Hurricane Irma turns Caribbean island paradises into nightmares

Strung like beads along the northeast border of the Caribbean, the Leeward Islands are tiny, remote and beautiful, with blue waters and sea breezes drawing tourists from all over the world.

The wild isolation that made St. Barts, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands holiday paradises has turned them into cutoff, disorderly nightmares in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which left 22 people dead, mostly from the Leeward Islands. Looting and lawlessness were reported Saturday by both Dutch and French governments, who had been sending in additional troops to reestablish order.

The Category 5 storm snapped the islands’ fragile links to the external world using a direct hit early Wednesday, beating their small airports, decapitating phone towers, filling harbours with overturned, crushed boats and leaving tens of thousands of tourists and locals desperate to escape.

The situation worsened Saturday with the passing of Category 4 Hurricane Jose, which shuttered airports and stopped emergency ship traffic throughout the weekend.

Looting, gunshots and a lack of clean drinking water have been reported on the French Caribbean territory of Saint Martin, home to five-star hotels and a property owned by President Donald Trump.

Federal officials deployed C-130s to evacuate U.S. citizens from the French Caribbean island of St. Martin to Puerto Rico. Nearly 160 were evacuated on Friday and approximately 700 more on Saturday.

The amphibious assault USS Wasp evacuated hospital patients from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to St. Croix and Puerto Rico. The Norwegian Cruise Line turned into a cruise ship into an noodle rescue vessel, sending a boat with 10 restaurants, a spa and a casino to evacuate 2,000 tourists from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Norwegian Sky cruise ship was expected to arrive Tuesday and take its own charges to Miami.

Over 1,100 police, army officials and others were deployed to Saint Martin and the neighboring French Caribbean territory of St. Barts, where they used helicopters to recognize the cars of people looting stores and homes. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced Saturday night that France will be sending more Foreign Legion troops, paratroopers and other reinforcements to St. Martin beginning Sunday.

Philippe said the many hundred gendarmes, soldiers and other security forces that there were functioning in “difficult conditions” and needed help.

The authorities told all residents to remain inside and set the island and St. Barts on its highest alert level as Hurricane Jose gathered through the region.

The island is split between French Saint Martin and Dutch Saint Maarten, in which the Dutch authorities estimated Saturday that 70 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed, leaving a lot of the 40,000 inhabitants in public lands as they braced for the arrival of Jose.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the situation remained “grim” on the island where widespread looting had broken out and a state of emergency was in force.

Rutte said some 230 Dutch troops and police were patrolling Saint Maarten to maintain order and provide aid and a further 200 would arrive in coming days. The authorities evacuated 65 dialysis patients from Saint Maarten’s hospital, which also was hard hit by Irma.

The islands’ woes increased since the airport on St. Barts was shut, and those in Anguilla and St. Martin were available only to the military, rescue crews and help organizations. Others, such as St. Thomas from the U.S. Virgin Islands, banned flyovers.

Late Saturday, Saint Maarten Prime Minister William Marlin said about 1,600 tourists were evacuated and attempts are being made to move 1,200 more.

Marlin said many nations and people have offered aid to Saint Maarten, but governments are awaiting the weather conditions to determine how this may be co-ordinated.

Before the hurricanes, Saint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport was one of the former Dutch colony’s major tourist attractions thanks to a runway which stopped only a few meters from the sandy crescent of Maho Beach, where people could stand and watch as coming jets skimmed low over their heads.

After Irma, aerial footage captured by Dutch marines revealed that Maho Beach’s sands had washed away and the airport was severely damaged. The Dutch army are using the runway, which was inundated by high tides during the storm, to ferry in aid supplies but say it isn’t yet open to civilian flights since there are no runway lights or air traffic management. The Canadian cheap airline and tour service Sunwing evacuated some Canadian tourists from Saint Maarten to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic on Saturday.

Ports in St. John, St. Thomas and elsewhere remained closed.

As Jose neared, the final plane flew into St. Martin’s battered Grande-Case airport Friday carrying employees to help reestablish the island’s water supply and power. French police said some 1,105 recovery workers were deployed on Saint Martin and St. Barts. A tanker with 350 tons of fresh water was also on its way.

By Saturday, damage was estimated to have reached $1.2-billion ($1.44-billion U.S.).

France said it expected to allow commercial ships to proceed to and from Saint Martin and neighboring Guadeloupe on Monday, when waters are expected to calm.

French President Emmanuel Macron came under criticism for his government’s handling of this crisis.

Once known for pink sandy beaches that attracted celebrities and royalty, the island of Barbuda is currently a disaster zone. Nearly all of its 1,500 residents left for the sister island of Antigua, a 1.5-hour boat ride away, before Jose with help from “The biggest difficulty in Barbuda now is how you have so many dead animals in the water and so forth, that there’s a threat of illness. You could put all of the folks back in Barbuda now … but then you will have a health catastrophe in your hand,” Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Fernandez said.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced a package of 42 million pounds (roughly $55-million U.S.) for the relief effort from the British overseas territories of Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks amp; Caicos. “The UK government is doing everything it possibly can to help those affected by the storm,” he said.

However, Anguilla’s former attorney general, Rupert Jones, criticized Britain’s response to the tragedy.

“It’s an inadequate drop in the Caribbean sea for islands subject to devastation and occupied by its own citizens,” he wrote in an email. “The rebuilding effort is likely to cost a huge amount more and it’s tough to see that making a real difference to the three islands{}”

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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