France, Netherlands fly in aid to stricken Caribbean islands

(AFP) – France and the Netherlands on Thursday flew in water, emergency rations and rescue teams to their stricken territories in the Caribbean hit by Hurricane Irma, where at least eight people have been killed and another 21 injured.

The death toll was updated to eight from six for the island of St Martin, which is divided between the Netherlands and France and is home to about 80,000 people.

A day after the Category Five hurricane smashed its way across St Martin and the much smaller nearby French island of St Barthelemy, French and Dutch officials struggled to reach the famed holiday destinations.

Footage from a Dutch naval helicopter showed scenes of widespread devastation, with dozens of shipping containers overturned, buildings with roofs torn off, wrecked boats and debris flung far and wide.

“The destruction is massive,” French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters in Paris, with rescue efforts hampered by damage to the vehicles and buildings belonging to the local police and fire services.

  • Airports damaged –

Around 200 French troops, rescuers, soldiers and medics, as well as military helicopters and a transport plane, flew to the Caribbean where efforts are being coordinated from the larger French island of Guadeloupe.

The Dutch defence ministry had stationed two naval vessels in the area before the storm equipped with a helicopter and supplies, while two military planes and at least 100 soldiers are also involved in aid efforts.

“The priority now is to bring emergency aid to the people… consisting of sending food and water to 40,000 people over the coming five days,” Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk said.

French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to the region “as soon as possible without disturbing relief efforts,” his office said.

Collomb said that the airport on the French side of St Martin had “not been hit so much,” allowing helicopters and eventually other aircraft to fly in 100,000 emergency rations, fresh water and equipment.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Netherlands-administered side of the island was “not reachable at this point because of the huge damage to the airport and the harbour.”

Telephone networks were cut on both sides, while roads have been blocked by uprooted palm trees and other debris.

Collomb warned that the death toll could rise once rescue teams begin scouring far-flung parts of St Martin as well as St Barthelemy, which is also known as St Bart.

Rescue dogs have been flown in because “unfortunately there is work to be done on St Bart where the damage is very significant,” French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin said.

St Bart, home to around 9,500 people, is known as a playground for the rich and famous including past visitors Beyonce, Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow.

  • ‘Everything is destroyed’ –

Speaking to broadcaster RTL, 20-year-old Koen who lives in the town of Voorhout on St Martin said he was shocked by the scenes which greeted him after the storm passed.

“There is huge damage. Sand has been blown over everything. Everything is destroyed,” he said.

And Paul Windt, director of the Daily Herald newspaper, told RTL that communications were down. “We have no power, no electricity, no gasoline,” he said.

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