Hollywood celebrities may have been the first to host a telethon to raise money for Hurricane Irma victims, but the idea is not theirs alone.
Dutch TV and radio stations also are banding together for an evening-long broadcast aimed at showing solidarity and gathering donations for victims on the island of St. Martin, Netherlands Ambassador to the U.S. Henne Schuwer told VOA in an interview.
“We don’t have as many [radio and TV] stations as you have here in the United States,” so it’ll be easier to arrange, Schuwer said with a smile.
A cherished exotic part of the whole
Asked how the Dutch people on the mainland feel about the disaster happening half a world away, Schuwer insists that his nation is firmly united with all its citizens.
“It’s part of our kingdom that has been hit, the smallest part, but it’s the Netherlands, the kingdom, that has been hit; they’re part of us.” The ambassador describes the island as “an exotic part of us” but one that the Dutch are happy to have.
The Caribbean island, divided between Dutch St. Martin and French St. Martin, is less than 64 square kilometers located roughly 241 kilometers southeast of Puerto Rico. The island got its name when Christopher Columbus spotted it in 1493 on the feast day of the eponymous Catholic saint.
An island that prides itself as a destination where one’s limits “are the sky in one direction and the bottom of the sea in the other” now finds itself struggling to survive.
Daily crisis meeting
The Dutch government conducts a crisis meeting every day in The Hague, chaired by the prime minister, and the initial focus is on the basic necessities.
“Get the sewage system back working again, hopefully that can be done quite quickly; the drinking water system, that needs to be back on line again very, very quickly; luckily, that’s not as heavily damaged as could have been, as far as we can see,” Schuwer said.
Addressing health care issues, preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases and getting St. Martin’s hospital up and running again, are also high on the agenda.
Schuwer says reported looting on St. Martin is now under control.
“All looting is bad,” he said, but there’s a difference between taking a bottle of water from the store because one needs it, versus walking off with a television set for which he says “there’s no excuse, under any circumstances.”
An enhanced military presence, with a target number of around 550 total, is being deployed to St. Martin.
Friend in need
Schuwer said his country is grateful for the help the United States immediately offered and almost just as immediately provided, after the hurricane hit the island.
“It was wonderful to see that in a moment like this, you’re here as an ambassador, and one of the first phone calls you get is from your colleague in the State Department, with a very simple message: If you need something, just ask.”
Schuwer credits close bilateral ties, including strong military cooperation, as having laid the foundation for the show of support in time of crisis.
“The U.S. military also asked immediately: Can we help?” he said.
Schuwer said the U.S. has assets in the Caribbean which “we either don’t have or only have in smaller numbers,” such as military transport planes. He credits the Americans with helping clear the runway for the main airport on the island.
“We asked them for help on Saturday, on Sunday we got our reply and they were there, that was fantastic; they’re there now helping us with air traffic control,” he said, which is crucial as planes arrive to evacuate individuals with medical conditions, followed by tourists, and then local permanent residents.
Now the difficult part starts
Dutch authorities hope the majority of St. Martin’s permanent residents will decide to stay and begin rebuilding the island quickly, Schuwer said, but added: “If they want to get out, we cannot stop them, but we’ll talk to them, and say that this is your island, now the difficult part starts.’”
The ambassador said the Dutch government understands that tourism, the island’s main source of income, will probably be paralyzed for months, so it is considering incentives to encourage residents to stay on and rebuild.
King Willem-Alexander has visited the Dutch half of St. Martin and chose to stay there overnight to demonstrate his commitment and support for the rebuilding effort. Above all, the ambassador said, there is solidarity linking all Dutch people in other parts of the kingdom with the “Sint Maarteners.”
Schuwer said the message is: “You’re part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We are with you. You have suffered very badly; we will get you through the first few days and, more importantly, we will remain with you after the television cameras are gone.”
The Latin phrase Semper progrediens, always progressing, is St. Martin’s official motto. The island’s residents may have cause to recall that sentiment in the weeks and months ahead, as they weather the aftereffects from Hurricane Irma.