Police sent to hurricane-hit St Martin to rein in looting: ministers

Pointe-à-Pitre (AFP) –


Hundreds of extra police are being sent to the Caribbean island of St Martin after reports of people breaking into shops following the devastation of Hurricane Irma, French and Dutch politicians said.

The storm tore through the popular holiday island, which is divided between France and the Netherlands, leaving at least five people dead and major shortages of water, petrol and food.

"The situation is serious," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday when asked about reports of looting on the island -- known as Sint Maarten in Dutch -- adding that extra troops and police were on their way.

Speaking to the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad (AD), one witness said: "There are people with guns and machetes in the street. It's really serious. No one is in charge."

French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin said "pillaging took place right in front of us" during a trip to St Martin, where a majority of the 80,000 inhabitants have lost their homes.

Around 400 police officers would be sent to the French side of the island and to the nearby territory of St Barthelemy, she said at a press briefing on Thursday.

- Homes and livelihoods destroyed -

Amid widespread food and water shortages, an AFP photographer saw a crowd of around a dozen people breaking into a mini-supermarket in the Quartier-d'Orleans area of the island on Thursday.

Homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in the torrential rain and winds of the hurricane, one of the most powerful storms on record which was a maximum-strength Category Five when it hit the island.

Pictures emerging from some of the hardest hit islands revealed the scale of the damage where roofless buildings, broken palm trees and piles of debris are being assessed by local authorities.

"The biggest priority is the health issue, the arrival of water and food resources which are on their way," Girardin said. "Then the second is public order."

Water supplies, electricity and mobile phone networks were knocked out when Irma roared through on Wednesday, turning the tourist hotspot with pristine sandy beaches into a disaster zone.

British authorities are also scrambling to help other European territories in the region, including the island of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos islands.

The governor of the British Virgin Islands, Gus Jaspert, issued a recorded message to residents, saying he had declared a state of emergency.

"Apart from structural damage, there have sadly been reports of casualties and fatalities," he said. "I would like to appeal to you to remain calm and to reassure you that we are doing all that we can to assist you."

Inhabitants are now bracing for the arrival of a second hurricane, Jose, currently a Category Three storm which appears to be on the same course as Irma.

"We will not abandon Sint Maarten," said Rutte, adding that officials were also sending medicines, tents, tarpaulins and hygiene kits as fast as possible to the Caribbean.

The US-based National Hurricane Center downgraded Irma to a Category Four on Friday as it barrelled towards the American state of Florida.