The roofs on Sint Maarten are still far from being restored, three years after hurricane Irma. Three years after Irma After Hurricane Irma in 2017, more than 12,000 homes had to be restored. Only 342 were restored with Dutch reconstruction money. Most aid money has never been spent.
For optimism you have to go to church in St. Maarten. There, amid colorful statues of saints and roaring fans, the priest of St. Martin’s Church in Philipsburg, a bespectacled Pole, consoles his audience with the thought that the suffering of the present pales in comparison to the glory of the future.
It is a search for points of light on Sint Maarten, three years after hurricane Irma caused chaos on the island. Of the thousands of homes, schools and other buildings that were destroyed or destroyed on September 6, 2017, many have still not been addressed by the government or aid organizations. In the absence of action, some of the islanders took action themselves. People like Nigel Curtis (50).
When Curtis thinks back to Irma, he immediately thinks of the howling sound of the gusts of wind, 300 kilometers per hour, that swept across the island . “It was as if there was a ghost running through the house. As if something was on your heels. ” He spent hours in the bathroom with his wife and two children, just as the government had recommended on the radio beforehand. A small space, without windows, is where you are most sheltered.
It was one of the few times that Curtis learned of his own government in those days. No official came by to assess the damage, no manpower to repair the corrugated iron on his roof. The restoration of his home, a detached house in the mountains of Middle Region, has still not been completed three years later. He had to arrange all repairs himself. And he is not alone. “Everyone I know has done the refurbishment themselves. Maybe the government was too busy helping others, I don’t know. ”
His mother-in-law knows better. “Do you see that road there?” Asks Florence Claxton (66). She points to the line of tarmac that winds up a dozen yards away and is in much better shape than the steep cart track on which her own house and that of her son-in-law stand. “That road there belongs to the government. They don’t get any further. We had this exit built ourselves and paid for it out of our own pocket. And I’ve never seen anyone from the government come up. ”
She doesn’t sound surprised, rather laconic, as if she’s telling a good joke. “We heard after Irma that there would be a lot of money for repairs. But the money has gone to other people, not to us. ”
In fact, much more often the money never arrived on Sint Maarten. Immediately after the hurricane, the Netherlands made 470 million euros available as a gift for reconstruction, in addition to the first humanitarian aid. Only 5.8 percent of that money had actually been spent by the end of 2019 , the Court of Audit of Sint Maarten concluded in May this year. That same month , the Netherlands Court of Auditors called for a “substantially different and accelerated approach to the repair of houses and schools”. Otherwise, the Court warned, the fund will be closed in 2025 before most of the money is spent.
No lack of repair work. According to calculations by the Sint Maarten government, Irma damaged more than 12,000 houses. Refurbishing houses with the Dutch reconstruction millions had to become a priority. The result: in the first two years after Irma, a meager 342 homes were renovated with that money. Thousands of roofs are still waiting for a facelift.
A car in the lodge
The beaches have been smoothed again, the biggest hotels have been patched up again in the last three years – before the corona crisis forced them to close again. Close your eyes, and Sint Maarten seems to have risen from the ashes.
If only it were, islanders sigh. Because there are also places where time has stood still since that sixth September. The departure and arrival halls at Princess Juliana International Airport are a mess and closed to travelers. The photographer has counted 83 shipwrecks in the tropical bays and inlets. Weeds thrive on the verandas of abandoned holiday homes, hideaways that once radiated idyllic luxury but now look downright apocalyptic. Glass shards on the floor, blown away windows, a lost car in the lodge with sea view.
It was “as if a bomb had gone off.” Chris Johnson, the Dutch representative on Sint Maarten, can recall the images after Irma. “In seven hours, this entire island had turned from a tropical paradise into a mix of The Purge and Mad Max .”
The biggest lack in the reconstruction is administrative experience and capacity, says Johnson, a smooth talker with a beard, in the office of the Dutch representation. “There are countries where there is not even a government, and yet everything works smoothly there. How is that possible? Because those countries have continuity and expertise. Governments do not take turns so quickly, politics is stable. That’s what is lacking on Sint Maarten. ”
It is exactly the same diagnosis that Gwendolien Mossel, ombudsman of Sint Maarten, made last year in a report on the reconstruction. Sint Maarten simply lacks the staff to manage the recovery independently. The result, Mossel noted, is a ‘social crisis’, the end of which is not yet in sight.
You no longer surprise Sint Maarten residents with reports and cries for help. When their island became an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands ten years ago, the promises were great. Their newborn country would finally be able to decide sovereignly and it would be economically self-supporting. Power to the population, away colonial hangover, never a raised hand again.
The standings? Which is disappointing. Power to the population? In ten years, five elections have been held and nine governments have worn out. Self-sufficient? While Irma and Corona have been slapping the island economy, spending has soared, not least because salaries of administrators and representatives are high and civil service has only grown after independence in 2010. Sint Maarten is nowhere without aid from the Netherlands and the World Bank. And they do not give generously without demanding influence, the island administrators notice. Who pays decides.
New support from The Hague
After the political key to the Kingdom and the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on October 10, 2010, Sint Maarten would really become independent and independent, was the thought. The young state – with an estimated barely 60,000 inhabitants – functioned with difficulty from the start. When the island called for help from outside after Irma, confidence in the island government from the Netherlands was low. Most of the reconstruction money was therefore placed with the World Bank. He had to supervise the implementation, without giving the impression of too much interference from The Hague.
It became soft. The bureaucratic apparatus of the World Bank, operating from Washington, turned out to make the entire reconstruction even slower and cumbersome. Behind the scenes, on Sint Maarten and in The Hague, grumbles can be heard about the service, which largely operates from Washington and hires consultants and consultancies at high costs.
State Secretary Raymond Knops (Kingdom Relations, CDA) said in a letter to Parliament at the end of August that he “still supports the choice of the World Bank”. “At the same time,” he continued, “I deeply regret that project implementation and implementation is slower than expected.”
And so the Netherlands is taking a different approach now that Sint Maarten is again in need of help. Since the corona pandemic ruined the cruise season and put tourism ahead of pampus, the island economy has been on the brink of collapse. The International Monetary Fund expects an economic contraction of 25 percent, a multiple of the Dutch contraction.
On Friday, Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curaçao will negotiate with the cabinet about a new economic support package from The Hague. State Secretary Knops only wants to channel the money to the islands this time through an institute yet to be set up, a ‘Caribbean reform entity’, under Dutch management. The islands may only be responsible for the implementation. Then without the appearance of autonomy and sovereignty.
Sint Maarten has been reluctant in recent months. With the institute, it is feared, a bit of self-government will be cut off again. But the money is badly needed as the first two rounds of interest-free loans come to an end and the treasury is draining. A breakthrough is not yet in sight. The reconstruction money will also not flow any faster for the time being, suspect those involved.
And so the Curtissen and Claxtons are doing what they have always done: they see the government as an afterthought and run their own business. Just as they once built their own house and built the road to it, now they repair the damage themselves. “Window by window,” says Florence Claxton proudly. Fortunately, the roof over her head is made of concrete and kept it during the hurricane, so that her husband Franklin, who is largely paralyzed, can sit dry in the living room even during the worst of the storm.
Claxton is not angry. Look, from the wooden house across the street, only the foundation is still standing, so they got away well. What’s the use of anger? “Only God understands everything. I can resist it, but I cannot change it. I’d rather be grateful, I don’t cry. Not until I’m underground. ”