French President Emmanuel Macron visited St. Martin this week and pledged to rebuild the French territory as a “model island” that would be a “showcase of French excellence.”
“I don’t want to rebuild St. Martin as it was,” he said. “We have seen there are many homes that were built too precariously, with fragile infrastructure. The geography of the homes was not adapted to the risks.”
The Category 5 hurricane killed 11 people in the French territory. Another four people died in St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island.
President Macron, who stayed on the island overnight in a camp cot, said it is his government’s “top priority” to help island residents return to normal life.
“What we have seen today are people determined to rebuild and return to a normal life. They are impatient for answers and some are very, very angry,” he said. “The anger is legitimate because it is a result of the fear they have faced and of being very fatigued. It is certain that some want to leave, and we will help them in that effort.”
For the residents who choose to stay, France is planning to bring in air-conditioned tents and quickly restore services.
Initial estimates by French public reinsurer Caisse Centrale de Reassurance put the property and infrastructure damage on St. Martin and neighboring island St. Bart’s at US$1.44 billion.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the storm exposed racial tensions on the French side of St. Martin, with “some black and mixed-race residents complaining that white tourists were given priority during the evacuation.”
The report noted that it is common for tourists to be evacuated first from disaster areas for purely practical reasons, given that they are staying in hotels and not their own homes and typically have fewer resources such as food and vehicles.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe responded to the criticism saying the most vulnerable were the only people who were being prioritized.
A government spokesman added that the frustration locals experienced with the government response is understandable but ascribed the controversy to the “emotional shock, an impact that’s extremely hard psychologically.”
Nearly one-third of buildings destroyed
Dutch Red Cross said Tuesday that nearly one-third of the buildings in St. Maarten have been destroyed and more than 90 percent of the buildings were damaged by Hurricane Irma.
The estimate is based on photographs provided by the Defense Ministry in the Netherlands, as well as by a survey of 5,500 structures before the storm.
The destruction leaves many of the 40,000 residents reliant on public shelters.
Cruise lines that regularly dock in St. Maarten have announced they will not be able to visit the island, in addition to other eastern Caribbean destinations, including St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for some time. They have not given an estimate for when they expect to return.
“Given Hurricane Irma’s impact to St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Key West, we will be working on alternative ports for future sailings until these islands have fully recovered,” Royal Caribbean said Monday in a travel alert for customers.
Both St. Thomas and St. Maarten draw more than 1.6 million cruise ship tourists per year.
Instinet analyst Harry Curtis estimated in a research note that it could take “several quarters or more” to repair infrastructure on St. Maarten and St. Thomas.