~ State of emergency extended to Oct. 6 ~
POND ISLAND–Government has put a preliminary price tag of US $1 billion on the material damage caused to the country’s infrastructure by monster Hurricane Irma on September 6.
This price tag was placed immediately after Irma’s passing. It will be up for evaluation when a team of experts from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a United Nations agency, comes into the country, Prime Minister William Marlin told Parliament on Monday.
Marlin also informed Members of Parliament (MPs) that the state of emergency signed into effect on September 8 initially for two weeks has been extended until October 6. The new decree is dated September 21.
The material damage to the country’s critical infrastructure, residential and commercial properties is “severe.”
More than 95 per cent of homes were damaged by Irma. Of those, 40 per cent are uninhabitable. A container village to house those in the most urgent need is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the navy ship Karel Doorman.
Compounding the housing challenge are the many homeowners without insurance who cannot afford to rebuild and need to be assisted quickly. “We can’t leave them stranded,” Marlin said.
Government is looking into funds into which these homeowners can tap via local banks.
The estimate does not take into account the economic impact. Marlin said the economy can be expected to “shrink.”
The country lost some 20 per cent of its stay-over visitors after Hurricane Luis in 1995. An “even larger impact from Irma” is anticipated with some 80 per cent of the hotel inventory “out of service.”
“We will lose a great deal of the [high tourist season – Ed.]. … I am not saying properties won’t open or people won’t come, but we are impacted by our ability to accommodate people coming to the island,” Marlin said.
The unemployment rate “has started creeping up” with properties closing.
“We have been knocked down, but not knocked out,” he said, recounting all of the strides made in the recovery efforts since September 6.
An evacuation plan was in place for visitors to leave the country as a result of damage to hotels and the general infrastructure, said Marlin.
The outcry on social media about the confusion in food distribution and aid not reaching all corners of the country only worked to cast Government in a bad light. A lot of the aid sent to the country was not for Government. International and other organisations brought in supplies and conducted their own distribution. Government, he said, could not commandeer the supplies.
The Dutch Government has extended help to the country. The most visible manifestation is in the 565 military personnel on island. The entire operation since Irma has amounted to some 1,100 military personnel encompassing boots on the ground here, in Curaçao and aboard visiting ships.
The assistance from the Dutch Government was heavily questioned by MPs. They want Marlin to inform them about the agreements made and the cost in the long run to the taxpayers.
UP leader MP Theo Heyliger said in the session: “We are here to extend a hand to Government” to help in the recovery of the country. His caveat was that the hand “depends on what they bring forward in the best interest of St. Maarten.”
Heyliger said he knows when to criticise and when to seek hope for the country. Now, he noted, is “the time we need to come together and take care of the people’s needs.”
MP Perry Geerling of the Democratic Party (DP), a coalition member, issued a “plea” to the executive branch to make recovery of the country “a national effort.” It is “time to show statesmanship,” he told Marlin.
MP Sidharth “Cookie” Bijlani called on Government to be “inclusive” by involving the opposition in the rebuilding of the country.
In spite of party affiliation, “we are all in the Irma boat, said MP Franklin Meyers (UP). That togetherness should go to rebuilding the country together.
MP Hyacinth Richardson (National Alliance (NA)) said this was not a time to be critical of Government, it was a time to give hope to the people.
MPs’ two cents
MP George Pantophlet (NA) said it was a human reaction to blame, “but we were struck by a major hurricane. … It is time for us to work and work hard.” He urged residents not to wait on anyone and to do as much as they can for themselves and community. “St. Maarten will rebound, we are a strong people. We can only do so if we work together,” he said.
MP Claret Connor (United People’s (UP) party) said he had no interest in what was on social media. His interest is in the responsibility of Government for the response to the disaster and the execution “by the person who is at the head” – the prime minister.
MP Tamara Leonard (UP) questioned the state of emergency and the temporary closure of the border that caused disruption to family life. She also queried who will be in charge of the money raised in the Netherlands for the country as well as the funds from the Dutch Government.
Bijlani asked why the Government had taken three days after Irma to declare a state of emergency. An earlier declaration would have saved the damage caused to the backbone of the economy and resulted in businesses opening their doors already, he said.
Bijlani’s comment about the damage done to the “multi-billion dollar street” by looters drew strong comment from MP Frans Richardson (United St. Maarten (US) Party). He said if the streets were as Bijlani described, St. Maarten would not need aid from outside.
MP Ardwell Irion (NA) issued an apology to the people for his “lack of preparedness” as an MP. He said all MPs have to share in the lack of accountability to the country as MPs, “because no MP questioned or asked any Ministers to come in [to parliament – Ed.] before the storm” to ascertain the country’s level of preparedness.
MP Rodolphe Samuel (NA) cautioned the country about Dutch aid. That help would come with strings attached; with aid come Dutch civil servants, he said. “Nothing is for free.”
Immigration controls to clean up the looters from the country were called for by MP Silvio Matser (US party). “Looters hurt the nation” and made St. Maarten look like “some third-world country.”
He also questioned what Government intended to do with people with work permits, but no jobs.
MP Sarah Wescot-Williams (DP) was also concerned about jobs for the local population and what Government had planned to secure jobs.
She believes an effort should be made “to coerce” people who cannot contribute to the country to leave.
Amidst the report to Parliament, Marlin lashed out at social media posts, even saying that some MPs were responsible for casting Government in a bad light.
One standout point for him was talk about his not meeting King Willem-Alexander, an impression created, according to him, by a photo used by the international media showing the King, Governor Eugene Holiday and Dutch Minister Ronald Plasterk at the Cole Bay water tanks. By way of explanation, Marlin said he had on shoes with “leather soles.”
He called criticism of him and Government by residents via social media “destructive” and said it can “slow down the recovery” of the country to some extent. The slowdown will come when the comments aim to “bring down the image of the leader” and make Government “look like gangsters.”
This was the legislature’s first sitting since the new parliamentary year opened on September 12. The sitting was held in the New Government Administration Building on Pond Island due to hurricane damage to Parliament House in Philipsburg.
Following a two-hour-plus presentation by Marlin, the session with MPs was suspended for Marlin to have a lunch meeting with visiting United States representatives. He completed his presentation after the session resumed and then MPs posed questions to which he will deliver answers on Thursday starting at 10:00am.
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/69658-irma-s-preliminary-price-tag-us-1b