Hurricane Irma shatters paradise image of Caribbean

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Boats wrecked by Hurricane Irma in Marigot on Saint-Martin
Boats wrecked by Hurricane Irma in Marigot on Saint-Martin Martin Bureau/AFP

Shortly after Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean, the islands were awash with tales of looting and claims of discrimination in the repatriation of islanders. In the dual nation island of Saint Martin, the storm has unearthed deep-rooted frustrations. This week’s Spotlight on Africa is a special report on the Caribbean, home to Africa’s first Diaspora community.


In the days after Hurricane Irma ravaged several Caribbean islands, scenes of looting and violence began to emerge on television screens that soon eclipsed those of streets under water and torn down rooftops.

"There’s a lot of stealing, there’s a lot of people breaking into stores, stores that weren’t even damaged by the hurricane," Marie*, a resident from Saint Martin, one of the hardest hit islands, told RFI.

The French-Dutch territory has witnessed a wave of crime since Hurricane Irma made landfall on Wednesday 6 September as a category 5 storm, leading to dozens of arrests.

"On the French side, mostly Marigot [main town on the French side of the island], all the stores are broken," continues Marie. "Every store: from supermarkets, from telephone companies, to jewelry stores. Every single store has been broken, and stolen from."

Both France and the Netherlands have rushed to send in logistical support, including hundreds of police to tackle the looting and restore order. But for Marie, the results were slow in coming.

"Hell on earth"

“They didn’t prepare themselves. They didn’t plan it correctly.”

The Saint-Martiner is doubly critical because the island has been hit before.

“I know how Luis was. After Luis, they bounced back, they had people to clean up the roads, they had people to do the necessary."

This time she says there was no contingency plan: "It was like they didn’t have no government on the French side. No government at all to do anything. Now it might be more safe but for a few days it was like hell on earth."

A very different image from the pristine beaches and luscious views that Saint Martin has come to be associated with.

"It's certainly torn down the curtain of beauty," reckons Françoise Verges, a historian and researcher at the World Studies College.

"As soon as you get behind the postcard of beautiful beaches, coconut trees and the breeze, you see poverty, illiteracy, no economic development for the needs of the people.”

"History of violence"

For Verges, the tensions coursing through Saint Martin today are rooted in the island's history.

“The history of the island is a story marked by violence, by slavery, by the deportation of the native population who live there, deported by the French and then by the Dutch, this is a long history of violence."

Ownership of the island changed hands 16 times between French and Dutch colonists from 1648 to 1817 at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought thousands of Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean, and constituted the first African community outside of Africa.

"Saint Martin like so many other colonies started with a very fragile economy from the beginning," explains Verges.

"In the French department today 70 to 80 percent of the goods are imported so as soon as you have one of these catastrophes there is nothing."

The tourist-dependent territory is facing damages of more than one billion euros.

But Verges hopes that the hurricane will provide an opportunity to address the island’s underlying social problems, notably its dependence on tourism which attracts up to 600.000 visitors per year.

"Most of the young people go into jobs as maids or bar tenders, there's nothing else for them and they feel dispossessed of their island, she says.

Controversial TV report

This feeling of abandonment came to the fore last week in a local TV report filming a rescue boat shipping out white tourists from the wreckage while local black residents stayed looking on.

“Normally the tourists are meant to be the first ones to leave because they’re not from St Martin, I quite understand," says Marie.

"But there are certain people who don’t have anything anymore, especially single women with kids. You have to help them."

Dutch officials have declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the French government's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

"I am not aware of what has been organized on the French side," Sarah Wescot-Williams, the prime minister of the southern Dutch half of the island from 2010 to 2014 told RFI.

"But I know that locals have also been given the opportunity to leave and I guess especially if they have somewhere to go to."

Long reconstruction

“Where do you go? Where do you go on an island if you have a tsunami following a hurricane, where do you go?" Asks Verges, in a direct rebuke at French President Emmanuel Macron who was due to arrive in Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy--also badly hit--on Tuesday to oversee reconstruction efforts.

"I think it will take a long time for the French side to recover totally from Hurricane Irma," reckons Marie.

"I remember from Luis, the Dutch side recovered very quickly, but the French side never really recovered totally. This time everything is destroyed."

Despite her anguish, mass distribution of food and water are now underway and efforts to clean up the island are showing signs of progress, insists Sarah Wescot-Williams.

"Even during the threat of Hurricane José, we had crews out there trying to clear roads and making ways accessible to reach persons."

The category 4 storm spared Saint Martin but Irma still destroyed 95% of the island's infrastructure, leaving 75,000 inhabitants homeless and causing massive shortages.

"When I see some of the things that have been restarted I am encouraged," insists Wescot-Williams. "We have communication lines open and there are also signs that some areas will be able to have electricity in the not too distant future."

Eyes on Macron

For now though, debris still clogs the streets and many homes remain uninhabitable.

"We didn't have no electricty for two days, and each person is being given only two bottles each. It's not enough," says Marie.

What is she expecting from President Macron?

"That if ever people want an opportunity to go away [they can] and for children to be given the opportunity to go to school."

Hurricane Irma has so far disrupted the start of the school year and Marie fears may push it back entirely.

"We can’t be staying like this, we don’t even have water first of all to bathe. Thank goodness that I had put a lot of water aside but we don’t have water to even bathe. It’s really stressful."


**Marie's name has been changed to protect her identity

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