ST. MARTIN—Two days after Hurricane Irma knocked out communications across this sun-soaked island, rumors spread that inmates at a prison had escaped with firearms and were roaming the countryside.
Unsure if the reports were true, authorities rushed to set up checkpoints and then established contact with the prison.
The reports were alarming, said Annick Girardin, the French minister for the country’s overseas territories. “We were able to verify that it wasn’t true.”
The hurricane has left residents of this island in the dark, cut off from almost all communication and gripped with fear over the disintegration of law and order. Looting has been widespread, residents say, while French police and soldiers have had little presence on the ground. Armed neighborhood groups have stepped in to fill the void.
“The state has been very, very weak,” said Tristan Kelaidites, an 18-year-old baker.
French authorities on Sunday said they were moving swiftly to restore order and services on this storm-battered island, facing rising public discontent over the government’s response to the hurricane’s devastation.
Residents here awoke to their fourth day without electricity, running water or phone service—but spared additional damage after Hurricane Jose veered north of St. Martin on Saturday night. Now they are pondering whether to stay, given that much of the island’s basic infrastructure has been damaged.
Garbage and debris remained piled up on the street. Long lines formed at gas stations. People piled into the few undamaged houses, seeking to get inside before near complete darkness descended on the island.
An aerial photograph provided by the Dutch Ministry of Defense shows the damage of Hurricane Irma on St. Martin.
An aerial photograph provided by the Dutch Ministry of Defense shows the damage of Hurricane Irma on St. Martin. PHOTO: GERBEN VAN ES/DUTCH MINISTRY OF DEFENSE/ZUMA PRESS
Irma cut a swath of destruction across St. Martin starting Wednesday night, damaging 95% of the island’s structures, according to some estimates. Residents said they saw little presence of French police or soldiers on the streets to maintain order or provide essential supplies.
“We don’t know if we will have enough food or water,” said Evelyne Cornilliau, an interior decorator who has lived on the island for 50 years.
The authorities defended their response to the catastrophe, citing the logistical challenges of delivering aid to one of France’s far-flung island territories.
“An island in the Antilles is at the end of the world,” Ms. Girardin said. “The government is up to the challenge.”
She said the government has moved an additional 1,400 police and soldiers to the island, a figure that will rise to 2,000.
Jim Goldman, founder of the Brother Jimmy’s restaurant chain, was in Manhattan when the hurricane hit St. Martin, where he has an apartment as well as a restaurant and lounge. After hearing about the extent of the damage from employees, he flew to Puerto Rico and arranged, with a friend’s help, to take a helicopter to St. Martin in an effort to help his longtime business associate, Sophie Simon, and her young daughters.
“My employees are my family and that’s why I went down,” said Mr. Goldman, 55 years old.
Mr. Goldman said the looting and violence he saw was far worse than what he saw after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, where he also had businesses.
Ms. Simon’s two young daughters, aged 7 and 11, were evacuated by helicopter and given six-month visas for hurricane refugees when they landed in San Juan, Mr. Goldman said. Only Americans were being evacuated, Mr. Goldman said, adding that he got Ms. Simon, a French citizen, out of the country by telling officials that she was his wife.
“The French and Dutch are doing very, very little to get their people off,” Mr. Goldman said. “I have over 80 employees, they’re all stuck there.”
Ms. Simon said she felt abandoned by France. She said that in the days before she was evacuated, she saw her brother’s optometry shop looted as well as jewelry and perfume stores. She said she spent one night under the remains of a house that had its walls blown off by the storm.
“I was sleeping with a gun,” she said.
New Jersey residents Staci Hoffman and Sean Kramer had been vacationing on the island and hunkered down in their resort.
“Honestly, I didn’t think that I was going to get out of there alive,” said Ms. Hoffman, 27. “I don’t pray, but I prayed for my life.”
After the storm, the couple saw widespread damage, looting and price gouging. Ms. Hoffman said she and Mr. Kramer spent $150 on Gatorade and water, which they locked in a refrigerator in their resort room to prevent theft.
It was difficult to find reliable information in the hurricane’s aftermath, so when the couple saw Mr. Goldman hop out of a helicopter that had just landed on a golf course, they approached him for advice.
“We were like, ‘Who’s that guy?” Ms. Hoffman said. “How did he get here?”
Mr. Goldman took the couple to his apartment, which survived the storm, where they met up with a rabbi also staying there. They ate a Sabbath dinner together that night with other people from several countries, all taking shelter.
Some residents said they are leaving the island for good. Michael Lymberis is planning to shut his swimming-pool business, sell his house and join close relatives in the U.S.
“It’s impossible to start again now. My family has been here for 38 years…but it’s finished,” he said, adding, “Every year we could have a hurricane, that’s the problem. We’ve been lucky the last 15 years.”
Damage from Irma is likely to cause months of disruption to residents’ lives. School is suspended amid severe damage at educational facilities. Officials said it could take more than a month to get children back in classrooms, and three to six months for permanent modular school buildings to be delivered.
St. Martin’s tourist season, meanwhile, has been dealt a stiff blow. The season typically begins in November, when people from North America and Europe arrive to escape colder weather.
“We are doing the maximum to have as much of the tourist season as is possible,” said Daniel Gibbs, St. Martin’s president.
St. Martin is a glittering tourist destination that also has pockets of deep poverty.” France oversees the northern half, while the Netherlands controls the south.
Multimillion-dollar estates on Plum Bay—including Chateau des Palmiers, owned by U.S. President Donald Trump —sit a few miles away from the French Quarter, where people lived in small houses with corrugated metal roofs until the 180-mile-per-hour winds wiped out many of the structures. A number of residents there reported the storm lifted their houses off the ground before tearing off their roofs.
—Kate King in Newark, N.J.,
contributed to this article.
Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com Source WallStreetJournal
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