Scramble for biscuits, fruit and water descends into widespread looting of valuables as military forced to step in
At dawn in St. Martin, people began to gather, quietly planning for survival after Hurricane Irma.
They started with the grocery stores, scavenging what they needed for sustenance: water, crackers, fruit.
But by nightfall on Thursday, what had been a search for food took a more menacing turn, as groups of looters, some of them armed, swooped in and took whatever of value was left: electronics, appliances and vehicles.
“All the food is gone now,” Jacques Charbonnier, a 63-year-old resident of St. Martin, said in an interview on Sunday. “People are fighting in the streets for what is left.”
In the few, long days since the storm Irma pummelled the north east Caribbean, killing more than two dozen people and levelling 90 percent of the buildings on some islands, the social fabric has begun to fray in some of the hardest-hit communities.
Residents of St. Martin, and elsewhere in the region, spoke about a general disintegration of law and order as survivors struggled in the face of severe food and water shortages, and the absence of electricity and phone service.
As reports of increasing desperation continued to emerge from the region over the weekend, governments in Britain, France and the Netherlands, which oversee territories in the region, stepped up their response. They defended themselves against criticism that their reaction had been too slow, and insufficient. Both the French and Dutch governments said they were sending in extra troops to restore order, along with the aid that was being airlifted into the region.
After an emergency meeting with his government on Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron of France said he would travel on Tuesday to St. Martin, an overseas French territory. Macron also announced late on Saturday that he would double France’s troop deployment to the region, to 2,200 from 1,100; officials say the increase is in part a response to the mayhem on St. Martin.
St. Maarten, the Dutch territorial side of the island, which uses a different spelling, has also experienced widespread looting of shops, though the problem was reported to have subsided by Sunday, though not completely.
“There was some looting in the first few days, but the Dutch marines and police are on the street to prevent it,” Paul De Windt, publisher of The Daily Herald, a newspaper in St. Maarten, said Sunday. “Some people steal luxury things and booze, but a lot of people are stealing water and biscuits.”
More than 265 Dutch military personnel have been deployed to St. Maarten, and another 250 are expected to be sent to the region in the next few days to help maintain order and assist with relief efforts, the Dutch government said. In addition, 90 police officers have been flown in from Curaçao, another Dutch territory.
The storm delivered a direct hit on the region starting Wednesday, destroying airports and ports, knocking out power and potable water systems, and leaving many tens of thousands of residents and tourists isolated and increasingly desperate, unable to go anywhere.
The crisis worsened on Saturday as Hurricane Jose rumbled through the region. Though the islands hit by Irma avoided a direct blow from the second hurricane, its arrival forced the suspension of relief and rescue operations, prolonging the agony for many.
On Sunday, officials announced that two more bodies had been discovered in St. Maarten, increasing the death toll in the Caribbean attributable to Hurricane Irma to at least 27. So far, about a dozen deaths on both sides of the island have been attributed to the storm, according to the Associated Press. People here, however, insist that the death toll is much higher.
While there is no way to verify such claims, they illustrate the fear and the rumours swirling through an island as people cut off from the rest of the world, with roads blocked and most areas without cellular service. News, for the most part, is being relayed by word-of-mouth, leading to outsize claims. One popular rumour making the rounds on Sunday was that hundreds of people had died, some at the hands of escapees from a local prison.
The French government denied the rumours about the alleged prison break on Sunday. But some residents spoke of witnessing violence, with people fighting over food at grocery stores, and looters armed with guns and other weapons.
Residents reported that armed men had entered the Hotel Flamboyant in Marigot, the capital of the French side, and robbed tourists by knocking on the doors to their rooms, flashing guns and demanding valuables.
The French National Gendarmerie, whose troops are in St. Martin and St. Barthélemy, another French overseas territory ravaged by the hurricane, announced on Twitter on Sunday that it had made 23 arrests. In a statement, the French Interior Ministry said: “Extraordinary resources have been sent to the Antilles. The government is totally mobilised.”
US officials said Sunday that they had helped evacuated about 1,200 American citizens from St. Martin, many on C-130s, which flew evacuees to Puerto Rico.
On Sunday, Cuba was also reckoning with the damage from Hurricane Irma, which roared along the island nation’s northern coast on Saturday.
Although there have been no reported fatalities or casualties, Havana awoke Sunday morning to substantial damage. The capital’s inhabitants, who spent the night in darkness after authorities cut power as a precaution, found fallen trees, mangled lampposts, and smashed water tanks. Floodwaters reached more than 600 yards into the city.
But damage in the capital was light compared with elsewhere on the island. In the coastal city of Matanzas, 60 miles east, one-story houses were completely under water, and damage to Cayo Romano and Cayo Coco, popular tourist islands, was severe. A video posted on Facebook showed hotel roofs caved in, and mounds of concrete and coils of steel in lobbies. The northern keys are home to more than 50 all-inclusive hotels, which provide essential hard currency for cash-strapped Cuba.
The Cuban government immediately began relief efforts, deploying security forces in large numbers to the hardest-hit areas, along with convoys of trucks carrying food and heavy equipment to help remove debris.
“Cuba is very organised,” said Orlando Eorlsando, 53, as he replaced his front door with bloated plywood in Havana. “The priority of the government is to keep people safe and preserve life.”
While the Cuban response seemed to be a well-oiled machine, elsewhere in the Caribbean the government reaction has been halting, critics say.
In France the criticism of the government’s response to the storm came first from President Macron’s opponents, who were eager to use the hurricane to find fault with his administration.
A more measured critique came from a former minister of France’s overseas territories, Victorin Lurel, who said that the situation needed more “resources, more logistical planning, more transport and a hospital boat.”
“People could have been evacuated ahead of time,” he said in an interview on Sunday on the news channel Europe1. The government response on the Dutch side, he insisted, was better than the French side.
In Marigot, a French Gendarmerie helicopter hovered over the city on Sunday afternoon, flying low and scanning the storm-blistered streets. Boats in the marina had been upturned, half-submerged or tossed onto the beach by the storm.
Families with relatives on the island organised convoys of boats from as far away as Guadeloupe, bringing water, canned goods, fuel and the chance to escape. But even that has become dangerous. Several boats turned back from the island’s main port, fearful of the crowds gathered seeking aid.
As one boat pulled into the Marigot’s harbour on Sunday, a family raced to the docks to offload goods — and load several children on board. Goodbyes were said quickly, and the new passengers who climbed aboard heaved a sigh of relief as the boat pulled off.
Maeva Canappele, 20, wept as the boat began to distance itself from the island of St. Martin, destined for Guadeloupe, a six-hour ride on choppy seas. She was grateful.
“It was getting bad on the island,” she said. “Someone broke into our home and tried to rob us, but my parents managed to scare them away.”
In a statement on Sunday, the French interior ministry said that after emergency needs are dealt with, reconstruction will begin. Among its priorities, the statement said, it intends to distribute 1 million litres of drinking water; secure private property from looters; and get the telecommunications systems running again.
On Tuesday, a French navy ship equipped with a hospital and carrying helicopters, troops and reconstruction material, will depart from France.
In Britain, lawmakers from both the governing Conservative party, as well as the Labour opposition, have accused the government of failing to take adequate precautions to protect the residents of three British territories lying in the path of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose.
About 75,000 people, most of them British nationals, live on the Caribbean territories of Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands — each of which suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Irma.
In preparation for the hurricane season, the British government had sent a naval supply ship to the region in July. Following the storm, the ship brought 40 relief specialists to Anguilla, who helped to restore power at the island’s main hospital and carry out repairs at its airport, according to the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.
Since Friday, Britain has also sent two transport planes carrying almost 20 tonnes of emergency supplies to its Caribbean territories, as well as 250 marines and two extra military helicopters. Britain’s largest warship will arrive in the Caribbean in around 10 days, carrying eight more helicopters.