MARIGOT–The pre-paid debit card scheme to benefit families living in dire circumstances following Hurricane Irma will be launched on November 22, 2017, Préfet Philippe Gustin announced at a press conference on Wednesday. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had briefly mentioned the card in his speech on his recent visit.
Described as an “exceptional aid” from the French State, the one-time card has a total value of 300 to 900 euros depending on the composition of the family. An adult has a value of 300 euros and a child 100 euros.
The card cannot be used at an ATM to draw cash, or redeemed on the Dutch side or in another foreign country, but must be spent in French St. Martin, France or Guadeloupe.
Gustin, who has been nominated to supervise the reconstruction of St. Martin, said the Collectivité has already identified beneficiaries of the card; some 4,000 families. The total cost to the State of this initiative is three million euros. Beneficiaries will be sent the card in the mail and once their identity is confirmed the card is validated by a code sent by SMS.
“We will see how this works,” said Gustin, who indicated the idea of the card was his. “It can be a precursor to a similar scheme that could help combat fraud and benefits-abuse and better manage Revenu Solidarité Active (RSA) to stop money going to the Dutch side or off-island.”
The social benefit RSA costs the Collectivité some 17 million euros per year.
Gustin gave an overview of the State’s actions in the “crisis” phase following Hurricane Irma’s passing. Some 3,000 civil servants were deployed to St. Martin and an aerial bridge established between France, Guadeloupe and St. Martin.
Two million bottles of water were distributed directly to the population, a further 600,000 bottles given to the Collectivité for distribution, 350 tons of food were distributed, plus 35,000 survival rations distributed by the military.
Establishing security was a priority to reassure the population and, with a combined law-and-order force of 700 Gendarmes and border police PAF, crime figures quickly became “significantly lower” than they were before Irma.
Conclusions on the damage evaluation for St. Martin will be made at the Inter-Ministerial Commission meeting at Matignon on November 21, he noted.
Switching to reconstruction, he said St. Martin’s capacity to produce potable water had been “weak” even before Irma, and only 82 per cent of the population currently has running water.
“It’s clear the infrastructure is tired. An expert from the Ministry of the Environment will be discussing a plan with the water and sewage authority EEASM to improve the infrastructure for water production.
“Telecommunications are not up to par on the French side either except for the cellular service which is close to 100 per cent operational. But 50 per cent of the population is still without a fixed line and this is also a problem for small businesses,” he said.
On the help to businesses, amounts of one million, five million or ten million euros were dispensed to businesses as of October 1, depending on whether employees were on partial employment or laid-off (chomage technique). The administrative court in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, handles the bankruptcy cases.
He noted 643 businesses in St. Martin had filed claims for 3,304 employees on partial employment. In St. Barths there were 437 businesses claiming on behalf of 2,295 salaried employees; in total a cost of 25 million euros. Since October, three million euros were paid out for partial employment.
Financial aid from the State to assure the Collectivité can continue functioning was enacted via protocol signed between Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and President Daniel Gibbs. There was an initial advance of 10 million euros on September 20.
The State will also compensate the Collectivité for waiving the property tax that amounts to 12.2 million euros and as of 2018, the Collectivité will receive 50 million euros in increments every three months.
Gustin said a steering committee will be installed to make sure the money is spent in the right way.
Finally, he talked of the need for reinforced cooperation between the Dutch and French sides and being “very vigilant” on clandestine immigration.
“Borders must be jointly controlled. France and the Netherlands are entering a new partnership on cooperation. There must be a mutual approach to controls on the French and Dutch sides, but also at Princess Juliana Airport and the Port in Philipsburg,” he said.
He added now is the time “to profit” from Irma by establishing joint projects such as waste management, water management and the sewage treatment plant that was put on hold but can be restarted.
Gustin has been responsible for compiling a report on St. Martin after Irma and making recommendations for the future. It has included a re-drawing of the map to identify high-risk zones in the territory and alternative areas for housing construction. He said the report is finished, but cannot be made public until it is seen by the Collectivité and the Inter-Ministerial Committee.
Given the likelihood of more powerful hurricanes hitting the Caribbean and aside from defining risks, strengthening building codes, policing the environment and urban development, he said the way forward is to adopt a “culture of risk,” a mindset that should include educating children on natural disasters.