French president, Dutch king visit storm-socked island


Photographs by AP/CHRISTOPHE ENA

French President Emmanuel Macron (center) greets residents Tuesday during a tour of the storm-ravaged island of St. Martin. He pledged a fast recovery for the island.

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- France's president and the Dutch king visited Caribbean territories Tuesday that were hammered by Hurricane Irma, carrying with them much-needed food, water and medical supplies over accusations that European governments had been unprepared and slow to react in their responses to the devastation.

The visit came as residents tried to revive a sense of normalcy with small gestures such as sharing radios and rescuing dogs days after the Category 5 hurricane destroyed much of the islands.

The Dutch Red Cross said more than 200 people were still listed as missing on St. Maarten, but with communications extremely spotty a week after the storm hit, it wasn't clear how many were simply without cell service and power and unable to let friends and family know they had survived.

The organization said 90 percent of buildings on the Dutch territory were damaged and a third destroyed as Irma roared across the island it shares with French St. Martin.

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The island of St. Martin was divided in the 17th century into the French territory of Saint-Martin and the Dutch territory of St. Maarten.

Yogesh Bodha, a 37-year-old jewelry store employee, said there was no response from European officials for two days and that he hasn't seen many changes since Dutch authorities arrived on St. Maarten.

"They should've been more organized than they were," he said. "We have not received any food or water. They say it's on its way. Let's see."

For Liseth Echevarria, who works as a bartender in St. Maarten, offering whatever she could to family, strangers and abandoned pets was helping her cope -- and those around her were doing the same.

The manager of a marina next door threw over a hose so that Echevarria and her husband could have a semblance of an outdoor shower. He also offered them a temporary power connection from his generator so they could charge phones and listen to the sole radio station still broadcasting.

"This is the only communication that St. Maarten has with the world right now," the 27-year-old said.

It was thanks to that radio station that she found out about a flight for all Latin Americans stuck in St. Maarten. She rushed to the airport with her brother, who was evacuating back to Colombia. As she dropped him off, Echevarria saw a Yorkshire terrier tied to a metal barricade, abandoned by a passenger fleeing the island and told they couldn't take pets on the plane.

Echevarria scooped up the dog and took him home to meet her three other dogs, including one rescued from a neighbor's property. The neighbor fled with her son after the hurricane destroyed their home. There was nothing left of it other than jagged pieces of wood and a shower curtain covered in colorful butterflies tangled in a toppled tree.

Echevarria's husband, Lex Kools, a 26-year-old civil engineer, jumps over the fence every day to feed the other two dogs on the property.

"They were attacking each other, they were so hungry," he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron flew into Guadeloupe on Tuesday before heading to hard-hit St. Martin, where he met in debris-littered streets with residents. He was accompanied by doctors and teams of experts who were to help lead the recovery effort.

"The situation is very critical," he told the residents. "What I want to do is to have a very fast recovery, so we are trying to fix the situation regarding health, education, access to water, energy and [telecommunications]." He said he hoped changes would be noticeable by week's end.

Macron said 11 people were killed in St. Martin, while another four people died on the Dutch side of the island, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.

At a news conference in the Pointe-a-Pitre airport before departing for St. Martin, Macron said the government's "top priority" was to help island residents return to normal life.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander, who arrived in St. Maarten on Monday, said the scenes of devastation he witnessed in the hurricane's aftermath were the worst he had ever seen.

"I've never experienced anything like this before, and I've seen a lot of natural disasters in my life. I've seen a lot of war zones in my life, but I've never seen anything like this," Willem-Alexander said on the Dutch national network NOS.

Dozens of people stood in line for hours Tuesday waiting for flights, some of which never materialized.

"We've been here since 7 a.m.," said Rosa Vanderpool, a 52-year-old accountant who was trying to get her stepdaughter and 4-year-old step granddaughter on a flight to Curacao.

"We only have two days of food left," she said. "We don't know if there are any planes. We don't know anything."

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Corder and Gregory Katz of The Associated Press.

A Section on 09/13/2017

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