The French government on Sunday defended its hurricane preparations for the hard-hit Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, rejecting criticism by political opponents and by islanders who felt abandoned as their homes and towns were devastated.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would be traveling to St. Martin on Tuesday on an Airbus carrying aid supplies to show that Paris is committed to both helping and rebuilding its far-away territories pummeled by Hurricane Irma.
Some Caribbean officials said Britain was also too slow in responding to destruction on the British Virgin Islands and the Dutch government faced criticism for not acting more quickly to evacuate tourists stranded on St. Maarten, the Dutch side of St. Martin. The Dutch king is also heading to the region.
The hurricane killed at least nine people on St. Martin as it hit Wednesday, destroying a huge number of houses, cars and boats and cutting off all water and electricity for days. Extra troops had to be sent to stop the looting of stores. Another four people were killed on St. Maarten.
The arrival of Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 that passed by on Sunday, only delayed recovery efforts across the Leeward Islands.
In St. Martin on Sunday, authorities were trying to set up the first large distribution points for food and water as the smell of churned-up rotting debris wafted over the island.
In the western coastal town of Grand-Case, a 76-year-old man who only gave his first name, Michel, emerged from a grocery store laden with food, explaining that he had nothing else to eat.
“Everything has been destroyed where I work. There’s nothing there,” said Manon Brunet-Vita, 27, as she walked through Grand-Case. “When I got to this neighborhood, I cried.”
French government spokesman Christophe Castaner, speaking Sunday with Europe1-CNews-Les Echos, said he “perfectly (understood) the anger” of island residents. But he insisted that officials had known of the “extremely high risk” posed by the hurricane days in advance and had mobilized military and health care personnel in nearby Guadeloupe.
Castaner said many islanders were suffering from “emotional shock, an impact that’s extremely hard psychologically.”
More than 1,000 tons of water and 85 tons of food along with fuel have been shipped to St. Martin and St. Barts, and additional deliveries are expected in upcoming days, government officials in Guadeloupe said. Crews with heavy equipment and chain saws were clearing the roads of debris.
St. Martin’s port of Marigot, which has been too dangerous to enter due to the scores of wrecked boats either sunk or scattered across its shores, was to reopen Monday morning. A ship is expected to dock with a 5-ton crane capable of unloading large containers.
An increase in police and soldiers patrolling the streets has reduced the amount of looting.
Authorities in St. Martin have set up some 1,500 emergency shelters, doctors have treated around 100 people at a makeshift triage area and nearly 250 people have been evacuated, including seven facing medical emergencies, officials in Guadeloupe said.
The French military had positioned two frigates in the area ahead of the storm with helicopters ready to ferry supplies but the sheer violence of Irma seemed to take authorities by surprise.
Far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, who lost the presidency to Macron in May, accused the French government of having “totally insufficient” emergency and security measures in place. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative politician Eric Ciotti called Sunday for a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of Irma, Macron’s first major challenge.
The families of some island residents have taken to social media to voice similar criticisms.
Macron held emergency meetings Saturday and Sunday about Irma and its successor, Jose, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted that the government’s support for Irma’s victims isn’t “empty words.”
“I am aware of the fear, the exhaustion and the anguish that the current situation is causing families in the Antilles and on the mainland,” Philippe said. “We are completely mobilized to rescue, to accompany and to rebuild.”
France’s main electricity provider EDF says it transported 140 tons of electrical equipment to help restore the power supply on St. Martin and St. Barts. Camp beds, sleeping bags and life-saving equipment were also sent.
With Jose past, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said Sunday that authorities were concentrating on getting tons of water to island residents. He praised the hundreds of police and soldiers sent in, saying they ended the looting.
On St. Maarten, where the airport was badly damaged by Irma, dozens of Dutch tourists were forced to watch as Canadian and American flights picked up their vacationing citizens. They had to hunker down in whatever shelter they could find Saturday night as a second hurricane, Jose, passed to the north of the island.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte defended his government’s actions, saying that authorities prioritized evacuations to ensure the safety of patients in St. Maarten’s hospital, including 65 people who needed kidney dialysis, pregnant women and other emergency cases.
“The Netherlands had one major priority … that is evacuating the patients,” Rutte told reporters. “Other countries with tourists — the Canadians, the Americans — don’t have that.”
Military cargo planes or aid flights were expected to pick up stranded Dutch tourists later Sunday and take them to Curacao, from where they would be able to catch flights home.
Some 500 British soldiers, meanwhile, were sent to the Caribbean to help local police re-establish security, including 120 to the British Virgin Islands. The British aid ship Mounts Bay landed on Tortola carrying personnel and heavy equipment to fix communications systems and to try to clear airport runways so aid flights can come in.
Charlton reported from Paris. Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto, Thomas Adamson in Paris, Mike Corder in the Netherlands and Greg Katz in London also contributed.
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