Two days after Hurricane Irma swept over the eastern Caribbean, killing at least 17 people and devastating thousands of homes, some islands braced for a second battering from Hurricane Jose this weekend.
Officials on the island of Guadeloupe, where French aid efforts are being coordinated, suspended boat crossings to the hardest-hit territories of St Martin and St Barts where 11 people have died.
“Weather conditions are deteriorating,” the local adminstration in Guadeloupe said.
Two damaged but operational airports on St Martin remained open for helicopters, but flights too faced being suspended as Jose bears down.
Jose strengthened to a Category Four hurricane on Friday, packing winds of up to 200 kph. It 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.
Hundreds of police reinforcements and rescue teams began arriving on St Martin, an island divided between France and the Netherlands, amid reports of pillaging and shortages of drinking water, food and fuel.
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. The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad on Friday quoted a witness as saying that “people armed with revolvers and machetes are in the streets… No-one is safe.”
“The situation is serious,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, when questioned about the looting.
“We will not abandon Sint Maarten,” he vowed, referring to the island's alternative name in Dutch.
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 80,000 inhabitants have lost their homes.
Two men, one them a junior officer in the border police, were arrested overnight as they were stealing boating equipment, police said Friday.
Homes and livelihoods destroyed
Irma's torrential rain and winds left homes and livelihoods across the Caribbean. One of the most powerful storms on record, Irma 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 told reporters in Guadeloupe. “Then the second is public order.”
Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk said two people had died and 43 were injured — 11 of them seriously — in Dutch Saint Martin, while France said nine died on its part of the island and on St. Barts.
Irma knocked out electricity and mobile phone networks as well as thousands of homes, and cleanup and reconstruction efforts are expected to be arduous and expensive.
Bertrand Labilloy, head of the Caisse Centrale de Reassurance (CCR), a French state insurance group specialises in natural disasters, said hurricanes typically caused around €100-200 million 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 said.
Jose on Saturday is expected to pass by about 100 kms to the north of St Martin, packing winds of up to 130 kph, according to the French weather service, Meteo France.
Girardin said she would return to St Martin on Saturday for the storm, as a symbol of solidarity with people and first responders.
“It's a message of support, which I feel is my duty,” she told journalists.
King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands is expected to arrive on the Dutch island of Curacao on Sunday to be briefed on relief operations and will go to St Martin “if possible,” the royal palace in Amsterdam said.