After a Caribbean Hurricane, the Battle Is Where, or Even Whether, to Rebuild
When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? In this series, The Times investigates to see if those promises were kept.
SAINT-MARTIN, French West Indies — In the debris that had once been furniture and a roof were the vestiges of a holiday home: a cluster of flip-flops, a romance novel, a child’s ball floating in a plunge pool’s fetid waters.
On a recent visit, it looked like an artillery barrage had smashed into this small bungalow and a dozen or so other nearby cottages in a similar state of ruin, in what had been a pleasant vacation compound on a bluff above the Atlantic Ocean.
This scene of utter destruction in the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane was not in the Abaco Islands or on Grand Bahama, devastated by Dorian last month. This wasteland was on St. Martin, an island that took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, 2017, and where, two years later, recovery is still far from complete.
The hurricane caused billions of dollars in damage across the 34-square-mile island, which is split between the French territory of Saint-Martin, with a population of about 32,000, and Sint Maarten, a mostly autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with a population of about 41,000.
Immediately after the storm blasted the island, President Emmanuel Macron of France promised a speedy recovery for the French side.
“Saint-Martin will be reborn, I am committed,” Mr. Macron vowed. “We will do it quickly, we will do it well, and we will do it better.”
CreditMeghan Dhaliwal for The New York Times
But Saint-Martin’s slow, if steady, recovery shows just how difficult coming back from a hurricane can be on a small island, with challenges that go well beyond just the size of financial aid packages.
In Saint-Martin, the toughest, most uncomfortable questions are less about who will pay for rebuilding — France has delivered more than a half-billion dollars of aid — but where and how to rebuild, or whether to rebuild at all amid the threat of evermore powerful storms.
This has made the debate less an economic one and more about politics, class, culture and race, often pitting the local majority-black population against the French state.
The top French official on the island says she wants more restrictions on construction in the areas most at risk to future storms, in order to protect lives and the economy.
But many working-class residents fear they could be forced to abandon property that has been in their family for generations. Some suspect a land grab, where their waterfront plots will be taken and sold to wealthy developers.
In a region that has experienced the awesome forces of Category 5 storms with terrifying frequency in recent years, the story playing out on St. Martin is likely to be repeated on many other Caribbean islands — and in the United States, too.
WHAT WE FOUND
Standing Up, but Wobbly, After Staggering Blow
On the French side of the island, Hurricane Irma damaged about 95 percent of the buildings, including the home of Bernadette Carty.
Ms. Carty had lived all her 65 years on the waterfront, and she felt it was safe to ignore the evacuation orders that preceded Irma’s landfall. After all, at least seven generations of her family had survived numerous hurricanes on this same patch of land, and she figured this time would be no different.
But Irma was among the most powerful storms ever to hit the island, and a prime example of how climate change has made hurricanes more destructive.
As Irma rumbled ashore, Ms. Carty, her daughter and two grandchildren dove for cover under a mattress and rode out the storm as it mauled her island.
When Irma had finally moved on, the family emerged from their hideaway to discover that the storm surge and wind had gouged holes in two sides of the house and had swept away Ms. Carty’s sister from her home next door. She was one of 11 people who died on the French side of the island, according to the local authorities. Two died on the Dutch side, according to the prime minister’s office.
Ms. Carty has been living in a temporary apartment ever since, and hopes to get permission to rebuild her house.
“This hurricane is the devil,” she said.
The storm devastated the island’s main airport, blocked its ports and effectively shut down the island’s essential tourism industry for months.
The French government’s promise to deliver substantial help was not an empty one.
It allocated more than $500 million in aid and subsidies in the first six months after the storm to the recovery and reconstruction of Saint-Martin and the smaller, nearby French island of Saint-Barthélemy, according to Sylvie Feucher, the French state’s top representative based in the two territories.
Considering the dire shape Saint-Martin was in right after the storm, with its infrastructure flattened, the fact that much of the territory is back on its feet confirms the aid has made a difference.
Hotels and restaurants have reopened, and tourists are again lounging on its beaches.
But on a visit to the island in late August, a checkerboard of remaining damage was visible all around. Buildings without roofs. Businesses still shuttered. The half-sunken hulls of storm-scuttled ships.
While Irma battered the island for just a matter of hours, Ms. Feucher predicted that it could take up to three more years for the territory to fully recover.
WHAT WE FOUND
Storm Exposes Social, and Racial, Fault Lines
Hurricane Irma made clear that natural disasters not only obliterate structures and lives; they can also expose deep socioeconomic fault lines. In Saint-Martin, a long simmering discontent — loaded with racial and class tension — is on the verge of boiling over.
Ms. Feucher, the deputy prefect for Saint-Martin, is convinced that some areas of the territory are just too dangerously exposed to the power of the most severe storms to be safely inhabitable. And she is trying to convince the population of this, too.
The focus of her mission, backed by Paris, is a push for more severe restrictions on construction and land use in the areas at greatest risk of damage during major storms, like that bluff with the pulverized cottages.
But the campaign has become a flash point in an increasingly contentious relationship between the French government and a local population bristling against French bureaucracy and overseas control.
Several of the flood-prone coastal neighborhoods of greatest concern to Ms. Feucher have large low-income populations, and many residents suspect the French government is waging a veiled campaign to drive poor, black residents off their land through condemnation so it can be sold to developers.
Cédrick André, a community activist in Sandy Ground, one of the high-risk neighborhoods, views the matter as nothing less than an existential struggle for Saint-Martin’s working-class population.
“They want to change everything: the way we live, the way we speak, the way we sex, the way we eat,” said Mr. André, 42. “They want to change who we are.”
“They are not attacking the people who have their pocket full and can defend themselves,” he added. “They are attacking people without their pocket full.”
Sandy Ground — bracketed by a bay on one side and a lagoon on the other — was first settled by squatters decades ago, many of them black immigrants from other Caribbean islands.
The authorities turned a blind eye to the settlement, allowing it to grow, and now thousands of people live along the neighborhood’s narrow streets and unpaved lanes.
“Many of us living by the sea, we know the risk,” said Marie Abner, 48, who has lived in the neighborhood since she immigrated from Haiti as a child. “If anything happen, we leave the home. Then we come back.”
The French government has set up a fund to buy out property owners living in the highest-risk flood zones, but Ms. Feucher insists that nobody will be forced to sell.
Still, residents of Sandy Ground, and other neighborhoods with significant working-class populations, like Grand Case and Quartier d’Orléans, are unassuaged and angry.
Daniel Gibbs, president of the local government in Saint-Martin, has demanded that the French state give the community more time to study the issue.
“I need to hear the needs of my population — at least the majority of my population,” Mr. Gibbs added. “I think there’s plenty of room for compromise.”
On a recent evening, Jah Bash, a Rastafarian farmer, said that the population’s patience with an overbearing French state was wearing thin.
“For me, it’s a conspiracy to take over the island,” said Mr. Bash, whose family has lived in Sandy Ground for five generations. “It’s about wealth.”
Protests against the plan could turn violent, Mr. Bash warned. “The only way to get your attention is to do something to you that you fear,” he said. “The country will burn easily.”
WHAT WE FOUND
An Always Tough Task, Made Much Harder
Hurricane recovery is hard anywhere. And that’s particularly true in Caribbean islands like St. Martin because of a unique combination of factors.
As with many places in the Caribbean, the economy is over-reliant on a single industry — tourism — for jobs and tax revenue. When hotels are wrecked by a storm, business dries up, unemployment soars and government coffers suffer.
Geographic isolation makes everything more expensive. Building materials need to be brought in by ship or plane, increasing costs. The elevated demand for qualified workers in a small labor pool jacks up wages.
Recovery is also hamstrung by the fact that few are left untouched by a severe disaster: The officials responsible for leading the recovery are themselves sometimes fighting to get on their feet.
“They are so small that almost every human being on the island is directly impacted,” said Tahseen Sayed, the World Bank country director for the Caribbean. “The challenge of the government for reconstruction becomes even longer and more difficult.”
Local governments often lack the resources to manage the task of hurricane recovery alone.
Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin of Sint Maarten said her government had insufficient fiscal, legal and environmental staff to help manage those aspects of recovery after Irma.
“The hurricane really exposed those weak areas that we have as a government,” she said.
WHAT WE FOUND
Sibling Rivalry, on a Split Island
The island that Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten occupy was divided between the French and the Dutch in the 17th century. As with two competitive siblings close in age, just about everything that happens on one side demands comparison with the other.
Hurricane recovery has been no different, revealing that distinctions in culture and governance have had a significant bearing on progress during the past two years.
The consensus view on both sides of the island is that the Dutch half has recovered more quickly. A higher percentage of hotel rooms on the Dutch side, for example, are open again for business.
The French state runs a famously laborious bureaucracy that, according to residents, has slowed the rebuilding process.
“We have norms and rules and regulations on the French side,” said Angèle Dormoy, the president of Saint-Martin’s Chamber of Commerce. “Everything is controlled and re-controlled, three or four times.”
In contrast, Sint Maarten has developed a more laissez-faire culture, helping to accelerate the rebuilding process.
While the French state may seem overbearing to some in Saint-Martin, whose residents are French citizens, its people are entitled to all the protections of France’s generous social net. But that state largess may have undermined private initiative during this reconstruction period.
“That’s the strength and weakness of France,” Ms. Feucher said. “We give a lot of attention to the population, and it can prevent people from developing a sense of responsibility in terms of taking care of themselves.”
On the Dutch side, much of the rebuilding has been driven by private funds, particularly those associated with tourism, which dwarfs the French-side tourism sector.
“They pulled up their socks and got on with it,” said Lorraine Talmi, board president of the Sint Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association.
But the differences have also left some on the Dutch side wondering whether in their haste to rebuild, and in their comparatively looser regulatory environment, the rebuilding did not happen with enough thought given to withstanding future storms.
On the French side, some believe their patience will pay off with a more resilient island, better able to withstand the effects of the Atlantic’s warming waters.
In 2017, Mr. Macron said Saint-Martin will be “rebuilt in a durable way that also meets seismic and environmental needs.” The widespread destruction, he said, could be blamed in part on “buildings that were constructed under conditions that wouldn’t have been accepted in other territories of France.”
Ms. Feucher said she was trying to get the population to take the long view in these matters: that getting the rebuilding right, even if it takes time, could save lives in the next big storm.
But Ms. Feucher conceded that persuading people to accept new regulations is no easy task.
“Changing mentalities is always difficult,” she said.
The Takeaway: As storms become more destructive, hurricane recovery is as much about rethinking as it is rebuilding.