MARIGOT–Close to six months on from Hurricane Irma, The Daily Herald(TDH) questioned President of the Collectivité Daniel Gibbs on progress with the recovery of St. Martin.
TDH: Please give us an update on the clean-up progress. Are you still on track to have all debris sites cleared by end of January?
“Yes, we are. Immediately after Irma we put everything in place to clear big bulky items and cleared the roads. The 11 debris emergency sites that had been opened are now all cleaned up. We still have random sites to dismantle on the roads, but the bulk of this work has been done. By the end of January, we’ll be finished. Cleanliness is everyone’s business; everyone must make a responsible effort. The Collectivité cannot take all the burden. It has already committed 10-million euros to cleaning of the island, a considerable sum for a small territory.
The other problem emerging after Irma is the number of abandoned car wrecks visible around the territory. We had them before, but the hurricane made the problem worse. Insurance companies still need to remove some wrecks but remember many of them resulted from looting of parts which were then sold on both sides of the island, leaving the car wreck on the public road. The Collectivité has no choice but to take charge of this cleaning. The Sustainable Development Department of my Vice-President Steven Patrick has already removed more than 500 vehicles; the most annoying being the ones across pavements, on the main roads, in the car parks.
But there are still many more and this work must be done as soon as possible. This has a considerable cost to the Collectivité. It is not only a pick-up service but has depolluting cost. That is why I announced on January 15 during my wishes, that we will enter a phase of environmental control and sanctions. A welcoming territory is one that is clean.”
TDH: When will the first of the reconstruction projects start and what will that be?
“In view of the European legislation, there are rules on public procurement to follow, hence the administrative deadlines that are necessary for us to adhere to. Several projects will start in 2018; the draft budget of the Collectivité has 200-million euros for investments. In the short term, we will focus on reconstruction of public buildings (schools and sports facilities) and in the medium term, we have several projects, such as the first stage of development of Grand Marigot which consists of renovation of the waterfront from the parking area of L’Oiseau Rare Restaurant up to the Methodist Church (next to the roundabout in front of the market place).
We are also in the process of selecting the Project Manager for the Grand Marigot development. I would add that we have a project for the development and revitalization of downtown Marigot and every area of the French side. No one will be forgotten. The burying of electrical and digital networks underground began in Grand Case in December and will continue over the next 18 months, with the goal of having 100 per cent of the networks buried on the French side.
We will also soon propose temporary solutions for the market vendors. We have also provided in the 2018 budget 20-million euros for rehabilitation of public lighting and refurbishment of road networks and 14-million euros for pavements. We also envisage very soon a campaign to clean the beaches and beautify the streets of Marigot to finalize the cleaning of the island. This will improve the living environment of our citizens and welcome our visitors in the best conditions.
As you know, the hurricane risk map “Carte des Aléas” and the new building procedure were published last week. We do our best to help the population to rebuild properly, in a safe manner. The Urbanism Department of the Collectivité is open every day and will help people with reconstruction of our territory.”
TDH: Are you satisfied that poor families who suffered from Hurricane Irma in districts like French Quarter and Sandy Ground are getting, or have received, sufficient aid?
“You know, it’s hard to be satisfied in such circumstances. I wish that all our poorest citizens could receive post-Irma financial assistance. Yet the Cohésia card set up by the State has allowed many families in difficulty (more than 4,000 beneficiaries) to receive up to 900 euros before the holidays. I would add thanks to this concept that I suggested to the State local companies were able to benefit indirectly from this financial windfall. I would also point out that the Department of Solidarity and Families has been working tirelessly since September 6, 2017, accompanying the public in need, but also providing material support with daily distribution of food and water.
TDH: Sandy Ground district complained many of its residents ought to have received the Cohésia debit card. Why only 4,000 families and not more?
“The criteria for eligibility to social benefits issued by the State, is the same for all French territories. They are fixed by the State from the minimum social wage. The 4,000 beneficiaries of the Cohésia card are therefore people living with limited resources, domiciled throughout the territory. There can be no breakdown by neighbourhood.”
TDH: Some politicians see a “partnership” and “reinforcing state services” as higher supervision. Is higher supervision in your opinion a positive or negative for St. Martin?
“These people often forget that they themselves engaged the Collectivité to take out loans that have now saddled the Collectivité with unusually high rates of reimbursement, which are very heavy to bear. These comments are not constructive. The protocols we signed with the state in November and January established methods of functioning between the Collectivité and State for reconstruction. They (protocols) clearly commit the State to its areas of competence and we can welcome some of the advances that have never been achieved in the past, such as the revaluation of the transfer of charges since 2008.
Irma’s passage is also indicative of shortcomings due to the local non-representation of certain State services. We need a Statistics Bureau (INSEE). I also think of some decentralized state services (DEAL – DIECCTE) that need to be better represented in St. Martin. In the State-Collectivité Memorandum of Understanding (part two) increased resources are provided to certain entities such as Caisse Allocation Familiale (CAF) and the CGSS. The state will also need to strengthen its engineering capabilities to accompany the Collectivité in the reconstruction. This reinforcement is particularly important in the technical field because St. Martin does not yet benefit from the same means of accompaniment as other French communities.”
TDH: What is the current situation with the repairs to the schools?
“The Vice-President in charge of education, Annick Pétrus, and the Collectivité services gave an update last week on the school situation with the Principals. The Siméone Trott School, for example, has been completely renovated, eight classrooms have been rehabilitated, the students returned to class on Monday, January 22. Other projects are underway or will soon begin. With all school repairs, the Collectivité intervenes or uses several companies.
I understand the impatience of parents and users, but the Collectivité is subject to the rules of public procurement and cannot start the work without following the regulations in force. Public consultations to bid on the work are mandatory, especially for schools as safety of students is at stake. The Collectivité is doing its utmost and moving forward as quickly as possible. We have set aside 30-million euros in investments for the refurbishment of the schools in the provisional 2018 budget.”
TDH: What is the Collectivité’s plan to attract cruise ship tourists to the French side?
“The major tourist areas on the French side were completely devastated by the hurricanes; Marigot, Grand Case, Pinel Island, Orient Bay and Anse Marcel. But we have made good progress in recent weeks on preparation of projects. Whether public or private, projects are developing, bidding will be launched and reconstruction will gradually start. Grand Case is recovering little by little. Three traditional restaurants (Lolos) are currently open and other restaurants will reopen as soon as the insurance companies have paid out.
Beaches like Friars Bay have facilities and can accommodate the public and other places are open. So, there are areas tourists can access on the French side. Tuesdays of Grand Case will be organised this year and Fort Louis is accessible. On Rue Général de Gaulle in Marigot several shops are open thanks to the efforts of our merchants. I appeal to operators on the Dutch side to inform cruise ships that the French side does have places to welcome tourists.
I’m counting on the cooperation and good relations between the two tourism offices to work together so the whole island can benefit. In the current circumstances, competition between the two sides of the island is no longer necessary; we must stick together.”
TDH: What is the short and long-term plan for Orient Beach?
“I’m proud to confirm that Orient Bay will return as the major tourist attraction that it always was. Tourists are eagerly awaiting the redevelopment of Orient Beach and I guarantee that it will be even more beautiful than before. Restaurants that were on the beach belonging to the Collectivité are going to be gradually rebuilt. The projects are there and the reconstruction will soon begin.”
TDH: Are there cooperation projects envisaged for tourism, education, culture, sports development that can benefit from INTERREG funds?
“Of course. Infrastructure projects in partnership with the government of St. Maarten, such as those we have registered in the framework of the cross-border European funds, are achievable through INTERREG funding. I look forward to resuming the cooperation work with the new government of St. Maarten following the forthcoming elections to work on issues that are common to us (security, education, tourism, etc.). My goal is to ensure the United Congress French and Dutch sees the day as quickly as possible for a constructive and sustainable North-South partnership. As you can see, I am tenacious on this latter point and we are working tirelessly with my teams to lift St. Martin to a new dimension.”