MARIGOT (St Martin) • At dawn, people began to gather, quietly planning for survival after Hurricane Irma. They started with the grocery stores, scavenging what they needed: water, crackers, fruit.
But by nightfall, the 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," Mr Jacques Charbonnier, a 63-year- old resident of the Franco-Dutch Caribbean island of St Martin, said on Sunday.
Since Irma lashed the north-east Caribbean starting last Wednesday, killing more than two dozen people and levelling 90 per cent of the buildings on some islands, the social fabric has begun to fray in some of the hardest-hit communities.
"For pity's sake, do something," Mrs Estelle Kalton begged the police in Marigot. "They're looting the shops."
"We know," an officer replied.
Minutes earlier, France's Minister for Overseas Territories Annick Girardin had assured reporters that "there is now security" on the island. But officials and people in the streets seem to have different definitions of "security".
"Police saw people trying to loot our store... but they don't do anything," said Mrs Kalton's husband, Philippe. With their beach home now a wreck, their two clothing shops are "all we have left".
St Maarten, the Dutch territorial side of the island, which uses a different spelling, has also seen widespread looting of shops, though the problem was reported to have subsided by Sunday.
As reports of increasing desperation continued to emerge from the region over the weekend, the governments in Britain, France and the Netherlands, which oversee territories in the region, have had to fend off criticism that their reaction had been too slow.
The French and Dutch governments said they were sending in extra troops to restore order.
In Britain, lawmakers accused the government of failing to take adequate precautions to protect residents of three British territories.
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 Irma.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE