Opinion: Koos Sneek on post Irma-Maria evolution for Statia and Saba

Long Term solutions needed for Airlift, Supply of food and other materials, Telecommunications, Banking, Notary services, Tax Break

The first reaction one has, after the hurricanes we encountered, is what went wrong and how we must do things better. In this respect, there are many lessons that can be learned and honestly, I hope that we will do that to be better prepared a next time. Statia can consider itself very lucky since with hurricane Irma and Maria we did not experience the full brunt of it as islands like St. Maarten, with Irma, and Dominica and Puerto Rico, with Maria did.

Especially the situation St. Maarten finds itself in deserves our serious attention and urgent action is required. Due to our, almost complete, dependency on St. Maarten for our communication, transportation, banking and supply of food and other materials we find ourselves now isolated from the rest of the world. Even though life on Statia has turned to normal rather quickly, our isolated position forms a serious threat to our daily life and our economy. Swift action is therefore required to cope with this serious situation. Although we on the island are aware of this dependency on St. Maarten for a long time already, while everything still went pretty okay we have gotten complacent and have not realized the seriousness of our circumstances in the event this supply line and our gateway to the rest of the world will no longer, or at least for a long time, be there.

It has become clear that the terrible situation on St. Maarten, Dutch and French side, will be there for many months to come. 90% of the buildings are damaged, most hotels are seriously damaged or destroyed, the airport will not be open for the months ahead, also the harbor is out of service. Even when the airport reopens, there will still be no (international) airlines coming to St. Maarten since there are no hotel rooms to house the tourists. It is anticipated that economic activity may drop to as low as 20 to 25% of what it was before the hurricanes.

The unexpected situation we find ourselves in forces us to look for alternatives while at the same time it offers opportunities to strengthen our position and make us less dependent on just one single gateway. Therefore, we should not work on temporary measures just to combat the present situation. Whatever we do need to be for the long term, making us better prepared for a future disaster. It should at the same time strengthen our economic position and make us more self-reliant.

Now is also the time that the government in The Hague is realizing the vulnerable position of Statia and of Saba. Through this, their willingness and with this most likely the financial means can become available to improve the position of our two islands. Therefore, now is the time to turn the negative into a positive. Since both islands are experiencing the same, Statia and Saba must work together on this.

Airlift

St. Maarten airport will not be operational probably for several months. But also, when it will reopen there will be no international flights coming into St. Maarten for a long time since almost all hotels are destroyed or severely damaged. Also for us as Statians there is little need to travel to St. Maarten since there are hardly any businesses left operational. This means no car parts, no clothing, no electronics, no IT equipment, you name it. The same counts for medical care. St. Maarten hospital is seriously damaged. We need therefore alternative air routes.

The first priority is a direct daily connection with Bonaire. Bonaire should take over most medical services for our patients previously supplied by St. Maarten. Also, this route can connect us to other destination like Curacao, Aruba, Colombia, and last but not least Amsterdam.

Winair need to start operations from Statia as soon as possible. At least two of their planes need to get their home base on FDR airport. This way they can service Saba and connect this island to the rest of the world. Secondly Winair need to start service out of Statia to St. Kitts and maybe to Antigua. This way we get our connections restored with the USA, the rest of the Caribbean and many other destinations. Winair needs jet-fuel. This therefore also offers the opportunity to have this service available on our airport.

The airport terminal facilities needs to be improved to meet acceptable international standards

We need support from The Hague where it comes to negotiations with airlines, licensing and permits, financial support, and coordination with the other countries to accommodate the air routes.

Supply of food and other materials

Only Duggins Supermarket is still somehow able to supply their store through their own supply lines. The other supermarkets are showing more and more empty shelves as most if not all their supplies used to come from St. Maarten. Supplying from St. Kitts seems a temporary solution whereby there is a great chance of price hikes which will be catastrophic for our people who are already confronted with very high prices.

Through St. Maarten no longer being there, the island is in urgent need of building materials.

It is therefore important to look for alternative routes whereby maybe Basseterre or another port can be used that can accommodate as a hub for containerships from where barges can transport the containers to Statia and Saba.

Urgent research need to be done to establish the possibilities to supply Statia from the region next to supply out of the USA. In this respect, it is also important to improve the transport possibilities between the various islands.

For the longer-term, plans need to be made and executed to improve Statia’s harbor for it to accommodate the containerships enabling the island to take over this hub function in the near future. This will diversify and strengthen our local economy.

We need support from The Hague and a Dutch port with the planning and financing as well as to coordinate with the region to improve inter-island trade and removal of trade barriers.

Needless to say, that the island should continue and expand its agricultural projects for the island to become more self-reliant and less dependent on food supply from overseas.

Telecommunications

Statia and Saba have two mobile phone service providers, TellCel and Chippy (UTS). When their system is down in St. Maarten, our system is down as well. For weeks half of the mobile phones on the island did not work. This will also hamper data services. Especially when land lines are down and homes and businesses are without internet, data service is of vital importance.

In the past KPN, the biggest Dutch telecom provider made a proposal to service the island with 4G mobile services, high speed internet services and IP-TV. This service would even be at only two thirds of the cost of services by the present providers. Government at the time has turned down this proposal.

The present situation shows that also our dependence on St. Maarten for telecommunications makes the island very vulnerable. Therefore, the discussions with KPN need to be restarted to improve our local situation, increase the attractiveness of our island for investors and to make us less dependent on St. Maarten. Lower cost for our people and our businesses seems to me like an extra incentive.

Banking

There is only one bank on Statia, the Windward Islands Bank Ltd., a branch from the main office in St. Maarten, which is part of Curacao based Maduro & Curiels Bank. Also, here our dependency on St. Maarten means that when operations in St. Maarten are down, operations in Statia are down as well. Within a short while the island runs out of cash and teller machines will be empty. Especially when electricity or internet is down it is also not possible to use bank cards to pin in the stores, which means cash payments are the only option. Also, many businesses do not offer bank card service so pinning is not even possible.

With the backing of the national government a Dutch bank needs to be identified that is willing to offer bank services on Statia, which makes us less vulnerable for interruptions in banking services on St. Maarten.

Notary services

Notary services are an issue that plays since 10-10-10 and is already complicated without the passing of a hurricane. Although a notary from St. Maarten is assigned to the island, as well as one to Saba, he cannot pass deeds on the island. This needs to take place physically in St. Maarten, a costly and time-consuming situation. The passing of the two hurricanes resulted in all notary offices on St. Maarten being closed for a longer period of time, whereby also our residents and businesses were unable to make use of their services or have any notarial actions executed. Not to mention that there are no regular flights to St. Maarten.

A solution need to be found to carry out notarial transaction on St. Eustatius and Saba.

Tax break

To alleviate the loss of income of the many local businesses a tax break may be considered as a temporary relief measure. October third quarter tax payments are due while many businesses from early September are faced with a steep drop in revenues. At the same time, they are faced with high extra cost because of hurricane preparations and repairs of damaged properties that are in many occasions not covered or only partly covered by insurance.

These are in my opinion the most pressing matters. Without a doubt, there are other issues that deserve attention whereby services are negatively affected by the hurricanes and interruptions on St. Maarten or even have come to a standstill. The ones mentioned make it evident that the island, our daily life, and our economy are too heavily reliant on St. Maarten which makes us very vulnerable. The passing of hurricanes Irma and Maria and the chaos and havoc they have caused on our sister island have made this very clear.

St. Eustatius, September 22, 2017

Koos Sneek

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