PM outlines French assistance to Caribbean islands

Press briefing given by M. Edouard Philippe, Prime Minister – Update on the Hurricane Irma situation (excerpt)

Paris, 11 September 2017

A few hours before the President’s visit, I wanted to organize a meeting with the main ministers concerned to take stock of the situation on the two islands of St Barthélemy and St Martin, to prepare, as of today, for the rebuilding work ahead of us.

I’d like to begin by paying tribute to the unfailing commitment by state officials, firefighters, gendarmerie and sécurité civile military personnel, health workers and armed forces staff for managing an emergency situation on the ground in difficult conditions.

After managing the emergency, the state’s responsibility is to look ahead to rebuilding and prepare for the long term. This is why I wanted some of the experts, who are going over there this evening with the President, to attend the meeting held in Matignon a few minutes ago.

I also asked – and I thank them for agreeing – the three large network operators on St Martin – EDF, Veolia and Orange – to attend and work closely with the state’s services to prepare both for emergency management and the rebuilding.

Finally, we also wanted to mobilize funds without delay. This is why we involved the French Development Agency and the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (1) in our work, as well as the French Insurance Federation, which, on the basis of a disaster recognition order issued on Saturday, can start paying out for the damage suffered by individuals and businesses.

Before talking about the rebuilding, I want to update you on the issue of departures from the island of St Martin. From the start of events, the government took charge of evacuating, as a matter of priority, the most vulnerable people, especially the sick, who couldn’t be cared for on the ground by the hospitals in St Martin and St Barthélemy. We’ll obviously continue to do this.

Going beyond these situations, many inhabitants of the two islands are wanting to reach Guadeloupe or metropolitan France. I completely understand how tired they are, how distressed they are about being destitute and their visible need for respite. I also understand how eager they are to see air and sea links fully restored. Once this has happened, probably gradually this week, they’ll be able to transport around 2,000 to 2,500 people a day.

The Minister for Overseas France and the President of the Collectivity yesterday agreed on the necessary arrangements for these voluntary departures. The collectivity will centralize requests and draw up departure lists, giving priority to the most vulnerable people, including those whose homes are unhabitable, particularly the elderly and families with young children. The state and territorial collectivities will show solidarity by providing transport and accommodation for these people.

Rebuilding the island is obviously still our priority. This is why public officials will remain on the ground, unless of course they find themselves in any of the situations I’ve just described, i.e. a personal or family situation which would justify them leaving.

The reinforcements I asked each minister to prepare will ensure the continuity of the state and give the necessary respite to those who are both affected by the event and getting down to doing what’s necessary.

A word about the health situation on the two islands. St Martin’s and St Barthélemy’s hospitals have suffered a great deal from the hurricane, the hurricanes. However, their operational capacity was swiftly restored; an operating theatre and obstetrics unit are functioning in particular at St Martin’s hospital. They have their own water and food supplies, allowing them to function under operational conditions.

Tomorrow, a marquee clinic will be set up in Marigot’s stadium. With extra private doctors, it will cater for a very large number of residents wanting to see a doctor.

The amphibious landing ship “Tonnerre”, which leaves Toulon tomorrow morning, has greater hospital capacity than St Martin’s hospital had before the hurricane. In other words, with the arrival of “Tonnerre”, hospital capacity will not just be more than sufficient, but also capable of dealing with all possible medical needs.

Already, the delivery of medicines on the ground has resumed and is being guaranteed. We’re now concentrating on preventing tropical diseases. Two senior epidemiologists from the Ministry of Health have been on the ground for over 48 hours, precisely to assess the risks and advise the prefects, the regional health agency and Agnès Buzyn, the Health Minister, of the necessary measures.

As regards emergency medicine, in addition to the five doctors sent out there before the start of the climate event, 20 specialists are now on the ground and taking turns providing the necessary emergency care as swiftly as possible.

On issues linked to education, the new school year was supposed to start last Monday. It obviously can’t. Of the 21 schools open on St Martin, three remain intact and another three are damaged; the other 18 are no longer operational and will have to be rebuilt. The same applies to the island’s collèges [schools catering for pupils aged between 11 and 15 years (approx.)] and one of the cités scolaires [a complex housing several different schools], which was terribly damaged.

Nevertheless our goal is still for schools to be given priority in the work, which started yesterday, of making public buildings safe and covering them with tarpaulin, so that pupils and students can start the new school year as soon as possible. Very-large-capacity inflatable air-conditioned tents are also going to be deployed. The goal is to ensure that lessons can resume under normal conditions when the schools go back after the November break. The Minister of National Education, who will be going over there with the President this evening, will indicate when he gets back how the phase of housing pupils temporarily can take place under smooth conditions.

We must put all our energy into rebuilding without delay, and today’s meeting allowed us firstly to review the situation with the main operators, and secondly to decide on several areas on which work will focus. The experts, who will be leaving this evening, will go into more depth on these; they will be discussed with the island’s elected representatives, whom the President is meeting tomorrow.

At this point I’d like to take stock of what’s happening with the major networks. As regards drinking water, as you know, there’s no source of drinking water on the two islands, so the population had access to drinking water through a process of desalination. The factories producing drinking water were damaged and the networks distributing the water were damaged as well.

To guarantee the water supply, in the very short term, drinking water will be distributed in bottles and guarantee access to water. There are enough on the island and they’re going to go on being delivered so they can be distributed throughout the territory under satisfactory conditions. I might add on this point – and the Interior Minister will correct me if I’m wrong – that although in the first few hours after the climate event, distribution was centralized at one and then two points on the island, today it has been decentralized, and it’s much easier to deliver the necessary bottles, including to the most remote districts.

Secondly, factories – particularly the St Martin factory – will be repaired and added to it will be another mobile desalination factory, transported from Madrid to the island of St Martin. In the meantime, drinking water distribution should be guaranteed by the placement, in agreement with the authorities, of water tanks used in accordance with arrangements which will be detailed in due course. The aim is to ensure that the tanks are positioned at accessible points on the island but that the distributing of the water doesn’t give rise to disorder and particularly violence or acts of brutality. The initial assessment we’re able to give concerning a return to normal water distribution suggests it will take at least three months to rebuild and restore the distribution systems to working order for the whole population in a satisfactory way.

As regards electricity, after a complete loss of power EDF has said that 3,500 customers, out of the island’s previous 24,000, have now had their supply restored. We must face up to very great uncertainty about the state of the electricity networks and the first thing which needs to be done is obviously to assess what state they’re in so that priority access to these networks can be restored. Fifty or so high-capacity generators are on their way, they’ve already been delivered to Guadeloupe and will be gradually transported to the islands of St Martin and St Barthélemy. They were transferred on Saturday by large cargo planes so they can be taken to the necessary appropriate areas on both islands as soon as possible.

As regards telecommunications, the underwater cables weren’t damaged by the hurricane, which is good news. On the other hand, the mobile and landline networks suffered terrible damage. In St Martin, 16 out of 17 sites are out of action and in St Barthélemy, 10 out of 11 sites are out of action. Regarding the landline network, virtually all the [telegraph] poles are down and two out of four distribution frames are out of action. The priority now is obviously to get the mobile network up and running again by setting up temporary sites as quickly as possible, with generators, restoring the existing network and rebuilding a long-term network in due course.

A number of initiatives have been taken to develop local WiFi networks, in cooperation with people who own boxes that work – there aren’t many that work; if I remember the figures rightly, I think there are 400 boxes out of a total 10,000 before the hurricane, and, again, we need to find a solution to give residents access to this essential network as soon as possible and under the best possible conditions. Subsequently the landline network will be restored, and this will take a long time because it was damaged and significant resources will be required to get it working again.

As regards access to fuel, the island of St Martin had nine filling stations; three were destroyed and five were damaged but are operational as of today for distributing fuel, which is limited to 20 litres per person. One filling station will be reserved for the state services to make sure they are operational.

As regards insurance, disaster status was declared on Saturday, as I said; the 10-day deadline which goes with the damage recognition status – after which you must have made your claim for compensation – will be lifted. The insurance companies have assured us of their fullest cooperation and have pledged to make advance payments to disaster victims as soon as they’re able to make contact again with those needing them; this is a gesture we must salute.

All in all, the President will leave metropolitan France to pay an on-the-spot visit. In his plane will be experts who will assess the damage – housing experts, a doctor who will coordinate medical and psychological emergencies, a hospital construction expert and a national education expert. They will add to the telecommunications, electricity, civil aviation, healthcare and security forces teams already present.

They will be coordinated by an interministerial delegate, who will be appointed at the next council of ministers. What was held at Matignon today, ladies and gentlemen, was an interministerial committee meeting – the first – for the rebuilding of the islands of St Barthélemy and St Martin. This interministerial committee is set to be convened early next week to take stock of the situation and ensure that the measures essential for the smooth rebuilding of infrastructure and property, which our fellow citizens on St Barthélemy and St Martin are legitimately attached to, are taken.

As I’ve had the opportunity to say several times, the state will be fully committed to this; it will provide coherent, comprehensive and sustainable support. What our fellow citizens on St Martin and St Barthélemy are living through is a series of unprecedented climate events, unprecedented in their intensity and the power of the destruction they have wrought. In such a situation, it’s urgent to respond to people’s needs. The mobilization of state services has restored law and order and begun reorganizing public services.

All those who act as experts in crisis management or exceptional logistics in order to provoke controversy, which I think is as useless as it is counter-productive, do a disservice to both local people and those trying, through their work, commitment and professionalism to help them and allow them to get back to a calmer life. So I’d once again like to thank those who are commiting themselves in all areas of expertise with all their skills and a desire to serve our fellow citizens; I’d like to thank the large network operators who are here with me today and tell all members of the government and all French people that what’s at stake in St Barthélemy and St Martin isn’t just the re-establishment of normal living conditions on St Martin and St Barthélemy – it’s much more than that. It’s the ability of a nation, France, to be up to the task of dealing with an event which affects every French person. This is why we’re all touched by the many and powerful demonstrations of solidarity by the territorial collectivities, in voluntary associations and by individuals. They’ll serve as a useful complement to the state’s commitment, and St Martin and St Barthélemy need this!

Thank you very much; we’ll have the opportunity to keep the whole French population informed daily about how the situation progresses. Thank you./.

(1) State-owned financial institution which carries out public interest missions on behalf of French central, regional and local authorities.

Published on 18/09/2017

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