Authorities battle looting, bad weather in Caribbean aid efforts

A photo taken shows the damage in Orient Bay on the French Carribean island of St Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma on Sept 7, 2017.
A photo taken shows the damage in Orient Bay on the French Carribean island of St Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma on Sept 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

POINTE-A-PITRE (AFP) – High winds and bad weather disrupted emergency relief efforts for hurricane-hit islands in the Caribbean on Friday (Sept 8) as local authorities attempted to deliver aid and prevent looting.

Two days after hurricane Irma swept over the region, devastating thousands of homes, some islands braced for a second blast from hurricane Jose this weekend.

French authorities suspended all boat crossings from the island of Guadeloupe, where aid efforts are being coordinated, to the hardest-hit territories of St Martin and St Barthelemy where at least 10 people were killed by hurricane Irma on Wednesday.

“Weather conditions are deteriorating,” said a statement from the local adminstration on Guadeloupe which announced the end of crossings on Friday.

Two damaged but operational airports on St Martin remain open for helicopters, but flights too are expected to be suspended as Jose bears down on the low-lying volcanic island whose economy depends on tourism.

Jose has strengthened to a Category Three hurricane packing winds of  195kmh and is barrelling along a similar path as Irma towards hard-hit St Martin, Anguilla, Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands among others.

The governor of the British Virgin Islands, Gus Jaspert, issued a recorded message to residents, saying he had declared a state of emergency.

“Apart from structural damage, there have sadly been reports of casualties and fatalities,” he said. “I would like to appeal to you to remain calm and to reassure you that we are doing all that we can to assist you.”

Like France and the Netherlands, whose Caribbean territories are a legacy of colonialism, Britain too sent navy ships, soldiers and supplies to help with relief efforts in the region.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of extra police and rescue teams began arriving on the islands of St Martin after reports of people breaking into shops and looting amid widespread shortages of drinking water, food and fuel.

“The situation is serious,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday when asked about looting on the island, which is divided between France and the Netherlands and is home to about 80,000 people.

French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin reported that “pillaging took place right in front of us” during a trip she made on Thursday to St Martin, where a majority of the inhabitants have lost their homes.

An AFP photographer saw a crowd of around a dozen people breaking into a mini-supermarket in the Quartier-d’Orleans area of the island on Thursday.


Homes and livelihoods have been destroyed across the Caribbean by the torrential rain and winds of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms on record which was a maximum-strength Category Five when it hit the islands on Wednesday.

Pictures emerging from some of the hardest hit areas revealed the scale of the damage where local authorities were assessing roofless buildings, broken palm trees and piles of debris.

“The biggest priority is the health issue, the arrival of water and food resources which are on their way,” Girardin said. “Then the second is public order.”

Irma knocked out electricity and mobile phone networks, and cleanup and reconstruction efforts are expected to be arduous and expensive.

“We will not abandon Sint Maarten,” said Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, referring to St Martin by its Dutch name, adding that officials were sending medicines, tents, tarpaulins and hygiene kits as fast as possible.

The value of damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the French Caribbean islands alone is estimated to be “much higher” than 200 million euros (S$320 million), a state insurance group said on Friday.

Bertrand Labilloy, head of the Caisse Centrale de Reassurance (CCR) which specialises in natural disasters, said hurricanes typically caused around 100-200 million euros worth of damage on the French islands.

“But Irma is much more powerful... so you should expect the figure to be much higher than this,” he told the French news channel CNews.