SHTA hurricane seminar: St. Maarten better prepared than ever

POSTED: 07/31/13 12:37 PM

St. Maarten – Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams lauded “the efforts of the SHTA for their raising awareness” yesterday at the association’s hurricane preparedness conference at the convention hall in Carl’s Unique Inn in Cole Bay. The prime minister kicked off the comprehensive conference that featured speakers with important and direct input in the island’s disaster management or oversight of key facilities, such as the harbor and airport. The idea was for each speaker to inform the island of its overall readiness in the face of a potential hurricane strike.

The panel of speakers organized by the St. Maarten Hospitality and Tourism Association (SHTA) featured Paul Martens, head section disaster management, fire department; Joseph Isaac, department head MET office; Claudius Buncamper, department head Vromi; Roberto Levenstone, head of safety and security St. Maarten Harbor Group of Companies; and Larry Donker, director of operations at SXM airport. The MC for the event was Karen Hana of the SHTA.

“We’ve learned our lessons,” Martens said of the island’s disastrous encounters with Hurricanes Luis and Lenny in the past. The head of disaster management at the fire department said that since then improvements have been made. “On St. Maarten, we’ve become quite experts on hurricane disaster management,” he further pointed out. “Luis worked as a trigger.”

Prior to that, the section head stated flatly that there was no serious plan in place for decades. After Luis, however, “construction improved, not just by government, but with private homes as well.” He couldn’t stress enough how important it is to have a public awareness campaign.

Under St. Maarten’s new constitutional status, only the prime minister has the authority to declare a national disaster. “The PM has supreme command,” Martens declared. “In case of a hurricane a contingency of Royal Dutch Marines can be deployed upon her request.”

He also explained that while local government agencies are the leading disaster relief organizations, non-governmental organizations are also included, like the Red Cross and the Sea Rescue Foundation.

As part of the overall disaster management strategy, Martens then outlined the 10 major governmental tactical emergency support functions, or ESFs, that have specific disaster relief tasks after a hurricane hits. Ranging from GEBE, which is tasked with providing the necessities (water and electricity) to the general public as soon as possible, to Telem, which must get communication both within St. Maarten and with the outside world up and running quickly, to the department of communications (DCOMM), which informs and issues general warnings to the public before, during, and after the storm.

These ESFs are expected to coordinate and cooperate with each other and action is required of all groups in the aftermath of a storm to get St. Maarten functioning normally again as quickly as possible.

The head of the MET office, Joseph Isaac, said that his department’s “emphasis is to deliver high quality information with accuracy, though meteorology is not a perfect science.” 2013, he warned, is forecast to be an active season due to a complex combination of global weather phenomena, including the cyclic alternating between La Niña and El Niño years, with this year being affected by La Niña weather patterns, a warming of the Atlantic favorable to tropical cyclone development.

“All information comes from one source, the national hurricane center,” Isaac explained. Close coordination among international meteorological departments in issuing warnings and watches is therefore critical.  In the past, St. Maarten’s weather was monitored and coordinated from Curacao during the days of the Netherlands Antilles.

Now, St. Maarten handles its own declarations and weather management. St. Martin and Saba and a Statia, however, are coordinated by MET France and MET Curacao respectively. “We coordinate as much as possible, so as not to create confusion,” Isaac emphasized in his presentation. Since it is impossible for St. Maarten to experience a hurricane differently than St. Martin, the message that the public receives on both sides must be synchronized.

Head of Public Works, Claudius Buncamper stated that “whenever we go into action, it costs us money” citing the difficulties in operating effectively under adverse conditions given the tight budget and manpower constraints the department faces. He mentioned the phenomena of illegal building that often occurs after a storm has passed as many people will rebuild differently than what was there before. “We take pictures before a storm” to safeguard in the event legal action is necessary.

He explained the practical challenges the department often faces on the ground, like the legality of outsourced workers, and whether vehicles hired from contractors are insured or not, for example. All these things require preparation well in advance of the approach of a storm, as well as the ever pressing need for a constant supply of fuel in the aftermath of a hurricane.

“Community awareness,” Buncamper stressed, is very important, so that waste material and debris are properly disposed of. He urged everyone to “keep the roads clear” after a storm so that public works can do its job. “A curfew is required so that no one gets in the way of the clean up.”

His department’s priorities after a storm are to ensure that vital economic centers of St. Maarten, like Philipsburg and hotel areas, are up and running again in order “to get some dollars rolling back in.”

He reminded everyone of the role the boardwalk has played in preserving Philipsburg from storm surges. According to Buncamper, the Horizon view building nearly collapsed several years ago prior to the boardwalk’s construction; however, besides serving as beautification, the boardwalk has a specific engineering purpose in defending the foundations of buildings in Philipsburg and acting as a strong seawall, Buncamper elaborated.

He also said St. Maarten now has good water management capabilities in the event of excessive water draining into the Great Salt Pond basin.

Both Roberto Levenstone and Larry Donker are in charge of the safety and operations of perhaps the most important facilities that keep St. Maarten connected to the outside world in the event of a catastrophic hit like the one the island faced in 1995 when Hurricane Luis struck with deadly force.

Levenstone, aside from the expected shutting down of all vessel operations, outlined the new features the harbor would undergo, such as having Dutch naval divers to remove and clear underwater debris, as well as using sonar to search a larger area.

Containers would be moved away from the seaside further inland, with the heaviest on the bottom, followed by the empties, and then capped again with heavy containers to secure them against the violent winds. Levenstone outlined that there is a phased plan of preparedness, with the harbor slowly shutting down operations, and leaving the essential functions right up until the last.

The airport follows a similar pattern of preparedness, in essence, also undergoing a phased approach, depending, of course, on the intensity and strength of the approaching storm. “We don’t wait until the season starts to start our preparedness,” Donker said. As a vital facility and connection to the rest of world, the airport uses a proactive approach to ensure top level preparedness.

The runway is a top priority, Donker explained, which must be completely cleaned after the storm has passed. “The airport is critical to the national survival of St. Maarten.”

Donker also pointed out that the airport is always staffed, even during a storm, as some personnel volunteer to remain at facility, and the choice is based on their level of experience and relevant skills.

Overall, the consensus at the end of the seminar was that the island is far better prepared than it was when Hurricane Luis struck 18 years ago. Nevertheless, it was also felt at the seminar that the island must always remain vigilant during a hurricane season, especially during the months of August and September, the peak months and the highest recorded tropical cyclone activity.


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