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France's hurricane-hit St Martin on guard for health threats
By Cecile AZZARO
Pointe-a-Pitre (AFP) Sept 16, 2017

Dreams of a fairer future on hurricane-hit St Martin
Quartier D'Orléans, St Martin (AFP) Sept 17 - The Caribbean island of St Martin was a place of spectacular inequalities before Hurricane Irma flattened rich and poor neighbourhoods alike -- but some residents now dream of a fresh start.

"A land of contrasts" was how French authorities, which run the northern half of the island devastated by last week's Category Five hurricane, described it in a 2016 report.

Crammed into an island not much bigger than Manhattan are not only two countries -- the southern half is Dutch -- but also billionaires living cheek by jowl with impoverished illegal immigrants.

US President Donald Trump is among the super-rich who own property on the island, while six in 10 of his neighbours on the French side receive government handouts.

Humble wooden households were reduced to tinder, but luxury mansions were not spared either. The same phrase is now on the lips of many residents: "Everybody's equal now."

In the Quartier-d'Orleans, one of the poorest corners of the island where shacks with corrugated iron roofs were ripped open like tin cans, mother-of-three Nicaise Jasaron imagined a new and improved St Martin.

The retail worker reeled off a list of complaints about life before the hurricane: overcrowding, soaring property prices, immigration from other islands that she says brought drugs, guns and prostitution.

"In any case, the island will be less crowded," she said.

St Martin's population tripled during a 1980s construction boom -- but up to 1,000 people have been leaving a day since the storm, many having lost their livelihoods on an island almost entirely dependent on tourists drawn to its pristine beaches and duty-free shopping.

With the reconstruction to come, "this is maybe a chance for us to have more work, to buy some land maybe," said Jasaron, who has never been able to afford to buy a home.

- Tale of two islands -

Crossing the border to the Dutch side Sint Maarten, however, Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk suggested the poorest would be at a disadvantage after Irma, yet again.

"The differences have grown even bigger due to the storm, because the best buildings have relatively less damage than areas in the Middle Region of Philipsburg which is a workers' area with low quality homes."

This is, in any case, in part a tale of two islands: visitors to St Martin, home to a total of some 80,000, often comment on the stark difference between the French and Dutch sides.

French St Martin is less developed than Sint Maarten, which has clusters of shopping centres and casinos and sees most of the traffic from American cruise ships.

Compared with per capita income of $66,800 on the Dutch side in 2014, authorities put the equivalent figure on the French side at 14,700 euros ($17,500) in 2010.

As with most of the islands that dot the Caribbean, the cost of living is relatively high because most consumer products are imported.

But just as Irma made no distinction between rich and poor in smashing everything in its path, the hurricane wreaked havoc on the French and Dutch sides alike.

In Terres Basses on the French side's western tip -- home to Trump's villa -- the clean-up has yet to begin.

"We're waiting for the insurance to look at the damage that's been done," says Greg Hilaire, concierge at one luxury property surrounded by high walls and CCTV cameras.

"In this neighbourhood, 95 percent of the villas were hit, even destroyed," said an estate agent at Carimo, which specialises in seven- and eight-figure luxury property sales.

The realtor, who gave his name only as Gerald, said he doubts that the devastation will reduce the inequality, but suggested authorities may finally build better social housing and stamp out the slum landlords operating in poor districts.

The French-Dutch island of St Martin, where white sands and turquoise waters once drew foreign visitors in droves, is now attracting a different kind of population: rats and mosquitoes.

Just over a week after Hurricane Irma devastated the island and neighbouring St Barthelemy, killing 15 people, pools of stagnant water and mounds of trash seem to be the new normal.

Add to that the absence of fresh running water, and the situation is ripe for a health epidemic.

"Yes, there are risks of outbreaks," said Annick Girardin, the French minister for overseas affairs, who spent a week on St Martin following the Category five storm.

"There is an existing problem on the issue of contaminated water, the issue of trash, basically the issue of hygiene."

In poorer neighbourhoods where many families were not able to evacuate, residents fear the spread of mosquitoes -- which can carry diseases ranging from Zika and dengue fever to chikungunya.

"My son has a fever maybe due to a mosquito," said Natacha, a resident in the Sandy Ground neighbourhood near Marigot. "We will have to clean to prevent too many mosquitoes, or else there will be outbreaks. But it's difficult without water."

"If we get sick, we'll have to go to Guadeloupe".

According to an AFP journalist, in some neighbourhoods like Concordia, control programs had begun on Wednesday.

- Boiling water -

The island, which is still struggling to get its electricity and telecommunications systems back up and running, has found it difficult to reach residents and warn them about the potential health risks.

To get the word out, the French government has distributed notices and posters in French, Spanish, English and Creole.

Still, French health minister Agnes Buzyn said, "We realise there are people on the island, in certain neighbourhoods, who are not following health instructions".

One of the most important notices reminds people that only bottled water is safe to consume, and that if it is unavailable, boiling water before use is paramount.

"We hand out fresh water all over the territory, but it remains difficult," Buzyn said. "There are zones not easily accessed, people that maybe we haven't been able to reach."

According to the government, 150,000 bottles of water are being distributed to residents every day.

But some people have still been fetching water directly from a reservoir.

A desalination plant destined for St Martin arrived Friday on Pointe-a-Pitre, on the French island of Guadeloupe, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) away.

It will continue its journey to the hurricane-hit island by barge and is expected to be operational by September 25, the authorities said.

Meanwhile drinking water has returned to St Barts, which is now able to produce about 800 cubic metres (176,000 gallons) a day.

"We are not yet at a level of signalling an outbreak, far from it," Buzyn said. "Today, it's mostly an individual risk, which means it is essential that people who live on St Martin drink the bottled water that is distributed".

Buzyn had said last Wednesday that there had been some cases of children with diarrhoea, but did not mention any signs of an outbreak.

- Racing the clock -

Medical epidemiologists are aware of and on the lookout for any sign of outbreaks, and will regularly track patients using health surveys, said Guadeloupe's public health director Patrice Richard.

On Saturday, St Martin's health services coordinator Sergio Albarello said there had been no cases of outbreak on the island.

"As of now, there have been no reported cases" of outbreak, he told reporters, adding that as far as mosquitoes, "we are not talking about carriers of genes that are epidemiologically relevant".

And while many buildings were flattened by the storm, the St Martin hospital is still able to treat people "in excellent conditions", even though one of its buildings was partially destroyed.

Philippe Gustin, the French envoy in charge of the islands' reconstruction, said the immediate plan was to fix the damaged buildings.

According to Gustin, about 30 percent of the buildings on the French side of the island were completely destroyed, but he cautioned that teams were still putting together a final estimate of damages -- which has been put at one billion euros ($1.2 billion) or more for roads and buildings.

But repairing them before the high season, which usually starts in November and runs until April, seems nearly impossible.

Cleaning up also remains a priority for St Martin, particularly in areas where rats could proliferate.

Home to some 35,000 people, St Martin -- whose livelihood rests almost entirely on tourists -- attracts around two million visitors a year, most of them American cruise ship passengers.

While visiting St Barts this past week, French President Emmanuel Macron promised emergency financial aid for those "who have lost everything".

As for the Dutch side of the island, the Dutch Red Cross said Saturday that it had collected 13.3 millions euros following a weeklong donation drive.

Irma saw no borders on devastated French-Dutch island
Philipsburg, Netherlands (AFP) Sept 14, 2017
People on the Dutch side of Saint Martin, the Caribbean island devastated by Hurricane Irma, may be wealthier than their French counterparts, but they face the same desolation and lawlessness in its wake. "Come on in, buddy. There's lots of stuff here, even sunglasses," an islander beckons, helping herself to cosmetics at one of the beachfront duty free stores in the tropical shopping paradi ... read more

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