PHILIPSBURG--“When will we finally be able to return to our home?” asked Theodora and Julian Brooks. The elderly couple is still not able to live in their hurricane-damaged house, despite being a beneficiary of the World Bank-funded Home Repair Program. Their roof has been fixed, but their home remains uninhabitable. The Brooks are desperate.
Shortly after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, a roof repair programme was started by the Government of St. Maarten. An initial amount of NAf. 5 million was budgeted for the programme. Eligible were homeowners who were pensioners with a total monthly income below NAf. 4,000, homeowners who were unemployed and those on social aid.
The roof repair programme was transferred to the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) in February 2019, where it falls under Emergency Recovery Project 1 (ERP1). The programme was expanded to a “Home Repair Program”, made possible through US $119.7 million in funding from the World Bank-managed St. Maarten Reconstruction, Recovery and Resilience Trust Fund (SXM TF).
ERP1 has recently been extended by 13 months, with a new closing date of December 31, 2025. This news gave the Brooks family a glimmer of hope that issues at their home caused by a problem contractor that was assigned by NRPB would be fixed.
However, when The Daily Herald reached out to NRPB, the newspaper received the following answer: “The National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) values the confidentiality of our project recipients and contractors. As such, we unfortunately cannot comment on the individual circumstances of Mr. and Mrs. Brooks or the past and/or future litigation of Mr. Arrindell and/or Confident Construction B.V.”
Confident Construction BV was awarded US $700,000 under the Home Repair Program. This newspaper resumed contact with Roberto Ira Arrindell, the owner of Confident Construction BV, who submitted a letter to the newspaper on February 20, 2023, stating: “In 2019 Confident Construction BV was contracted by NRPB to repair 14 homes and 13 shelters on St. Maarten. Unfortunately, the contracts for both projects were unlawfully terminated by NRPB in 2020, because of favouritism and emotions.”
Arrindell contended that NRPB “tried destroying Confident Construction’s reputation by misleading this current government with false information, who just listened to NRPB’s side of the matter and refused to take time out to listen to our side of the story. But the truth will reveal soon to everyone and NRPB would have to deal with the legal consequences real soon for its wrongdoings!”
NRPB, Arrindell said on May 15 via app, “was supposed to finish Brooks’ house after they unlawfully terminated the contracts with my company.”
The home of Julian and Theodora Brooks on Pomeserette Road in St. Peters has no functional kitchen or bathroom, windows and doors are not properly installed, there are leaks and water damaged areas, unmovable furniture has been badly damaged, electrical wires are exposed and metal bars stick out of walls, with the interior of the home dusty from cement and the whole place in need of fresh paint.
Starting renovations themselves is not an option. Mrs. Brooks has difficulty walking. In a fall on the back porch of her unfinished home she broke her lower vertebrae. Despite multiple surgical procedures, Mrs. Brooks cannot keep her balance, which has her dependent on crutches. Mr. Brooks is a pensioner who faces physical challenges of his own. The couple has been deeply affected by a series of setbacks, of which the incomplete renovation of their home is considered the biggest downer.
Various promises, commitments, a coming and going of building inspectors, electricians, construction workers, followed by reports, emails, telephone calls and hundreds of WhatsApp messages that, with regard to the discussion between the Brooks family and contractor Arrindell, have resulted in insults and liability claims on both sides.
Six years after the hurricanes, the quality of life of Mr. and Mrs. Brooks is not better than when the repairs to their home started – contrary to the World Bank’s social safeguard policies that aim to prevent and mitigate undue harm to people and their environment in the reconstruction process. The Building Back Better principles have not been applied in their case, the Brooks family said.
On September 3, 2019, the couple vacated their hurricane-damaged home and stored the last of their personal belongings, for which they paid $1,100 out of their own pocket. They then moved to Midtown Hotel in Philipsburg. Three weeks later NRPB paid them their expenses back.
Mid-September 2019 the NRPB-chosen contractor Confident Construction BV started demolishing the damaged roof of their house. The couple was told that the reconstruction of the roof would take two months. For this, the contractor had hired a subcontractor.
The Brooks had no idea their home was about to become the workplace of a group of undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Venezuelan men would soon discover that they were not getting paid, said Mrs. Brooks, who one day saw that they had nothing to eat or drink for the day, and started to cater to them.
Before this unlawful and inhumane situation ensued, there had been walk-throughs in the Brooks’home with a representative of the NRPB Home Repair Program and the contractor, who told the Brooks they would receive a new roof, new windows and doors, as well as electrical, plumbing, and structural works for enhanced safety of their home.
As their home was an empty nest – their children had grown up and moved out – the Brooks contemplated renovation of the damaged interior in a way that would make the home more suitable for the elderly couple. They decided to use their small savings and asked the NRPB-hired contractor to make some changes to the family home. On October 16, 2029, Mrs. Brooks gave contractor Arrindell an advance of $3,600 for the extra work. The couple had bought the necessary material, costing $1,774.45, and had this delivered to their home.
The Brooks would see the contractor only sporadically at their home. The subcontractor and his workers prepared framing and boxing for pouring concrete for the roof beams. When that was done, they left for a month.
On their return in mid-November, the workers started to break the walls of bedrooms and one of the bathrooms, then resumed work on the roof. Newly-placed plywood remained exposed to the elements during the rainy season. Without having placed zinc on the roof, the workers left for their Christmas break.
February 14, 2020, was the official date for the completion of the works and delivery of the key to the Brooks couple. “But due to the fact that the workers were not paid by the contractor, they left the site,” said Mrs. Brooks. “I called contractor Arrindell. He never answered his phone.”
The electrician contacted the family thereafter, telling them he would not return to their home because he had been paid by the contractor with a check that bounced. This is evident from correspondence from lawyer Cor Merx, representing the Brooks family, and NRPB.
On July 14, 2020, NRPB offered the Brooks family the option to sign a new contract, based on which contractor Aluminum System BV would resume the repairs to their home. The contractor then hired a subcontractor, Bobby Ottley. This was confirmed by NRPB in a June 17, 2020, email to lawyer Merx, stating that Ottley “made several visits to the houses [the 14 that Confident Construction had to deliver turnkey – Ed.] to assess the works and what remains to be done”.
In a letter dated August 18, 2020, the Brooks told NRPB they were still waiting for the repairs to be completed. A day prior they met with the Fraud Department of St. Maarten Police Force KPSM and the Ombudsman, who advised them to contact the World Bank and submit all documents as evidence.
The couple had been living out of their home for over a year. “We visited the office of NRPB about three times, seeking answers from Director Claret Connor, only to be told that he does not see anyone,” said Mrs. Brooks.
On October 20, 2020, the bailiff visited the couple and handed them the key to their home. An acceptance certificate, presented by the bailiff, has the signature of Mr. Brooks. With this, NRPB was exonerated as having “satisfactory fulfilled its obligations under the homeowner agreement”.
To date, the Brooks live in a small studio behind their unfinished home, a place they had previously rented out for additional income. The couple is still praying for assistance to be able to move back into their home in the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to Article 20 of the Temporary National Ordinance National Program Bureau for Reconstruction, the Prime Minister is charged with supervising the efficient performance of the tasks of the Bureau. On Wednesday June 28, 2023, during the Council of Ministers’ press briefing, Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs said: “I think there has been a great misconception as to what the Home Repair Program under ERP-1 entailed.”
The criteria were roofs, doors and window, Jacobs said: “In some cases they did do more, where it was necessary to make the place habitable, but the intention with that fund was not for setting up the interior of the homes. ERP-1 was to ensure that homeowners have a shelter.”
She advises persons who need help with the interior of their home to contact the Ministry of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor VSA for assistance.
In 2019, two years after the passing of Hurricane Irma, there were many complaints about the slow pace of reconstruction, in particular home repair. The Ombudsman started an investigation, which resulted in the report “Home Repair, A revelation of a social crisis”. One of the recommendations to government read: “There must be better controls and coordination by government on (international) organisations executing repair works to ensure the quality of the work carried out.