't be a soldier; just come home,'" she said.

That Tuesday, Sept. 12, the U.S. Embassy and U.S. State Department were trying to get people on military flights. But Curiel said people were hesitant, having heard rumors that hundreds of people were stuck in San Juan, unable to afford flights out.

What they didn't know was that some airlines were capping ticket prices for flights out of San Juan at $99. When U.S. officials informed Curiel that Delta and JetBlue flights would not be landing in St. Martin that day, she opted for the military flight.

Upon arriving in San Juan, Curiel "was almost in tears at how wonderful" people were, with the presence of crisis counselors, doctors, airline representatives to book flights, clowns to entertain the children and phones for calling family members.

She then got a flight to New York City and arrived in Waterford early on Sept. 13.

"The devastation I saw everywhere I looked was so overwhelming"

When Curiel talks about the devastation St. Martin faced, she occasionally shakes her head and sighs, "It is what it is."

When Hurricane Irma hit in the early hours of Sept. 6, she was at her boyfriend's house, about five miles from her own and further inland. During the eye, she peeked outside and saw what she described as a "zinc graveyard," with smashed cars and uprooted trees.

The back end of the storm was supposed to be better, she said, but it was worse. And then it stopped.

She first went to the two beach houses she rents out, and then to her house in town.

"After the storm passed, I went to where my houses were to kind of see what was left, and I'll say it: I collapsed," Curiel said. "My boyfriend had to hold me up, because the devastation I saw everywhere I looked was so overwhelming that in your worst nightmare, you couldn't imagine it."

Curiel was not able to contact her family until three days after the hurricane.

Like Curiel, Hodge relies on the tourism industry for her income: She is the concierge manager for Carimo, a villa rental company owned by Airbnb.

When Irma hit, Hodge heard glass doors blow in and felt the roof ripping off. As different parts of the house were damaged, she and her family moved from the living room to a bedroom to the bathroom to another bedroom.

Curiel does not think she'll move back to St. Martin, while Hodge said it might be a year and a half before she returns. Hodge is trying to figure out where she can relocate in the meantime, and she is considering Montreal, where Airbnb has a corporate office.

"I'm sure they won't have a hurricane up there," she said.

Prior to Hurricane Irma, the worst hurricane to hit St. Martin was Hurricane Luis in 1995. Hodge has heard people say they would take Luis 10 times over Irma, and Curiel felt Irma was 10 times worse.

"Prior to this it was before Luis and after Luis," Curiel said. "Now we have a new benchmark: It's Irma."

e.moser@theday.com

Damaged buildings are seen Sept. 7, 2017, around the home of Donna and Stephanie Hodge in the Grand Case area in St. Martin. (Stephanie Hodge)
Damaged buildings are seen Sept. 7, 2017, around the home of Donna and Stephanie Hodge in the Grand Case area in St. Martin. (Stephanie Hodge)
Damaged buildings are seen Sept. 7, 2017, around the home of Donna and Stephanie Hodge in the Grand Case area in St. Martin. (Stephanie Hodge)
Damaged buildings are seen Sept. 7, 2017, around the home of Donna and Stephanie Hodge in the Grand Case area in St. Martin. (Stephanie Hodge)

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