During the first Central Committee meeting of Thursday, October 19, the first meeting since the passing of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Commissioner Bruce Zagers on behalf of the Executive Council updated the Committee and the public about the state of affairs concerning the reconstruction efforts in Saba.
“During these extreme and unique circumstances, the Government had to act fast and most importantly govern responsibly. In many circumstances, under the conditions we were confronted with, decisions were taken swiftly in order to restore normalcy within our community while trying to safeguard our already fragile economy,” Zagers told the Central Committee.
In The Hague, Saba’s ability to react, adapt and move to recovery mode so swiftly, especially during these extreme circumstances, has been referred to as the “Saba Speed,” said Zagers. “This so-called Saba Speed is something that The Hague is obviously not used to as the relief that Saba needs for a full recovery is taking much longer than any of us expected,” he said.
Although disappointed, Zagers explained that this may have to do with the transition between the Dutch caretaker Government and the new coalition Government which was sworn in by King Willem-Alexander last week Thursday.
The Commissioner said that behind the scenes a lot has transpired since the passing of the hurricanes. From the start there was regular contact with the relevant Ministries and in some cases Ministers in the Netherlands. With teams on Saba and in the Netherlands actively working, the process of damage assessment and reporting started. Detailed assessments have been prepared and submitted to the Netherlands after the passing of each hurricane.
“Sitting idle and waiting for external expertise to come to Saba to help with the assessments was not an option for the Executive Council. While the overall damage assessments were being made, the Planning Bureau immediately started making calculations for what was needed to repair the homes and other damaged structures on the island. Knowing that there was significant damage on many of our sister islands, it was of utmost importance to place our orders for building supplies before there were none available to order,” Commissioner Zagers explained.
On September 13, the first order of building supplies was placed and has since been delivered to Saba. Four days later, the Executive Council officially presented its first assessment for the damages caused by Irma to the Netherlands. This assessment contained input from various stakeholders from both the public and private sector.
Some of the highlights mentioned in this assessment included repairs and reconstruction to homes and other buildings; temporary reduction of cost for water supply and electricity; support for boat owners who had damages including local ferries, fishing and dive boats; emergency temporary rental subsidy for persons who could no longer live at their home; emergency food assistance; temporary financial measures for target groups in the social domain; additional support for different social services; revitalizing tourism; cost of the disaster management organization; temporary voiding of general spending tax ABB on construction materials, services and food items; temporary reduction of social premiums; waiving property tax for one year; temporary reduction of wage tax; and a temporary fund to cover salaries of employees.
On October 2, the Executive Council officially presented its second assessment to the Netherlands, containing an overview of the damages caused by Maria. This assessment was not as broad as the first assessment, as Maria caused more rainwater and sea damage and not as much wind damage to homes. This assessment included repairs and reconstruction of the harbour and support for economic losses.
This week Dutch contractor Koole-Mammoet will bring large boulders to Saba from Curacao to restore the damaged shoreline from the Harbour Office to the fibre-optic cable landing site, Zagers informed the Committee.
Irma and Maria did not cause physical damage alone. “We know that people are struggling, and we can assure you that we are doing all we can to bring the necessary relief for those who were impacted,” the Commissioner said.
There were already social problems on Saba before the hurricanes struck and these have only increased, he said. “We see these issues and we know the problems. Together with our on-island stakeholders we are trying to find local solutions and relief. These issues will continue to be raised with the relevant Ministries in the Netherlands. We hope that eventually there will not just be short-term relief, but more importantly longterm measures taken that will tackle the social and poverty problems here on Saba.”
Zagers told the Central Committee that a number of “obvious” questions still need to be answered. These include how to deal with damaged homes; how to repair all structural damage; what kind of support and relief will ultimately be given to the business sector and the community; and how will the Netherlands deal with the various assessments that have been submitted by the Executive Council.
“Unfortunately, for the most part there is still no clarity or answers for most of these questions. It is extremely disappointing and frustrating that the Netherlands is not willing or is not in a position to make decisions that will bring the relief we need for the hurricane victims, the business community and Saba in general. We can boast about the “Saba Speed” and our ability to bounce back from two major hurricanes but eventually we will need the support from the Netherlands to fully recover and fully restore Saba to what it was before the hurricanes. One can only hope that the new cabinet will immediately take these challenges and provide solutions for our community,” Zagers said.
He added, however, that although the decision-making process has been slow, the overall support from the Netherlands from all ministries has been very positive.
“With regard to repairing homes, this is a process that is ongoing, although it has not physically started. Building materials are on island and the assessments have been made by the Planning Bureau. We are in the process of establishing a policy for the first line of support, focusing on those homes that were damaged the most. This policy will outline which properties are eligible, what works will be done and in what manner, and describes the procedure to choose who will execute the work. It is of utmost importance that these repairs are done in a very transparent and fair manner, ensuring that the help goes to the ones who need it most.”
The Commissioner said that after the first line of support has been completed, the Executive Council will analyse what is possible for other damages.
“The ultimate approval of the third budget amendment to release the reserves to pre-finance the first-line support will ensure that the physical repairs can start sooner rather than later. Our aim at this moment is to finalize the policy this week so that the Planning Bureau can start meeting with interested contractors next week,” Zagers said Thursday.
In closing, the Commissioner said that although Saba is going through a very rough period due to the passing of two historic category 5 hurricanes, there is much to be grateful for.
“Above all, it is of utmost importance that we give thanks that there were no casualties or major injuries…We should be grateful that we did not experience the same severity in devastation other islands in our region experienced. Even though none of us are particularly pleased with the lack of urgency the Netherlands has shown regarding our recovery, the Executive Council is positive that we will receive the support needed. In the end we are in this together. We must work together to help those in need, to restore our economy and bring the infrastructure back on its feet.
This will be no easy task and will not be achieved from one day to the next, even when the financial means become available. It will be a process through which together, with the Saban resilience, we will make Saba an even stronger island and community in the future.” On a final note, he thanked all entities and volunteers who came together to bring Saba back on its feet. He extended special thanks to both locally-owned utilities company Saba Electric Company and telecommunications company Satel.
The Daily Herald