Hurricane Irma wreaks catastrophe on French islands in Caribbean

Four dead and at least 50 injured as French president Macron promises to visit region

A house reduced to rubble on the French-administered territory of St Bart, after the passage of Hurricane Irma. Photograph: Quentin Liou/AFP/Getty Images

A house reduced to rubble on the French-administered territory of St Bart, after the passage of Hurricane Irma. Photograph: Quentin Liou/AFP/Getty Images

 

Hurricane Irma claimed at least four lives on the Franco-Dutch island of St Martin, and injured another 50 people, of whom three are in critical condition, French prime minister Edouard Philippe said. Damage was also extensive on the French island of St Bart, though no deaths have been confirmed there.

“In the face of an indescribable and unprecedented catastrophe, we must mobilise the solidarity of an entire people,” Mr Philippe told a press conference in Paris. “The work will take a long time. The emotion will be intense. The sadness will be great.”

St Martin, population 70,000, and St Bart, home to 10,000 people, were hit with the full force of Hurricane Irma in the night from Wednesday to Thursday.

President Emmanuel Macron promised to visit the islands as soon as possible. He emphasised solidarity, the Frenchness of the islands and the imperative of fighting global warming to prevent such disasters.

‘Apocalyptic’

The word “apocalyptic” recurred in French reports. Numerous witnesses compared the damage to that caused by bombs. Caribbean-style wood and corrugated steel structures were blown apart by 300km/h winds and washed away by 10-metre waves. Flooding is widespread.

Steve Prudent, a journalist for Outre-mer 1ère television, took shelter in a hotel “which was supposed to be safe” in St Martin. “Several rooms literally imploded,” he said. Cement walls “were shaking like cardboard. Anything that wasn’t extremely solid no longer exists.”

Mr Philippe said the prefecture in St Martin was destroyed but the fire station and hospital are functioning. A French military aircraft was able to land there on Thursday morning.

Conditions on St Bart were described as “stone age”. All official buildings, including the prefecture, hospital and fire station were flooded.

Loss of electricity

St Martin and St Bart are without drinking water or electricity. Communications were extremely limited because of the loss of electricity. Damage to ports and airports is delaying the help-and-rescue mission.

The prime minister said the government’s priorities were to complete reconnaissance and assessment, provide immediate help to the population by taking food and water to them, medical evacuations, security and public order and the restoration of electricity.

The electricity company EDF said it will take “weeks and months” to restore service. A jumbo jet filled with generators and water pumps will leave Paris on Sunday.

Hurricane José

The minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, is co-ordinating operations from the island of Guadeloupe, farther south. Some 400 gendarmes and as many firemen are being dispatched from Guadeloupe to St Martin and St Bart. Efforts will be complicated by the arrival of Hurricane José on Sunday.

Pre-positioned gendarmes chased looters from shops in St Martin on Wednesday.

St Martin is divided between the Netherlands and France. Experts say the lack of co-operation between the two sides of the island meant it was ill-prepared for the hurricane.

The Dutch ambassador to Paris participated in crisis cell meetings on Thursday and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said naval vessels will be dispatched from Curacao and Aruba as soon as possible.