Irma saw no borders on devastated French-Dutch island

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People on the Dutch side of Saint Martin, the Caribbean island devastated by Hurricane Irma, may be wealthier than their French counterparts, but they face the same desolation and lawlessness in its wake.

"Come on in, buddy. There's lots of stuff here, even sunglasses," an islander beckons, helping herself to cosmetics at one of the beachfront duty free stores in the tropical shopping paradise in Philipsburg.

The store's shutters were blown off in the Category 5 hurricane, and looters have made off with most of the merchandise.

Lying in a street of jewellery shops is a 12-metre (40-foot) fishing boat named the Beachcomber VII, heaved ashore by Irma.

The shops that were spared by the storm remain firmly shuttered.

It was not until Wednesday -- a full week after Irma struck -- that people were allowed to drive in the streets, but only between 8:00 am and 3:00 pm.

Dutch soldiers at the Bush Road roundabout guard the entrance to one of the island's main supermarkets, the Grand Marche, its shutters broken.

The intersection leads to the Dutch Quarter, where many homes were made of wood.

"My house is totally gone," says Vivekanand Sahleo, 54.

Islanders stand outside a church with part of its roof blown off, waiting for soldiers to deliver water and food.

"They said on the radio yesterday that water would be distributed at Koolbaai, but they didn't say when, or where exactly," says Stephanie Rodriguez, a 26-year-old Venezuelan.

Armed police tell the soldiers to let them know when the supplies arrive so they can provide security.

"Lots of people were walking around with guns and machetes in the street," says Rodriguez.

Fabrice Passera, who lives near the airport, says he saw neighbours set up a militia.

Income inequality is greater on the Dutch side of the island, prompting armed gangs to head to the French side to rob stores, residents have said.

"It was always an island of rich and poor, where some of the richest people in the world had their house in areas with shantytowns," Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk said on Wednesday.

"Some distribution points can't really be set up as you don't know how safe they are."

Islander Jeoffrey Joseph, originally from Trinidad, drives around to inspect the 13 properties he owns including a marina.

The 57-year-old says his rentals were "90 percent wiped out".

"Irma was an unprecedented monster," he says between two phone calls. "And the looting was out of control... The army took too long to arrive and they did too little."

At his marina, capsized boats float in a jumble and some survivors have taken refuge in the hangar.

"They might as well stay," Joseph says. "What do you want me to do, kick them out?"

He heads next to Pelican, a neighbourhood of white villas perched on a hillside overlooking the turquoise Simpson Bay and its white sandy beach.

A pharmacy is still intact, its windows boarded up. Its Polish-Dutch manager, Tamara Landino-Moskal, says the store "took precautions" but still feels vulnerable.

The last two nights people have tried to siphon petrol from the pharmacy's generator.

"We don't feel protected," she says, recounting having witnessed people steal furniture and TVs. "I begged the local authorities to send us a policeman or a soldier."

- Irma 'underestimated' -

But Gordon Snow, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper The Daily Herald, says the security situation had "basically calmed down".

He says 100 Dutch sailors who were deployed before Irma struck were ineffective at first.

"They spent their time getting the airport and port running again and couldn't provide security anywhere... This hurricane was underestimated."

While people on the French side have been furious over the government response to the disaster, criticism on the Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, has been more muted.

"The controversy is certainly not unfair," Snow says, but he adds: "We should have learned our lesson, on both the French and Dutch sides, after Hurricane Luis."

The Category 4 hurricane, which struck in 1995, killed 19 people in St Martin, Antigua, Barbuda, St Barts and Anguilla and left tens of thousands homeless.

Irma left 15 dead on both sides of St Martin.


© 2017 AFP

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