Clobbered by Irma, former Danby residents raise money to help island neighbors
That new chapter was interrupted earlier this month, however, when Hurricane Irma clobbered the Burzon's new home and much of the Caribbean. Now safely back in the states, Burzon is committed to helping his friends and neighbors in his new home recover.
"I'm trying to get to $10,000, but I'd like to do more," said Steve Burzon, 76, who started a GoFundMe page titled `Help My St. Martin Neighbors Rebuild.' "I just want to make a difference in my own community."
A new beginning
The Burzon's lived a quiet Vermont life at Danby's Four Corners, running a local landscaping business known as Garden Arts/Manchester Fence for nearly 20 years. Even then, St. Martin was a favorite destination for the couple.
"Nancy and I are sailors," said Burzon. "We sailed into St. Martin 25 years ago on a holiday, and it was magical. We just kept coming back to spend whatever time we could there."
During frequent visits the Burzon's embraced newfound friends on the island nation, and grew to love St. Martin more and more.
"Every time we go to St. Martin we feel like we get healthier, walking on the beach and swimming so often," said Burzon. "At this point in our lives, what really matters is taking care of ourselves."
Slowly, the couple began to cede ownership of their business and prepared to move their belongings and two dogs to the West Indies.
"In November of 2016 we packed up everything and moved to St. Martin, on the French side," said Burzon "I've been hanging around Vermont since 1962, but we were just trying to pursue a different life."
The Burzon's rented an old Creole house in the French Quarter of St. Martin, in a neighborhood populated mostly by locals. Though the couple stood out a first, they became members of a tight knit community of neighbors.
"We grew to feel totally at home, welcome, and safe on our sweet little street," said Burzon on his GoFundMePage. "Then came Hurricane Irma, with her embedded twisters, totally destroying our old wooden house as well as the houses of many of our new friends and neighbors."
Even before Hurricane Irma struck, the Burzon's experienced their own emergency in the wilderness of St. Martin.
"About a week prior to Irma we were hiking with some friends, and Nancy fell going down a ravine; she broke her ankle really badly," said Burzon. "We literally had to evacuate her from that trail, and she immediately had emergency surgery on the Dutch side of the island."
The surgery left Nancy in a cast with limited mobility, and the task of securing their rented home fell on Steve's shoulders. Luckily, their property housed a sturdy, stone structure that the couple could seek refuge in.
"We got in there with our dogs, and up until 4:30 in the morning we had lights and air conditioning," said Burzon. "By 5:30 or 6 in the morning, all hell broke loose." Irma struck St. Martin on the night of Sept. 5 as a Category 5 hurricane, with winds reportedly exceeding 200 miles per hour.
"The wind was howling and the noise was deafening, but I never felt that the building would fail us," said Burzon. "We were in there for several hours and the wind died town, but I was aware that it was the eye of the storm passing over. I knew it would get bad again soon."
Though Nancy's injury forced her to stay put, Steve ventured outside before the second wave of the storm began.
"When I opened up the door and looked outside I could not believe my eyes. Every tree, every bush, and every plant was ripped up and piled all over the place," said Burzon. "I couldn't find my house; it wasn't there."
Burzon resealed their bunker and resumed shelter, but the second phase of Irma seemed to spare them.
"When the whole thing was over Nancy had no choice but to stay in the stone building," said Burzon. "I made my way down to the street, and people were just walking around as dazed as I was."
All of the homes on his street were "blown up," according to Steve, who worked fastidiously alongside his neighbors to salvage what they could, despite a deluge of wasps and mosquitoes.
After days had passed, Steve realized that he would have to clear major debris to get Nancy to her doctor. Still, the debris were too large for him to move on his own, and the couple faced limited food supplies after their kitchen was demolished in the storm.
"Men left their own families and own rescue work to lift our collapsed house walls and fallen beams to provide passage for my wife," said Burzon on his GoFundMe page. "The girls and women of the neighborhood nurtured us daily by providing hot coffee, oatmeal, rice and beans, johnny cakes, stewed chicken, and more. We were treated like royalty - like their own family."
Eventually, the Burzon's were able to get a message to their adult children to let them know they were safe. Though Nancy was not able to get to a doctor, the couple's neighbors helped her to move to a more comfortable structure.
"A few days later a friend of our landlord came by to evaluate Nancy, as he was a medical technician," said Burzon. "He said that the situation we were in was not good."
The man offered the Burzon's the opportunity to evacuate St. Martin immediately, though their two dogs would have to stay behind.
"It was a heart wrenching decision to leave them," said Burzon. "Our neighbors offered to love and care for them until we returned, so we hurriedly packed everything we could into two little suitcases."
Ready for recovery
The Burzon's proceeded to an airport in Grand Case before boarding a French military transport to nearby Guadeloupe.
"Eventually, we flew back to Newark, met my kids, and went back to stay at my daughter's house," said Burzon. "I'm realizing that there is nothing in life other than family, and I want to help the family I found in St. Martin."
Reflecting the kindness shown to him by neighbors, Steve has already raised over $4,000 to contribute to the reconstruction of his community. Those funds will be withdrawn by Burzon directly upon his return, and used for the purchase of vital building materials and tools.
Burzon will organize this in conjunction with his communities "block captain," appointed by the local government, to ensure an equitable distribution.
The Burzon's rented their home in St. Martin, so none of the funds raised will go the couple themselves. Instead, they plan to secure a new rental by November.
"I hope people will contribute whatever they can," said Burzon, who is working to organize a fundraiser in Manchester alongside former legislator Patti Komline. "I want the people in Manchester to help me help my neighbors in St. Martin."
To learn more, or donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/help-my-st-martin-neighbors.
Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.
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