Only 30 percent of the people at Saint Martin evacuated when Hurricane Irma approached the Caribbean island in September 2017. Of those, most sought shelter in a friend’s or relative’s home and only three percent evacuated to public shelters. The low percentage of evacuation, especially to public shelters, is because people do not trust the safety of public shelters. This mostly affected vulnerable immigrants without relatives or friends that could provide better shelter.

This is one of the key findings of a fact-finding mission conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Saint Martin. IHE Delft researchers recently published some articles on their findings.

Widespread devastation
Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin outside of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane on the island of Saint Martin on September 6, 2017.

Irma’s strong wind was the primary cause of widespread devastation on the island, killing and injuring people and damaging properties and infrastructure.

To support the recovery and reconstruction, a team of researchers from the European Union-funded project ‘Preparing for extreme and rare events in coastal regions (pearl)' went on a fact-finding mission to Saint Martin.

The team carried out workshops, interviews and household surveys five months after Irma’s landfall to assess hurricane warnings, evacuations, and people’s awareness and perception of hurricane impacts and responses after the hurricane.

Sheltering in place
In Saint Martin, in most cases, the majority of the residents does not evacuate during hurricanes. A household survey showed that of 255 respondents about 30 percent evacuated for Hurricane Irma. This low percentage of evacuation, especially to public shelters, is because people do not trust the safety of public shelters.

The researchers learned that the shelters with zinc roofs were destroyed by earlier hurricanes, this caused fear about the safety of public shelters. Hence, people prefer to shelter with friends or relatives instead.

No social networks to seek shelter
The lack of trust in the public shelters, caused a specific problem for immigrants with limited social networks and low levels of social capital, the researchers report in their article. This group had limited options to seek better shelter.

The other reason for the low percentage of people evacuating to a public shelter, was because it was announced that public shelters would only be open after Irma passed. A last-minute order was issued to open some public shelters, but it did not reach the whole population on the island.

Concrete enforced public shelters
The household survey findings also show that, after the experience of Irma, there was an increase in willingness to evacuate commensurate with the severity of the hurricane.

The researchers advise the government to improve the safety of public shelters, especially considering those in need. Since most people consider concrete houses to be the safest in Saint Martin, the walls and roofs of public shelters should be reinforced with concrete.

Zinc roofs
Based on the household survey, about 80 percent of residential buildings have concrete walls and about 70 percent have zinc roofs. Most residents agreed that it was the zinc roofs, debris from poorly built housing, and the other loose objects blown about during the hurricane that caused damage to the stronger houses.

The researchers noticed poorly built housing on the island, associated with outdated and inadequate building codes, lack of inspections, and enforcement of existing regulations.

Read the full article: Strengthening Saint Martin: Lessons Learned after Hurricane Irma.


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