Transcript of Minister Plasterk’s press conference concerning his visit to Curaçao, St Maarten, St Eustatius and Saba after hurricane Irma.

Minister PLASTERK:

Good afternoon. The Ministerial Crisis Management Committee just met once again. All the relevant ministers were present.

Yes, we and the King’s delegation have just returned from St Maarten; we all landed at Schiphol this morning. You’ve all seen the images. The damage is enormous. I have to say that it’s  overwhelming when you fly over it or walk through it. You always see much more than a picture can show. A great many houses are damaged; a large share of them irreparably. Many people have lost their jobs. The schools are still closed. And for most part, basic services like running water, electricity, telephone and internet haven’t been restored yet. It has always been an island of wealth and poverty, with homes owned by some of the world’s richest people and shanty neighbourhoods of low-quality houses, cobbled together. The storm has further widened that gap, because the best buildings incurred less damage relatively speaking than, for instance, structures in Middle Region, which is a working-class area with low-quality housing near Philipsburg. The whole area is in ruins. Entire blocks will have to be rebuilt. Schools are still closed. I’ve spoken to the Minister of Education. She intends to start opening the schools back up as soon as power and water are restored, hopefully within a week or two. Incidentally, relief efforts are focusing on that. Offers are coming in from all over, including from Statia and other neighbouring islands. But the best thing would be for everything to be sorted out on the island. The destruction is enormous, but so too is people’s determination to rebuild. Not just the people directly affected. I was impressed by the people of Curaçao and Aruba who empathise and want to help tackle the problems in all kinds of ways. The water company is producing clean drinking water, but distribution is limited. The main distribution network is functioning but the water needs to be able to reach the end users. Cooperation with the Red Cross and USAR, the Urban Search and Rescue team, is good. So, that’s a bit about what we encountered there. (…)

In other news. Some good news is that the HNLMS Karel Doorman has been deployed. The Netherlands is dispatching the Karel Doorman, a Joint Logistic Support Ship, to the Caribbean to provide support. The vessel will be used primarily to transport equipment and relief supplies. It is an enormous cargo ship. It was in the Baltic Sea for international exercises but is now heading towards Den Helder, where it will spend two days taking on cargo. The ship will then make the 11-day crossing to the Caribbean region where it may stay for a number of weeks. So after its cargo is unloaded it will probably be used for other transport operations there. The ship has a huge helideck; it’s actually a floating city that is being sent the area. 

The Royal Netherlands Army is deploying another 100+ personnel to St Maarten for emergency recovery efforts. The Engineer Corps will be part of the reconstruction team assisting with basic infrastructure. This lays the basis for future long-term recovery efforts.

You’ve all heard the unfortunate reports of looting. It should be crystal clear that this is unacceptable. The day before yesterday the Procurator-General told me that he intended to bring the first looters before the court this week and show the community that prosecution and, if necessary, conviction will be immediate. The Public Prosecution Service has agreed that looters who are arrested will be detained and not released, and if necessary there will be extra detention capacity to make that possible. This is a chicken-and-egg situation. You can’t set up distribution points until you can do so safely. So first you need to make sure things are safe, so that you can deliver other forms of aid effectively.

Finally, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to this Friday, when there will a national television and radio relief campaign. The Dutch government is providing a lot of support, which you just heard about, but this campaign will enable people to show their own concern and support. And we’ve seen that there’s a lot of support out there. 

A lot of initiatives have been launched, but I would caution people about well-intentioned projects asking them to root around in their attics for things to donate. Transport is really a limiting factor. So we are saying to people: it’s great that you want to help, but do that by donating to the Red Cross Hurricane Irma Appeal (Giro 5125) or organise fundraising drives to raise money that way. In the end, money will be much more helpful than donated goods. 

We know that the people of St Maarten are counting on us. When you’re walking through the streets there, people stop you – they can see you’re from the Netherlands – and they say, ‘Help us’. I found that people were looking to the Netherlands with hope and the expectation that something would be done. It is my impression that the people of the Netherlands want to help, so I hope that we can make Friday a very special day and that we’ll all be able to show our best side. That’s all for now.

Questions

QUESTION
How will the money be made available to people?

PLASTERK
The Red Cross is now coordinating emergency assistance, and they will decided how best to get it to people. They’re an organisation that can be trusted to do this. I’m not going to give any details now because I know the Red Cross will be highlighting it across all media tomorrow.

QUESTION
But I assume money is coming in from different places? The Red Cross has its own channels. Soon the Dutch government, possibly the EU. How will that money reach the people who you just described as having nothing left?

PLASTERK
The government is now looking at how in the next phase – we’re now in the emergency assistance phase (…), and that’s ongoing and is about delivering supplies – (…), which I expect we’ll move into very quickly in the weeks ahead, we’ll have to put a structure in place that ensures that we, as a Kingdom, play the role that befits us. And what we’ll be looking at in the days ahead is how this will all be organised at the administrative level.

QUESTION
I assume lots of people aren’t insured?

PLASTERK
That’s another matter, it’s true. I spoke with the government of St Maarten yesterday and asked ‘Do you know the extent of the damage? What proportion is insured?’. The answer to both of those questions at the moment is that no one knows. But lots of people aren’t insured. (…)

QUESTION
So, the money coming from the Netherlands or from other funds; does it need to be distributed to people via the local government?

PLASTERK
We’ll see how exactly the money will be distributed to the people. I think that if the Kingdom of the Netherlands is providing assistance – a lot of financial assistance is coming from the Netherlands, but don’t forget that Curaçao and Aruba are continuing to provide assistance in many other ways – we’ll need to find a way to go about it. And that’s what we’ll be doing in the days ahead.

QUESTION
One billion is the amount being mentioned, including by the prime minister. Did you here that there as well?

PLASTERK
No. I’m not going to talk about specific amounts. And you know, there are lot of different issues at play.

QUESTION
Will your team assessing the situation on the ground also include things like the medical centre? Will that be included in reconstruction estimates?

PLASTERK
We need to assess all the damage, including that.

QUESTION
Can you perhaps give an update on the number of people on the island who are still missing?

PLASTERK
I don’t have any figures right now, other than the numbers already reported by the media, so I don’t know.

QUESTION
Do you have any idea when you’ll know how much money is needed for reconstruction?

PLASTERK
I think that it won’t be a case of setting out an amount in advance and saying ‘we can do it for this much’. That’s not in anyone’s interests, because then it’s like there’s a pile of money sitting here. But  it definitely won’t be like that. On the other hand, it also gives the impression that nothing else can happen once the money runs out. I think it’s much more important to create a good framework through which the Kingdom can contribute to rebuilding the country in a responsible way.

QUESTION
Do you have any clarity on whether the EU can contribute?

PLASTERK
I received good news from the EU yesterday, in that things are moving in the right direction. I believe that the president of the parliament also mentioned something in this regard. And I think this is a good opportunity for the EU.

QUESTION
(…) Can you say anything about how long it will be before normal life resumes?

PLASTERK
I think that in order for normal life to resume, a number of services must be in place and I would hope it will be a question of weeks. It’s not up to me but that seems to be the timescale people on the ground are working to. But of course the economy won’t be up and running by then. (…) Hurricane season is nearly over and then it’ll be holiday season, when the money’s [normally] made. (…) You know, maybe it’ll all be done fast (…) you often see things recover incredibly quickly after disasters.

QUESTION
St Maarten can, under financial supervision, make use of back-up from the Netherlands, for loans. Is that being taken into account when it comes to reconstruction, (…) via the Financial Supervision Authority with a low rate of interest for reconstruction?

PLASTERK
That setup is still in place, but reconstruction requires a totally different scale of support. So we’ll have to come up with a different administrative setup.