MARIGOT--French Minister of Overseas Territories George Pau-Langevin has praised the "very quick" efforts of the territory to get back on its feet following the passing of Hurricane Gonzalo, on her visit to St. Martin and St. Barths on Sunday.
She especially thanked law enforcement, SNSM sea rescue, EDF and all service providers for working flat out to assist the population in getting back to normal daily routines.
"As the tourist season is starting shortly, it was important for us to see areas like Orient Beach that depend on tourism," she said before departing for St. Barths. "Repairs have been done very quickly and I hope we start the season in the best possible conditions. I am satisfied to know there are people here who are conscientious and know what to do in the best interest of the territory."
The Minister arrived from Guadeloupe on an Air Antilles flight at 9:00am in Grand Case to be met by Préfet Philippe Chopin, President of the Collectivité Aline Hanson, Senator Guillaume Arnell and MP Daniel Gibbs.
She was already at the end of a pre-scheduled visit to Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic and made the diversion to inspect the hurricane damage on both St. Martin and St. Barths.
With no flexibility in the tight schedule, she was whisked rapidly to one location after another in a convoy of vehicles, visiting Orient Beach, Grand Case, Friars Bay, the Gendarmerie in La Savane, the Lycée and SNSM, before meeting privately with Aline Hanson and attending a closed working meeting with elected officials and socio-professionals; all undertaken in four hours.
Her first stop was at Orient Beach where she visited "Orange Fever" before passing down the main boulevard of Grand Case, stopping two or three times to inspect damages. Then it was on to Friar's Bay to meet the restaurant proprietors there.
At the Gendarmerie she met some of the courageous Gendarmes, who were involved in thwarting the recent Goldfinger robbery, thanking them for their unwavering sense of duty.
The Minister was welcomed at the Lycée by Assistant Principal Frantz Gumbs and Mona Gob, who conducted a short tour of the establishment to point out the damages.
Gumbs noted the main damage was water getting into computer classrooms, where computers had to be dried out. Some roofs were damaged and one in an internal passage way blew off completely.
"It's not so bad that we have to close indefinitely, but there is a lot of cleaning work to be done," he said. "Obviously we are still closed now for the vacation period, but will re-open on November 3."
Her last visit was with the volunteers of SNSM sea rescue at the cemetery roundabout where she could see first-hand how the SNSM 129 lifeboat ended up on the rocks at Beach Plaza Hotel. Vice-President of SNSM Jean-Claude van Rymenant said he is hoping the lifeboat will be lifted out by crane next week, adding that if the damage is reparable it will still be preferable to keep the vessel. The Dutch-side sea rescue is currently covering the French-side zones
The Government of France has not yet officially declared St. Martin a natural disaster zone to obtain re-building funds, as this is dependent of an evaluation of the hurricane damage by the Collectivité and this is currently in process. The report will then be studied by a commission at the Overseas Ministry in France to determine if aid is applicable.
Senator Arnell said he was optimistic that there will be enough indications to warrant receiving assistance from France.
"On the other hand, we asked to take responsibilities with more autonomy and that means we should be more prepared in our disaster awareness programmes, and with our building codes, so that we can be more self-sufficient," he said. "France hasn't got all the finances internally to be fair to everyone, when it comes to disasters at the national level or overseas level."
President Hanson described the Minister's response as "very reactive." Hanson estimated damages to the Collectivité infrastructure to be initially 3 million euros, and to water and drainage network 1.8 million euros.
"The figures are not finalised yet; we are continually evaluating," she added.
President of the Chamber of Commerce Jean Arnell said the Chamber is evaluating the economic impact of the hurricane in a first phase and in a second phase looking at the gross income of businesses and labour market for the last quarter of 2014 compared to 2013.
"France needs to act with the Collectivité to reduce the cost of labour in St. Martin to make the economy more competitive, as well as implementing statistics to ensure we can plan properly for the future," he said. "As for the Minister's visit, it's always good to let a Minister know of the country's ills. I felt she was genuinely concerned and I think France will help us rebuild as they did in 1995. But beyond the damage, the question is how do we build a better St. Martin? That's critically important. It's not estimating cost of damages, but estimating cost of rebuilding in a sustainable manner."