MARIGOT–President of the Collectivité Daniel Gibbs reiterated during an extensive interview on Thursday his insistence that a united congress on cooperation between the respective governments of the island to set common policies is more important than ever.
“Both sides have common issues that need to be tackled cooperatively,” he said. “As local governments we can provide the rules and regulations in areas of cooperation that we want to work on and are in favour of so that those Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) signed in the past between Prime Minister and President cannot be voided by the decisions of a new government. In the Congress, decisions are made by an electoral body, from the executive of both sides, and once a decision is sealed by a vote it is more difficult to retract.”
He gave an example of “one partner” backing out at the last minute from the 10-million-euro joint waste treatment plant and Lagoon project in Cole Bay, reportedly due to tension with the French side over the Oyster Pond border issue.
“That put us in a difficult situation,” Gibbs admitted. “We almost lost those funds. But thankfully, that project was saved and is back on the table.”
There is scope for more joint projects, he added, between the airports, for example, while a joint weather radar project that will also benefit nearby islands was approved for funding some months ago.
He agreed that France and the Netherlands are “on the same page” where it comes to balanced development, border controls and immigration.
“The idea is to coordinate policies on immigration to have a level of understanding and operating that is adequate and suited to the realities of the territory. We need to build policies to shield us from negative effects.”
The interview began with a reflection on the catastrophic events of three months ago, before moving on to topics of the island’s clean-up, requesting aid from Europe and the State, and the French side’s reconstruction.
A question perhaps not often asked is how the President and his family weathered the hurricanes.
“We had material damage like everyone else,” he replied. “Irma did not discriminate. My parents lost their house and I lost part of mine. But that’s life. We all went through it together. We must be thankful to have made it through.”
One wonders how a new President, six months in office, reacted to the daunting proposition of managing the crisis after the most powerful Atlantic storm on record devastated the island?
“My first thought was, ‘What have I done to deserve this,’” he joked. “But, at the same time you are thinking, ‘Where do I start, what decisions do I need to make first?’ You are instinctively thinking about saving lives and wondering how many people might have perished. Somehow the strength comes from somewhere and the adrenaline forces you into action.
“When I look back at where we have come from after three months I think we did well considering the damage we had. The hardest part was getting organised right after the storm without any communication. The priority was to get all the roads cleared so aid and help could get to the population.”
On the perceived slow progress of the clean-up on the French side, Gibb said this is due to the landfill in Grand Cayes only being able to accept a certain amount of debris at a time. Debris is sorted and processed before the landfill can accept more. However, he insisted clean-up is progressing daily. A mountain of debris has now been cleared in La Savane and the site in Galisbay at Carnival Village is also a priority.
“Don’t forget we couldn’t take hurricane debris to the landfill because the track had been washed away in the hurricane and it wasn’t until the army engineers constructed a new access road that we could take anything there,” he explained. “There’s no point having more trucks and companies working because they are restricted by what the landfill can accept.”
On the requests for financial aid from the State, Gibbs said the first estimate of damage to public and private infrastructure combined was 3.5 billion euros.
“Following that report, the State asked us to do another evaluation based on what was urgent – i.e., public infrastructure, emergency construction – and that figure came down to 2.2 billion euros,” he explained. “Public infrastructure concerns hospital, schools, sports facilities, sewage, water, electricity, communications, putting utilities underground, and roads, etc.”
With water distributer Général des Eaux pulling out of St. Martin at the end of the year, the Collectivité is seeking a company that can both produce and distribute water.
“Now the 1.95 billion euros mentioned by Overseas Minister Annick Girardin is the funding that she can justify to the EU as an emergency and is requesting it to be activated from European Social Funds FSU. The difference from 2.2 billion is about 600 million. which is the private sector, housing, etcetera, taken out of the equation. The funds will be financed 95 per cent. The five per cent difference will be made up by the State and the Collectivité.
“As part of Europe we have access to larger funding from different sectors. One of these is the funding agency INTERREG which is a source that we can use once we have a common project with a non-European territory such as St. Maarten.”
Gibbs said 130 million euros has already been advanced based on his lobbying for EU funds at the meeting of the Presidents of Ultra-Peripheral Regions in French Guiana recently.
The financial aid for St. Martin is distributed according to each project presented and approved. A steering committee will manage the funds to ensure the money is used appropriately. The French State is the Steering Committee, but the responsibility is given to the Region of Guadeloupe to handle.
Asked “Where do you even start reconstructing an island?” he said: “Whatever project you can start on first you start with that when you have all the teams in place and ready. Everything is a priority, but you do one at a time.
“The signing of the Protocol between State and Collectivité at the fourth Inter-Ministerial meeting outlined the conditions for reconstruction, each one with its own competences, so that we do things in an organised manner. It’s not a taking-over situation of one side over another. I’ve always said we will respect the State’s competencies, and the State is respecting our competencies, but the fact is, we are cooperating with each other.”
On building codes, Gibbs said Hurricane Irma had set the criteria for building codes to a higher level. These codes are in the process of being strengthened.
A new updated government document Plan de Prevention de Risques (PPR) will show the areas that put the population in danger such as along coastal areas, beaches and ponds.
“We suspended issuing building permits in these areas until we studied the real risks. Permits will be issued again but not before we are satisfied that people living in risky areas will be safe. Some people may have to be relocated.
“We know that it was water from the storm surge that was so dangerous and caused the loss of life. My view is that we should focus on prevention rather than stopping building. In Miami 75,000 people were evacuated before Irma, and mandatory evacuation is something to consider.”
The major hotels will not be reopening before the 2018-2019 season at the earliest. Their reconstruction is mostly based on insurance and private investment. Gibbs said there is still an ongoing fight with the State to reduce the amount of social charges they pay.
Businesses have already been receiving financial aid through different schemes. Gibbs said the debit card system valued up to 900 euros from which 4,000 families in very difficult situations can benefit will be used to prevent fraud by those claiming the social benefit Revenu Solidarité Active (RSA). The card must be used on the French side to purchase goods and prevents cash going to the Dutch side or off-island.