PHILIPSBURG–Minister of Health, Labour and Social Affairs VSA Emil Lee on Thursday lauded the progress of the country in the wake of Hurricanes Irma saying: “if we really compare and look around the world, St. Maarten is doing many things correctly.”
Speaking to Members of Parliament (MPs) during a parliamentary session Thursday, Lee said while he understood that MPs have a role to check the work of ministers and while things can always be better, if St. Maarten were to be compared to other hurricane-ravaged destinations, the country is not faring badly as many persons here have electricity, water, some still have jobs and law and order is restored.
During the meeting, MPs questioned Lee about aid distribution following Hurricane Irma. In his opening remarks the Social Affairs Minister placed the responsibility for aid distribution on the shoulders of former Prime Minister William Marlin in his capacity as chairperson of the country’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).
Lee said the time to prepare for a disaster is not during or after, but before, noting that the coordination between the various Emergency Support Function ESFs and the EOC needed to be addressed in discussions much earlier. He said also that relief crossed many ministerial boundaries and one person was needed to coordinate everything to ensure that it flowed efficiently.
He painted a picture of some of the challenges encountered by his ministry following Irma with aid. These included road access, accessibility to fuel, access to vehicles, availability of human resources as many staffers had personal challenges, security, logistics and stable communication.
He said during the first phase of relief immediately following Irma, communication had been a challenge and even coordinating a meeting was difficult. While partners began sending relief material to the country, relaying this information was impossible. While the military had reliable and secure communication devices, that was for their personal use.
VSA was not provided with “trunking radios” despite its request. He said while ministry “accepted responsibility” to distribute aid it had no tools to communicate. As it relates to aid sent to the country, he said items were sent and the ministry would be told that items have arrived with no idea what was sent beforehand.
Phase 2 of the relief distribution began with “targeted distribution” on September19. The ministry worked with amongst others, community partners to enable access deeper into neighbourhoods. He said also that the physical distribution of goods is a labour intensive process and the ministry did not have vehicles, as many were damaged during the hurricane.
Fuel was also an issue. “If you look at any other country, there are always people who feel that they didn’t get their share,” Lee said noting that he is confident that the ministry did its best and that the distribution went as fairly and evenly in communities.
Phase 3 on October 2, included the basic necessities voucher programme for persons who are at risk of not being able to feed themselves or their families. Under this programme government will provide eligible applicants with two NAf. 150 vouchers monthly, to purchase necessities during the two-month programme.
Asked by a National Alliance (NA) MP Rodolphe Samuel whether persons can still go to the Government Building to apply for the voucher programme, Lee said the ministry currently has a backlog of applications and time is needed to process these requests. Based on numbers given out, the Ministry is expected to be busy still with intake for the remainder of the week and by Monday the Ministry will issue a release on the way forward for persons still in need of vouchers.
The number of applicants who had applied for the voucher programme has grown from 1,800 to about 2,000. Government will be getting receipts of what persons purchase with the vouchers to get an idea of what it is spent on.
He said the ministry had synchronised with the Red Cross voucher programme to ensure that the two initiatives are not overlapping and competing with each other. He said also that the information that the ministry collects from applicants has to remain confidential and cannot be shared with third parties.
Lee suggested that for the future, if a storm is looming, a list should be sent to donors on what the country might possibly need after the storm hits. Additionally, he said the VSA should work on building communication with community councils etc., to coordinate the distribution of relief goods, as councils are critical partners in this process.
The ministry is responsible for financial, medical and legal aid and job placement. Persons have been filing for legal aid including the market vendors who want to hire an attorney to fight their case as it relates to the breaking down of their stalls after the hurricane.
As it relates to the criteria for the roof repair, Lee said persons need to be documented residents of St. Maarten, should be the owner of the dwelling, the dwelling has to be repairable and the persons should not have received aid from other organisations. The home should also be restorable to liveable conditions and there is also an income limit for applicants. Preferences will be given to pensioners, unemployed persons, persons receiving financial aid and single parents with one or more children under the age of 18.
In the meantime several MPs questioned Lee on the aid distribution.
Samuel said while Lee credited the quick pace in which the country bounced back, he did not mention this when “the Prime Minister [William Marlin – Ed.] was taking blows… It’s impossible for the Minister to stand here and say how good things went for him and his party leader never said the PM did a good job.” Samuel said there were many persons in St. Maarten who were in dire need and would not stand in a line and tussle with other persons for aid.
He asked the minister what his plan was for residents whose districts are without community councils. He also enquired whose homes were approved for repairs and asked the minister to disclose his plans for the unemployed.
NA MP George Pantophlet said it was important for the criteria for aid to be explained. He enquired how many persons were being housed in shelters and what forms of assistance these persons would qualify for. He also asked what would happen after the NAf. 1.5 million budgeted for aid, has been depleted.
United St. Maarten (US) Party MP Frans Richardson wanted to know where the funds for the voucher and roof repair programme was coming from and how many MPs complained that aid was not getting into their districts. He cited the latter as being one of the reasons why government fell and asked what games were being played. Richardson said he felt that St. Maarten is doing an excellent job, but stressed that the country must ensure that aid goes to those who need it.
United People’s (UP) party MP Tamara Leonard said she was happy that a criterion is in place for the aid because the absence of one would lead to “another situation.” She asked what would happen to residents whose salaries are above the limit to qualify for the home repair programme, if they lost their jobs.
She also wanted to know what systems were in place for persons who lost their jobs and would eventually lose their Social and Health Insurance SZV cards. She asked who determines when and where relief is distributed, whether all the aid falls under one ministry and what the role of the former Prime Minister is as EOC Head.