(September 6-19, 2017)

By operations manager Netherlands Red Cross in St Maarten, Michel La Haye

This fall the Netherlands Red Cross and her Caribbean branches have been tested on their operational capacities and resilience. Although all six branches (St. Maarten, Saba, Statia, Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba) started preparations for the hurricane season from June onwards, it has been a while (Hurricane Luis in 1995) that one of the islands has been hit by a strong hurricane.

On Sept 3rd, Red Cross Curacao and Aruba received an emergency call from Red Cross St. Maarten for support because of the closing in of hurricane Irma. Four volunteers from Aruba and Curacao were flown in to assist the St. Maarten branch. Together with Royal Marines they arrived just before the landfall of hurricane Irma on Sept 6th.

At that time hurricane Irma had developed to a monster hurricane with wind gusts over 300 km/hour. St. Maarten was hit by the eye of the hurricane. In the six hours that the eye of the hurricane passed St. Maarten, it changed the country in a warzone. Over 90 % of the houses were damaged. All trees lost their leaves, leaving a brown dry island. Electricity and water supply were no longer existing. Ships, cars and even 40 ft containers were thrown in the air like toys and were moved for tens of meters. Roads were inaccessible because of the debris and the airport and harbor were heavily damaged. While the marines started to clear the roads and airport, hurricane Jose approached the island. Fortunately, this hurricane only brought more rain, while passing on Sept 9th.

At that time the Netherlands Red Cross(NLRC) has started its humanitarian relief operation. I was asked to travel as soon as possible to St. Maarten to coordinate the Red Cross relief efforts, in cooperation with the local branch. When I arrived on St. Maarten on Sept 11th it became clear that the relief operation would be challenging. Without electricity, food, water, communications and barely any transport the organization was under pressure. The population needed immediate shelter, drinking water and food.

With the harbor inaccessible, help could only arrive by airplane. Although the Netherlands Navy had two Hercules aircraft, flying these were mainly used for military and police personnel flying to St. Maarten and sick and wounded people evacuating. As the NLRC planned a national fundraiser in the Netherlands, it was able to charter a Red Cross Hercules aircraft to fly in relief items like tarpaulins and food parcels and even 3 pickups. The food was assembled by the branches of Curacao and Aruba with the support of the local population.

The local branches of Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire also provided the manpower of 12 volunteers each to help Red Cross St. Maarten with the issuing of those relief items. While based in a youth detention center, with limited access to water, electricity and food, they were sleeping in cells during the curfew while working from sunrise to sunset to help the people in need.

Over 12.000 tarpaulins, 25.000 jerry cans, 64 m3 of bottled drinking water and 5000 food parcels were about to be distributed when Hurricane Maria forced everyone in the shelters. The whole relief operation changed in to a shelter management operation. Six government shelters where manned for 48 hours. Over 300 people on St. Maarten sought refuge in these shelters.

After the passage of the hurricane, luckily only some wind and rain, the relief operation came to its full force. Over 60 volunteers and paid staff from 10 different countries, but all part of the Red Cross family were working full time and within weeks over 5000 households were reached.

After a few weeks people were getting their lives together, some shops opened, water became more available via the military and relief organisations and electricity was re-installed.

It became clear it was time to stop the emergency response phase and start the transition to the recovery phase. More detailed assessments were done to investigate how Red Cross could best help the population while focusing on the most vulnerable. Especially the elderly, disabled , single mothers and children would likely be in need for some time. The decision was made to focus on 4 areas. Providing all children with breakfast and lunch on the primary schools, a food voucher program for those who could not afford to feed their families, a reconstruction voucher program for those would could not afford to change their relief tarpaulins for proper roofing or needed another repair assistance, and a cash for work program for those who lost their job. These projects will cost millions of euros and were only possible because of the generous gifts of the people of The Netherlands, Curacao and Aruba.

It is likely that Red Cross Sint Maarten will be supported for at least 2 more years. While writing this article mid November, Red Cross Aruba just dispatched team 6 to help with the distribution of the food vouchers. A great job was done by our volunteers over the past two months. Without them, their partners and their employers this type of emergency relief would not be possible. Thank you to all who contributed in whatever form, you made a difference to the people in Sint Maarten. We should all be very proud of your commitment and results!