On September 5, 2017, Hurricane Irma – the most powerful the Caribbean has ever seen – hit Saint-Martin, the small island France shares with the Netherlands. At least 11 people lost their lives on the French side, 95% of which was damaged. Thousands fled in the coming days and months; many are yet to return. FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore and Julie Dungelhoeff covered the aftermath of Irma and witnessed locals struggling to come to terms with the scale of the destruction. A year on, they returned.
On the seafront in Phillipsburg – the capital of the island’s Dutch side - life is slowly returning to normal, one year after Hurricane Irma. Cruise liners deliver a stream of tourists seeking beachside entertainment and tax-free shopping.
But on the less wealthy French side, where Irma hit hardest, houses remain in ruins and debris litters the landscape.
“Irma just exposed the reality of what we were already living,” says Jérémy. He’s a youth worker in the impoverished neighbourhood of Sandy Ground, where the hurricane laid bare the island’s social divides. Most people here were uninsured when Irma hit, leaving them reliant on charity and their own resources to rebuild homes and lives. The French state says it wants to see an end to construction in high-risk areas like this, just metres from the sea, and people are anxious for the future.
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“It’s the most beautiful spot in the world,” according to Jean-François, as work gets underway on rebuilding his luxury hotel in once-idyllic Grand Case. This isolated island – divided between France and the Netherlands since the 17th century – is almost entirely dependent on tourism. People here know that their livelihoods hinge on getting infrastructure up and running as soon as possible – and they’re angry at the authorities over the slow pace of reconstruction.
“I did receive 50 million for public services, 15 million to repair schools and 6 million for housing... Is it enough? No it's not! But that's what we got,” says Daniel Gibbs. He’s president of the Overseas Collectivity of St Martin, the title the island’s French side has borne since 2007 after voting for more autonomy.
Paris has paid for repairs to roads, schools and telecommunications but says the local government must play its part in other areas. As the officials wrangle, ordinary people are left wondering when life will return to normal.