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Saint-Martin, Irma hurricane, property damage
In the aftermath of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma on 6 September 2017, the island is starting its reconstruction and is conducting reflection on a more sustainable economic model. AFD, with its partners, is seeking to provide new responses which will, for example, reduce vulnerabilities.

With 53 km² and some 35,000 inhabitants, Saint-Martin is a village, a small binational island unique in the world. The French part of the island gained its autonomy as a French overseas territory, independent from the Guadeloupe department, in 2008. It is also a historically marginal territory which, well before Irma, faced major structural problems: a disorganized territory, a lack of effective urban planning documents, deep economic and social divides, precarious neighborhoods left behind and a huge informal sector.  

Some key figures: an unemployment rate of 33% (before the cyclone), GDP per capita two and a half times lower than in mainland France, 120 nationalities, a population which increased by a factor of 4.5 between 1982 and 2015 and is marked by high levels of immigration, 60% of buildings constructed without a building permit. Consequently, the major damage caused by Hurricane Irma has highlighted and exacerbated problems which are largely a legacy of the past.

Addressing the emergency… by thinking long-term

Addressing this major climate crisis involves both responding to urgent basic needs and considering a more structural operation based on a territorial project. It is essential to immediately start to rebuild public buildings (school, administrative and sports buildings, fire station), but the only way to significantly reduce unemployment is to launch structural development actions.

After the hurricane which struck on 6 September 2017, we could not help but notice Biliby, a resident of the precarious neighborhoods of Sandy Ground... His makeshift house on the seafront had been swept away by the waves. He had to resort to sleeping in his car. “When is the reconstruction going to start?”, he asked, wishing to get a clear answer over how long he needed to wait. Providing a response to the urgency of Biliby’s situation requires supporting the reconstruction of the neighborhood, but also and, above all, giving him the opportunity of having access to a sustainable job, which will allow him to support himself and live in a house that is less vulnerable to climate hazards.  

Sights set on resilience 

With a total cost of damage estimated at some EUR 2bn, a considerable figure for such a small territory, Irma has had huge financial consequences. In addition, the tourism industry, the island’s main source of income, is still at a standstill: only 300 rooms are back in use out of a total of some 1,500, mainly for business travel. 

However, the passage of Irma does not simply boil down to the financial aspect. The impact on the most vulnerable populations, who have been hit hard in the precarious neighborhoods of Sandy Ground and Orléans, requires taking a new approach to natural disaster risks and reducing the causes of vulnerability. 

Consequently, the development and resilience of Saint-Martin will mainly come about through more upmarket tourism, with the territory wishing to promote a sustainable and attractive positioning and model. The context of Saint-Martin and the small size of the territory mean that there is no other alternative: no other sector is in a position to effectively reduce unemployment, but also to revive economic activity and thereby reduce social vulnerabilities.

Implementation in several stages 

AFD, via its agency in Guadeloupe, rapidly got involved in the response to this crisis. First of all, AFD experts in water and sanitation, cities and health intervened. At the same time, support/advice was launched with the consulting firm EY to conduct a financial, human resources and organizational diagnostic and, in particular, a forward-looking financial analysis, combined with an action plan and cost-saving plan. The objective is to develop a sustainable, durable and rational economic model. 

All these studies have noted the major difficulties experienced by the overseas territory, beyond simply the financing needs, in implementing the reconstruction. The second stage of the operation will therefore be to set up a capacity building program, a first in a French overseas territory. Finally, in a third stage, in addition to the grants expected from the State, AFD could finance structural infrastructure and urban development projects, which will restore the territory’s attractiveness. 

Moving from an assisted economic model to a sustainable development model in such a small territory and in a very constrained geographical environment requires working at the same time on the territory’s development policy, with income-generating and job-creating projects, and on getting the territory’s finances and the organization of its services back on their feet… not forgetting, in the short term, the assistance to the poorest, and therefore highly vulnerable, populations. 

It is a huge project for the coming years requiring a strong political will on the part of locally elected officials and State support. This crisis also shakes up AFD’s operating methods and brings about the need to have agile, pragmatic and highly innovative tools in the context of the French overseas territories.

Odile Lapierre, Director of AFD’s agency in Guadeloupe