Published On: Fri, Apr 20th, 2018

Dutch Municipalities Association helps St. Maarten with disaster management

Dutch CommunitiesTHE HAGUE - Committed to assist St. Maarten and its Government in the reconstruction phase following Hurricane Irma, the international unit of the Association of Netherlands Municipalities VNG International has embarked on a 2.5-year project aimed at strengthening the disaster management structure.

The Daily Herald spoke with VNG International Senior Project Manager Renske Steenbergen and Junior Project Manager Eline Vermeer about the support of the Dutch municipalities and their interest in helping strengthen the disaster management structure of an island across the ocean.

VNG International is no stranger in the Dutch Caribbean: up to 2010, the organisation did several projects on all six islands. These included workshops, exchanges and internships. Since the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles, five of the six islands became members of VNG. St. Maarten opted not to become a member. Nonetheless, VNG decided to assist the island, which says something about VNG’s dedication to provide support to those in need.

Right after Hurricane Irma struck St. Maarten in September 2017, VNG started receiving calls from municipalities throughout the Netherlands. “The municipalities asked how they could help. We recommended that they donate to the national collection drive of the Netherlands Red Cross,” said Steenbergen.

In total, some 40 municipalities donated close to 1.56 million euros. It was agreed that half of the donations would be dedicated to the emergency support of the Netherlands Red Cross, and the other half would be directed towards supporting St. Maarten’s reconstruction through VNG International. “Some municipalities wanted to do more, they felt the solidarity with St. Maarten and its people, and they offered their expertise in the reconstruction,” said Steenbergen.

The largest donation came from Amsterdam with 850,000 euros. Many cities and towns donated 10,000 euros and more, up to 62,900 euros from Zeist. Roermond donated 57,000 euros and Maastricht and Over-Betuwe 50,000 euros each. Middelburg, a city in the province Zeeland which was hit by the 1953 flood disaster, felt compelled to help an island struck by a natural disaster and donated more than 48,000 euros.

Vast experience

VNG is not specialised in emergency assistance, but it does have vast experience in strengthening authorities that help the community to recover from crises or support their preparedness for future crises. VNG decided to visit the island in December, once the emergency aid period had ended, and specifically asked the local authorities in what way VNG could assist. The areas identified were: disaster preparedness and building back better.

VNG International subsequently put together a project proposal with St. Maarten’s input. The latter aspect was imperative. “St. Maarten is the one that indicates what it needs. We don’t just make up what we think is important,” said Steenbergen.

The St. Maarten Council of Ministers approved the project proposal in March this year. Soon after, on March 28, a workshop of the sixth Emergency Support Function (ESF-6) took place on the island. The ESF-6 is in charge of the health sector during disasters and crises.

Organised by the Department of Public Health of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Affairs VSA, with the support of the VNG, the workshop was aimed at assessing the tools needed to be developed or upgraded prior to the upcoming hurricane season. Participants stressed that the revision of concrete tools, such as flow charts, task charts and short manuals, was essential to ensure rapid activation of the ESF group once a disaster strikes.

The gathered input will be used to develop the identified priorities by June. Follow-up workshops will take place in May, during which the drafts of the so-called “cold phase,” the period before a hurricane strikes, will be validated during a table top exercise.

General practitioners, St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC), the St. Maarten Pharmacy Association, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), Collective Prevention Services, the Ambulance Department, the Fire Department and the Department of Social Development attended the workshop late March.

Much documentation

There is a lot of documentation regarding disaster management in St. Maarten, but more importantly than paper is how this is applied in practice. While it could be necessary to revise the disaster management structure, it was decided to first focus on the things that needed to be put in place for the next hurricane season.

As such, it was decided, at least for now, to concentrate on organising workshops and assist with the plans for two ESFs that resort under the Ministry of VSA: the ESF-6 (health sector) and ESF-7 (distribution of relief goods, evacuation of people and shelters).

A concrete manual will be prepared so those working in the ESF know what to do and how, and who does what in case of a disaster. The other ESFs will follow after the hurricane season. “The ESF-6 workshop was very well-attended and there was a lot of positive feedback. People are very aware of the need to tackle this,” said Vermeer.

A workshop will also be organised for the Council of Ministers. During a so-called “serious game,” the members of the Council of Ministers will learn more on how to handle the situation when a hurricane hits or another type of disaster occurs, how and what to communicate, what the roles are of the different entities, as well as the consequences of decisions.

The traumatic/psychological aspect of a hurricane is not being forgotten in this project. “There is a broad awareness of this matter within the Government,” said Vermeer. Amsterdam is assisting with this part of the project since the Municipality has worked on the theme of mental health care in St. Maarten before.

Building norms

The second component of the VNG project is building back better, specifically the issue of building permits and the norms of (re)building to a “hurricane-proof” standard. St. Maarten does not have established norms for the concept of hurricane-proof, and the related building code is seriously outdated, written in 1935.

Next month, two experts will be going to St. Maarten for workshops with stakeholders, including architects, construction companies, the private sector such as hotels, and the different non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are active in the reconstruction of homes. On that basis, new norms will be drafted.

A lot is involved in the reconstruction of buildings and homes: the issuing of permits, enforcement of regulations and the inspection of the properties. The intention is to organise a similar workshop in the future regarding the environmental norms.

The overall objective is to make things better for the people. “We hope to contribute to this with this project. We are doing this together with the St. Maarten Government and a pool of experts from the different municipalities,” said Steenbergen.

The experts are specifically selected for this endeavour. One criterion is that they must understand the Caribbean context and/or have a connection with the islands. Also, they must be able to operate in an area with a different culture. Currently, some 15 experts are involved, of which some have worked before in the Dutch Caribbean. The project will last 2.5 years, up to the summer of 2020.

Solidarity

Steenbergen said that she had noticed a lot of solidarity and enthusiasm among the Dutch municipalities. But the St. Maarten Government is very content as well. “When we presented our project proposal to the Ministers in March, they said that they were very thankful for the input of the VNG.”

One of the reasons the VNG assistance works is that the expertise fits within the local, St. Maarten level. “We have more or less the same institutional legislation and we are used to working on a local level,” said Steenbergen. “The colleague-to-colleague systems are quite compatible,” added Vermeer.

The VNG has ample work experience internationally. VNG International has carried out projects to help several countries after disasters, such as Haiti, Atjeh (Indonesia), the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Suriname. VNG International is also assisting with the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

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