Battered and weary after being pummelled by Hurricane Irma, terrified residents were on Saturday gearing up to face a second monster storm which was heading for the Caribbean.
“Return to the safest shelters before the hurricane arrives, and avoid areas which could flood,” police in the French part of St Martin pleaded, only three days it was ravaged by Irma.
Jose, a Category Four storm, will bring heavy rains and winds of 130 to 150 kilometres per hour (up to 93 miles per hour), meteorologists said.
But it is also possible the storm could miss the islands of St Martin and St Barts when it hits later Saturday, veering about 100 kilometres to the north.
Many on St Martin, a popular tourist destination with vibrant nightlife and pristine beaches which is divided between France and The Netherlands, will be wondering where to go.
Irma left at least 12 dead and hundreds injured across the island, and with the clean-up barely begun, authorities are struggling to get aid to the stricken population.
When the hurricane hit on Wednesday, it ripped off roofs and uprooted trees, tossing cars and boats about like matchsticks.
– Deadly debris –
Debris still clogs the streets, many homes are uninhabitable, communications are still down and tens of thousands are without food, water or power.
Dutch Navy commander Peter Jan de Vin said it was “an illusion” that islanders could prepare properly for Jose’s arrival.
“Everything that is loose and lying around and which can be picked up by the winds and thrown around is a projectile that can injure or kill,” he told the Dutch newspaper NRC.
On the southern Dutch half of the island, 70 percent of the infrastructure was destroyed in the storm, officials said.
Sint Maarten’s Prime Minister William Marlin told RTL television that repairs could take months. “We are expecting a huge drop in tourism. It will have a huge impact on our economy,” he said.
At the only fully-operational airport, located on the French side, exhausted women including one with a newborn baby, children and the elderly waited for flights out to nearby Guadeloupe or even mainland France.
Amid reports of looting, French and Dutch troops have also fanned out across the island seeking to restore order, while curfews are in place across several islands.
“The atmosphere is grim. People are walking around with weapons,” De Vin said, while insisting that Dutch troops were “getting more of a grip on the situation”.
– Armed gangs –
One Dutch holidaymaker told the Telegraaf tabloid that he and about 50 guests had barricaded themselves into their hotel in Philipsburg for safety.
“Groups of several people, sometimes whole families, are roaming the streets with knives and firearms,” said Dick Algra, 61.
“Shops are being broken into and everything carted away.”
Another tourist, Iwan IJzer from Amsterdam, said guests were hunkering down in two large windowless rooms in his hotel.
“The toilets, unfortunately, can’t be flushed as there is no water. So we have brought sea water in a large container,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS. Other hotels looked like a “bomb had gone off”.
– Race against time –
In a race against time, Dutch and French troops and aid workers have been sent to the region.
Photographs showed lines of people, some standing in the sea, helping to unload aid packages hand-to-hand at the damaged port.
The French interior ministry said some 1,105 people had been deployed including police, troops, firemen, health workers, and electrical engineers.
Twelve people from Dutch Sint Maarten were airlifted to a hospital in nearby Curacao late Friday for treatment.
Dr Lisandra Berenos-Riley, from the Sint Elisabeth hospital in Willemstad, said the situation at the hospital in Sint Maarten was “disastrous”.
“The surgery theatre no longer exists. And as well as their existing patients they have to deal with people who have been injured in the hurricane,” she told the NOS.
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