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Aftermath of a catastrophe A fierce storm and an awkward question: is it worth rebuilding?

The case of the island of Saint Martin, devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, reveals the racial tensions that are exposed in the process.

SAINT MARTIN, French West Indies – Among the rubble were the vestiges of a beach house: sandals, a romantic novel and the inflatable ball of a child in the foul waters of a pool.

On a recent visit, it seemed as if an artillery shower had hit this small bungalow and other beach houses on a cliff above the Atlantic Ocean. This destruction of a Category 5 hurricane was not in the Abaco Islands, devastated by “Dorian” last month. This happened in Saint Martin, an island that suffered the direct scourge of Hurricane “Irma” on September 6, 2017 and where recovery is far from complete .

It caused billions of dollars in damages throughout the island of 89 square kilometers, which is divided between the French territory of Saint-Martin, with a population of about 32 thousand inhabitants, and Sint Maarten , a mostly autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with about 41 thousand inhabitants.

After the storm, French President Emmanuel Macron promised a quick recovery for the French side, swearing that “Saint-Martin will be born again, I am committed to it.”

Bernadette Carty had been living in front of the sea for 65 years and ignored the evacuation orders that preceded the arrival of “Irma”. At least seven generations of his family had survived numerous hurricanes in this land. But “Irma” was among the most intense storms that ever hit the island , an example of how climate change has made hurricanes more destructive.

While “Irma” touched down, Carty, her daughter and two grandchildren took shelter under a mattress.

When they left, they discovered that the storm surge and high winds had drilled holes in the house and dragged Carty’s sister from the adjoining house. She was among the 11 people who died on the French side of the island. Two died on the Dutch side . Carty has been living in an apartment since then, and hopes to rebuild.

The storm swept through the main airport of the island, blocked its ports and paralyzed its tourism industry for months. The French government allocated more than $ 500 million in aid in the first six months after the storm for the recovery of Saint Martin and the nearby French island of St. Bartholomew, according to Sylvie Feucher, the highest-ranking French representative in the two territories .

Hotels and restaurants have reopened and tourists have returned. But Feucher predicted that it could take another three years for the territory to recover.

She is convinced that some areas are simply too exposed to storms to be safely inhabited. It is promoting more restrictions on land use. The campaign has become a high point in an increasingly contentious relationship between France and the local population that resists foreign control.

Residents of several of the most affected neighborhoods suspect that France is waging a veiled campaign to expel poor black residents from their lands so they can be sold to developers.

France has established a fund to buy the properties in the areas of greatest risk, but Feucher insists that no one will be forced to sell .

The residents of Saint Martin are French citizens, entitled to the protections of the French social security network. But that generosity could have undermined private initiative. On the Dutch side, much of the reconstruction has been driven by private funds. But some wonder if in the rush to rebuild, they thought enough about future storms.

On the French side, Feucher said he was trying to make residents see in the long term: rebuilding well, even if it takes time, could save lives in the next storm.

“Changing mentalities is always difficult, ” he said.

© 2019 The New York Times

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