Life for more than 40,000 inhabitants of the Caribbean island was turned upside down after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc last September: every single person and every business, large or small, was impacted. A post disaster assessment estimated damages and losses, at US$2.7 billion (270% of GDP). Housing, tourism and transport - particularly the airport and the ports - were amongst the most affected sectors in the small autonomous country, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. To help Sint Marten recover from the disaster and build back better, the Netherlands is providing US$580 million through the recently established Sint Maarten Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience Trust Fund managed by the World Bank.
During her visit to Washington, Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin described her experience on that day: “In the eye of the storm, we came outside, and we looked at the damage. I think at that moment my heart sank because I didn’t know how we would be able to start rebuilding the country because it looked like a warzone”.
Q: Eight months have passed since Hurricane Irma struck. Can you describe the situation today?
Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin: Right after the storm, people started cleaning the streets. Those who had the resources, started repairing their houses and rebuilding their roofs. You could see a lot of community involvement where families assisted one another to rebuild. Government started removing the bigger debris and cleaning up public spaces to improve road accessibility.
Now we are in a different phase. With the establishment of a USD 580 million Sint Maarten Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience Trust Fund last month, we have the opportunity to invest in our economy, in our society and improve the wellbeing of our people who have been most affected by Irma.
With support from the Trust Fund we have identified priorities to ensure that we build back better. This involves: first, investing in disaster risk management, rebuilding and strengthening key infrastructure and emergency services. It will also involve cleaning up the temporary landfill site where the hurricane debris was disposed of initially and removing the shipwrecks from the lagoon. Another focus will be to provide hospitality training to prevent massive job loss and allow staff to sharpen their skills to be ready when the moment comes to fully open for business.
Q: What will it take for Sint Maarten to become more climate resilient?
I think we need better processes to ensure that our infrastructure and our houses are rebuilt in a way that can sustain a Category five plus hurricane. For example, our building ordinance is going to change. Many of the wooden structures went down, so we will have to use concrete and replace zinc roofs with concrete roofs. We will also have to rebuild in a manner that is sustainable.
Q: How much was the tourism sector affected and how is it recovering?
The airport was severely damaged, and a lot of our major hotels were severely affected. So, when you don’t have as many people coming in or places to stay are limited, you see a domino effect. But, the tourists are still coming. You have some tourists that want to come to support Sint Maarten and see how the island looks after the storm.
It was great to see in December the first cruise ship come back to the docks. It was a sign of hope for the country. It meant that we were back in business. And they kept coming. We are bouncing back slowly but surely. Sint Maarten is still the gem of the Caribbean. And we have a lot of potential, and people know that. Of course, it is far from being where we need to be. It’s going to take a few more years for the tourism sector to fully recover.