Hurricane Irma in the French West Indies: State of Emergency Preparedness

With the passages of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Hurricane Maria in the French West Indies (les Antilles), we learned more on the French emergency preparedness and response system through the increased media coverage.

On 6 September 2017, Saint Martin (Collectivity of Saint Martin, pop. approximately 36,000, 53 km2 with the Dutch Sint Maarten in the South) and Saint Barthelemy (pop. approximately 20,000, 25 km2) were hit by Hurricane Irma with the record-high wind speed at 360km/h. The French Government started to send supplies and personnel on 7 September.

On 8 September, Annick Girardin, French Minister of Overseas Territories, visited Saint Martin, reviewing the damage and impact. She stated that drinking water were being sent from Guadalupe and recognized a risk of a health crisis.[1] President Macron, in situ on 12 September, announced more support was coming from the Central Government. Some residents from Saint Martin evacuated to Guadalupe, which was again hit by another Hurricane Maria, on 19 September.

Sint-Maarten. Credit: UNDAC | Jacob (Sjaak) Seen

Governments adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction[2] in March 2015, and endorsed anticipatory disaster risk management and the whole-of-society approach. How does France manage risk and prepare for disasters in the West Indies?

In 2007, the Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable development and Energy released a plan called , Plan Seisme Antilles Horizon 2020 in view of the risk of a major earthquake within fifteen years, as warned by scientists.[3] The objective was to reduce the number of disaster-affected population by enhancing preparedness, prevention and resilience.[4] In this Plan, emphasis was placed on reinforcing infrastructures, as the more efficient way to reduce disasters risks.[5]

According to the Plan and annual assessment reports, preparedness initiatives were integrated in global actions on prevention, education, training and simulations exercises. Information campaigns were carried out and funds were invested in crisis management centers. Simulations with the Direction Generale de la Securite Civile et de la Gestion des Crises (Civil Security and Crisis Management Service Branch) were implemented until October 2016.[6] Besides the National Plan, local authorities in the Caribbean have the responsibility to implement safety and crisis management plans, reviewed every two years.[7] In Saint-Martin, the “DITRIM” (Territorial Information Document on major risks) was put in place in 2015 and distributed to the population.[8] So, what measures are at disposal for crisis response in Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy?

First, clear roles and responsibilities of emergency managers and allocation of funds are essential.[9] The West Indies do not have the same status of support as others, vis-à-vis the Central Government, which disposes of different levels of delegation. The Central Government’s Representative to Saint-Martin (and Saint Barthelemy) is the “Préfet Déléguée (equivalent of governor)”, under the supervision of the Préfet of Guadeloupe (regional governor). Guadeloupe oversees the implementation of the aforementioned Plan Seisme Antilles Horizon 2020 and the mapping of disasters risks.

Hosting the decentralized authorities of the Central Government, Guadeloupe leads crisis management for Saint Martin and is considered as the logistic center for crisis response.[10] The Préfet Déléguée works in close collaboration with the President of the Collectivity of Saint Martin, who elaborates the DITRIM.

Secondly, the West Indies are located at 7,000 km from the Central Government (Metropole) that responds to emergencies overseas. Reportedly, Saint-Martin has been destroyed at 95 percent by Irma. Its capacity of cyclone centers (9 locations for 360 persons) was for 10 percent of the population.[11] In support of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, the Response Plan for Hurricane Irma, unveiled by the Prime Minister, was based on “national solidarity”, as the full material and financial support will be provided to the islands by the Central Government.[12]

France is working with countries in the Caribbean on prevention through the Climate Risk Early Warning System Initiative.[13] In Saint Martin, France responds to crises with the Netherlands. Minister Girardin, in Guadalupe on 20 September, stated that France was supporting relief efforts for Dominica, severely hit by Hurricane Maria.[14] Further alliance could be established with entities, such as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), for example,hrough joint simulation exercises to strengthen emergency preparedness and response.

In the Pre-General Assembly high-level event on 18 September, the Emergency Relief Coordinator updated on support provided following Hurricane Irma, including the launch of a Regional Response Plan[15], costed at US$27 million, a Plan of Action for Cuba, costed at $56 million and a $10 million allocation from the Central Emergency Response Fund.

After seeing the powerful Hurricane Irma’s devastating passage, scientists are warning politicians and calling for action on climate change.[16] Emergency preparedness in the Caribbean needs to be enhanced.


[1] Girardin, Annick. Public Statement to LCI Information Channel, 15/09/2017, [link video] (viewed 15/09/2017)

[2] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNGA, A/RES/69/283, UNISDR, 2015.

[3] Plan séisme Antilles Horizon 2020, Assessment 31/12/2015, Ministère de l’Environnement, de l’Énergie et de la Mer, 2015.

[4] Plan séisme Antilles Horizon 2020, Second Phase, Ministère de l’Environnement, de l’Énergie et de la Mer, Ministère des Outre-mer, 2016.

[5] Idem.

[6] « Mobilisation générale pour l’exercice de crise “EU Richter Caraïbes 2017” », Prefet de la Region de Guadeloupe, [site web] [link] (viewed 15/06/2017)

[7] To go further: « Les Politiques locales de sécurité », Vie Publique, [web site] [link] (viewed 15/09/2017)

[8] Document d’Information territorial sur les risques majeurs (DITRIM), Collectivité de Saint-Martin, 2015.

[9] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNGA, A/RES/69/283, UNISDR, 2015 ; J.Clark, Daniel, Dercon, Stephan. Dull Disasters? How Planning ahead will make a difference. Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 29-49.

[10] « La Guadeloupe secouée par l’ouragan Maria, « potentiellement catastrophique » »,, [website] [link] (viewed 19/09/2017)


[12] « Ouragan Irma : solidarité nationale et engagement total pour faire face à l’ampleur des dégâts »,, [web site] [link] (viewed 15/09/2017)

[13] « La France et les Caraïbes », France Diplomatie, [web site] [link] (viewed 15/09/2017)

[14] Interview on FranceInfo radio on 20 September 2017.


[16] Friedman, Lisa. “Scientists defend climate discussion after storm”, The New York Times International Edition, 13/09/2017

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