Hurricane Irma ravaged Saint Martin in September 2017, affecting more than 95% of the island’s buildings and infrastructures. How do we create the right conditions to ‘rebuild better’? This is the objective of the research conducted by Annabelle Moatty, Doctor of Geography. To achieve this, she analysed the solidarity mechanisms deployed after the disaster and their impact on the vulnerabilities of the island and its populations.

In your study, you analyse the solidarity mechanisms that were implemented in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Can you explain what is at stake?

Annabelle Moatty: The passage of Hurricane Irma revealed many social, economic, structural and organisational vulnerabilities. After such a disaster, the reconstruction process is fraught with dilemmas. On the one hand, international institutions advocate ‘Building Back Better.’ It is about seizing the opportunity to rebuild better, to remedy the root causes of vulnerabilities. On the other hand, we must move quickly to meet the needs of populations and adapt to the context, at the risk of reproducing planning errors or even accentuating vulnerabilities.

My study analyses all the mechanisms of solidarity that are at work in this post-disaster period: both the help of public authorities with these contradictory injunctions, and community or neighbourhood solidarity. The idea is to understand the extent to which these mechanisms improve resilience, that is, the ability to deal with the disaster, then bounce back, and reorganise. Everybody shares the desire to be less vulnerable, not to replicate the processes that led to the disaster. However, in reality, obstacles appear: the weight of the legacies of the past, the various, sometimes opposing interests, the different opinions on effective measures from the point of view of risk prevention and territorial economic activity… I try to analyse the obstacles and levers of action that are at the origin of the opening and closing of the ‘window of opportunity’ of post-disaster reconstruction.

Does the particular context of the island add obstacles to this process of reconstruction?

AM: Saint-Martin is an Overseas Collectivity (COM). This special status gives the local authorities greater autonomy, but it is not without problems. For example, urban planning issues are managed locally, while the French State retains control over the environment. A bipartite protocol ‘for an exemplary and solidarity-based reconstruction’ was signed by the State and the collectivity to set the conditions for the implementation of national solidarity on the Saint-Martin territory. Previously, the island had suffered from a certain disengagement of the State. The most notable consequence has been a lesser consideration of laws, including constructions in at-risk areas, which do not comply with standards.

In this regard, the post-disaster process enshrined a re-engagement on behalf of the French State, and a reshuffling of the island’s governance. In this exceptional situation, the ministries, which often work in isolation on the topics of employment, housing, social issues, and education in particular, succeeded in coordinating their action within a single unit. This interdepartmental committee, a sort of one-stop shop for disaster assistance, was tasked with identifying needs and adapting aid programmes. Four agents of the French Development Agency (AFD) were also sent to the local authorities to provide specific skills that were lacking. Operationally, State intervention in reconstruction contributed to reducing vulnerabilities, but it was experienced as a loss of power by local authorities. This led to obstacles and opposition. For example, the French State wanted to develop the tourism strategy towards a high-end, ecological offer (somewhat on the Costa Rican model), whilst the local authorities aspired to reproducing what is done in Sint Maarten, on the Dutch part of the island: mass tourism, all-inclusive offers, casinos, etc.

What are the populations’ solidarity mechanisms, and their perceptions of post-disaster management?

AM: In 2017 and 2018, we conducted numerous individual and group interviews, as well as workshops to try to identify vulnerabilities and resources for reconstruction, from the perspective of the actors of the territory (elected officials, managers, associations, etc.) and populations. Together with teenagers from Saint-Martin’s colleges and high schools, we carried out a mapping project to illustrate their experience of the reconstruction process from their perspective, its qualities and its shortcomings. The data collected was interpreted in the form of influence diagrammes that represent the territory’s factors of vulnerability, the links between them, as well as the effects of the key factors of post-disaster reconstruction (for example the re-engagement of the State, mentioned above). With the extreme precariousness that followed the disaster, the experienced, felt and sometimes fantasised insecurity was the overwhelming concern. In this register, the State action, in particular with the aid that was distributed and the deployment of just over 500 gendarmes, met the priority needs.

Our research also revealed a worsening social fragmentation on the island. Before the cyclone, Saint-Martin was already a mosaic of cultures and communities, with great social inequalities. To say nothing of the fact that the island is divided into two parts, one French and the other Dutch. The disaster highlighted strong solidarity mechanisms within communities. But although community support can be a resource to deal with disasters, the fragmentation of the territory is a factor of vulnerability that encourages mistrust and rumours, amongst other things.

At the end of your research, which concrete recommendations can you make?

AM: Community cohesion and local solidarity must be taken into account in the process of reconstruction. Anything that threatens to destroy this link will be difficult for the local people to accept. For example, governments can reduce the exposure of property and people by moving dwellings in order to expand areas that are not buildable. We must then think about the reproduction of neighbourhood structures. Given the size of the territory and the presence of Paradise Peak in its centre, mass relocation away from at-risk areas is very complicated in Saint-Martin. Although it is desirable to fight against fragmentation, it is therefore not a question of brutally disrupting the social organisation, but rather of creating collective living spaces. For example, the Galion site at Baie de l’Embouchure, the location of a former hotel, where the community and the Conservatoire du Littoral are implementing a development project with the stated aim of ‘restoring an entirely virgin and preserved space to the population’. The project aims to restore the site and enhance it through nature discovery activities, a boating base, flora and fauna observation points, and a health circuit.

Secondly, in the context of a proliferation of sources of information, it is essential to organise a reassuring, regular and coordinated communication and to use monitoring tools – especially digital tools, such as VISOV teams, digital volunteers for emergency management, for example – to counter rumours. The latter played a very negative role in the period immediately following the passage of the cyclone. There were reports of thousands of bodies hidden in containers, the escape of the President-delegate; some said that the police were firing real bullets in the Dutch part to avoid looting. Rumours complicate crisis management: they degrade the social climate and increase insecurity. Over the long term, they fuel mistrust and hinder the reconstruction process.

Finally, teenagers are a blind spot in post-disaster management. In these situations, they experience a real collapse of their reference points. Both victims and perpetrators of insecurity and looting, they also participate massively in solidarity actions. One approach might be to integrate them into the response, by creating a kind of civic reserve that would build on existing associations.