Minister Lee Reports on Ministry Activities Post Irma.

Minister of Health, Social Affairs and Labour Emil Lee


PHILIPSBURG, Sint Maarten — As the reality of the impacts of Irma, Jose and Maria become clearer and the realization of the daunting tasks ahead settle in, it is important for the public to be reminded of the resilience of our people and our beloved country.  Undoubtedly, there will be many challenging days ahead, all the more reason to make sure we acknowledge the successes and accomplishments as we move to rebuild our country.

The first responders which included the Police Department, the Ambulance Department, the Fire Department, the Department of Community Development, Family & Humanitarian Affairs (CDFHA), the Department of Social Services, IVSA and the Department of Collective Prevention Services (CPS) immediately upon the passing of hurricane Irma went out into the community to ensure that the road to recovery could commence as soon as possible. For the past weeks, each district was filled with community spirited – neighbors helping each other get through the debris and the overwhelming destruction. Many persons in our community truly put country above self, and worked non-stop for the people of St. Maarten, even though their house had no roof and all their personal belonging were drenched in rain.

Clearly, the road ahead is full of challenges and St Maarten won’t be able to rebuild alone.  With initial damage estimates over a billion dollars, St Maarten will need external assistance to ensure a full recovery.  While this list if far from comprehensive, we would like to thank everyone that has helped St Maarten, special recognition for the people and governments of the Netherlands, USA, Aruba, Curacao other Caribbean families, as well as the many organizations such as the Red Cross, Samaritan Purse, Royal Caribbean, ADRA, UN, USAR, Global Medic, MSC, FCCA, PAWA, Spirit Airlines and many other entities.   Now is the time for everyone to come together.

Despite the challenges and the widespread destruction, within less than 1 week of the passing of Irma family physicians were already open for anyone in need; pharmacies were opening  for a period during the day. The goal was to make sure that each district had one family physician and one pharmacy operational. Despite damages, the SMMC and its dedicated staff never stopped servicing the population.  By week 2 grocery stores began to open allowing persons to regain access to food, water, and sanitation/hygiene items, electricity and water was being restored, just to name a few of the positives.  It is the little things that made the road to recovery that much better. St. Maarten has done a tremendous job in getting back on its feet. If we were to compare the country’s resilience in 1995 to now, we are doing an amazing job. Clearly previous investments in St Maarten’s infrastructure are paying dividends today.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all staff members at the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development & Labor (VSA) as well as all those who have volunteered their services to the country during these trying times. Some of the staff at the Ministry of VSA and volunteers were extremely affected by the passing of hurricane Irma, yet still they came to work to serve the people, and for that we thank you for your dedication, strength and endurance.  Many civil servants and volunteers showed up from all parts of the community despite personal hardship and various states of shock with only one question….How can I help?  A special recognition to Joy Arnell and Fenna Arnell is appropriate, as heads of ESF 7 and ESF 6; they had a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure.  Operating in the harshest of circumstances, without proper communications, they never wavered … they never put their personal circumstances or needs above their responsibilities.  They did an amazing job, I couldn’t be prouder of team VSA!

The Ministry of VSA plays a critical role in ensuring access to emergency medical services, continuity of health care services, and shelter management. Immediately after the passing of Irma, VSA accepted the responsibility to coordinate all relief aid coming to St Maarten in care of the Government.

In terms of public health, post-Irma priority was to ensure continuous access to medical services and supplies.  Public health worked with all of the health care providers to ensure they were operational as soon as possible.  All critically ill patients and the dialysis patients were evacuated. Ensured shortages of medical supplies were addressed through the support of donor agencies. To date, there have been no alarming increases in public health outbreak and the community is trying their best to clean their surrounding areas from the large amounts of debris which are perfect breeding sites for pests. Additional fogging equipment and insecticides have been requested through the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO).

The Inspectorate of VSA has been heavily involved in safeguarding the quality of health care services being provided, the quality of the water coming out of the distribution network of GEBE, and the food safety of supermarkets, and restaurants which have opened for business post-Irma. All supermarkets and restaurants which have resumed services to the public have been inspected by the Inspectorate of VSA, and continue to be inspected regularly. All selling points with frozen food and/or meat where there has been no continuity in cooling and/or freezing capacity in the past days/weeks have been ordered to destroy these consumables under the supervision of the Inspectorate.  Most recently, the inspectorate has been checking various day care institutions and certifying if they are okay to open.

Collective Preventive services have been focused on preventing illnesses in the community.  Through public service announcements or PSA’s the Ministry has been working diligently to inform the public on how best to prevent illness.  The Baby Clinics were opened.  The health bus was mobilized 3 days per week visiting different districts in the community securing that vaccination coverage is maintained, services for baby wellness, providing basic medical services as well as providing post traumatic coping information.  Additionally, CPS has been coordinating fogging activities in the different neighborhood to try and reduce the increasing mosquito population.

From a social perspective, the Ministry of VSA has been busy prepping each shelter, ensuring it was clean, safe and that there were sufficient supplies available. The Ministry was also responsible for coordinating the evacuation of the population.   This effort to support and assist those in our community that have been the most impacted continues.  As Minister, much attention and efforts have been spent on looking for resources both financial and material to support our community.

Labor Affairs and Social Services are preparing for the labor and social impacts of Hurricane Irma.  Clearly with so many residences and businesses damaged the impact on employment and socially is anticipated to be extreme.

The distribution team in collaboration with the Dutch military began immediately as relief goods were available. The strategy consisted of a convoy of military, VKS and volunteers who identified areas for distribution of water and any available food supplies in predetermined areas in the various districts. As more vehicles and human resources became available the approach was later enhanced with smaller units (buses and cars managed by volunteers, civil servants, community leaders and organizations) going into the neighborhood and distributing door to door.  Mass distribution of relief goods is by nature not targeted; the team did their best to address the needs of all persons who reached out.

As we move away from distribution points to targeted distribution, other social programs are being worked on to ensure the most vulnerable in our community can fulfill their basic needs. Namely, through soup kitchens in all districts and a voucher system with the objective to execute the distribution of daily necessities to those in need.  The cooperation and contribution of the retailers on our island is of vital importance to the success of this program, and their commitment received thus far is greatly appreciated.

Additional assessments are being put in place for the emergency shelter / housing system in collaboration with the Military, VROMI and VSA. A proposal is therefore being evaluated for short- term housing at the Festival village, mid to long-term housing in possible containers, possible repairs to homes with minor or moderate damage and for long-term the building of social housing. As soon as the programs have been developed and approved the public will be notified on where, how, and when assistance through these programs will commence.

Moving forward, the Minister and Ministry is heavily focused on working on the development of a comprehensive plan on activities of the Ministry to deal with the ongoing impacts social impacts from Irma.  Expectations are that many in our community will need financial assistance.  Securing financial support is top priority for the Ministry of VSA.  Additionally, the Ministry is finalizing a report on activities Pre-Irma including a report for Parliament on activities as well as recommendations on how to improve disaster preparedness.

Without a doubt, St Maarten will rebuild.   As we look forward, we have an opportunity to reengineer our community… an opportunity not only to build back stronger buildings but to build a stronger society…an opportunity to build a stronger economy.   I have no doubt that St. Maarten will recover and with all hands on deck…in the words of the St Maarten recovery work group,  St Maarten will build back better.