Under fire for storm response, Macron surveys hurricane-hit French islands
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French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday vowed to help ensure a speedy recovery on a tour of the French Caribbean islands battered by Hurricane Irma as his government comes under fire for its handling of relief efforts following the storm.
"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 telecom." He said he hoped changes would be noticeable by week's end.
Touring Saint Martin, Macron was at times jeered by people waiting for aid supplies or hoping to catch flights for France in order to escape the devastation across the island.
"We've been here since six in the morning and we're still waiting, under a blazing sun," said one woman in a crowd of people hoping to leave as soon as possible.
Another woman asked: "Why are you here?"
But Macron said that "everybody who wants to leave will be able to," with officials saying that about 2,000 of the 35,000 residents on the French side of Saint Martin had already left in recent days.
Irma tore through Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin last Wednesday, killing at least nine people on the French side of an island France shares with the Netherlands and destroying houses, disrupting electrical power and cutting off the water supply. Additional troops had to be sent in to stop looting in the wake of the storm. The damage from Hurricane Irma to the French island territories has been estimated at more than €1 billion.
"We have ordered one of the largest air lifts [of aid] since World War II," Macron said upon arriving in Guadeloupe.
Macron's plane brought water, food and tons of medicines and emergency equipment. The president was accompanied by doctors and experts who will be in charge of evaluating the damage. About 1,500 troops, police and emergency workers are currently on the ground and some 500 others were expected to arrive in the coming days, according to French authorities.
Ensuring a return to normal life is an "absolute priority", Macron said, speaking while still on the tarmac soon after landing.
'We need help'
Macron’s government has been defending its handling of hurricane preparations in recent days amid criticism from both political opponents and locals.
“We’re as French as anyone. We need help and there is no one here,” one woman told FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore in Saint Martin.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe tried to assuage the islanders’ concerns over the weekend and said that France vowed to rebuild devastated areas. “I am aware of the fear, the exhaustion and the anguish that the current situation is causing families in the Antilles and on the mainland,” Philippe said. “We are completely mobilised to rescue, to accompany and to rebuild.”
The chaotic days in Irma’s aftermath also exposed simmering racial tensions on Saint Martin – the white minority of which is generally wealthier than its black majority – as some black and mixed-race residents said that white tourists were given priority during the evacuation effort.
“It’s selective. Excuse me, but we saw only mainlanders,” a visibly shaken Johana Soudiagom told Guadeloupe 1ère television after she found herself among a small handful of non-whites evacuated to Guadeloupe on Friday on a boat that carried tourists to safety. “That’s a way of saying, ‘I’m sorry, only whites’. There are only whites on the boat.”
It is common practice for tourists to be evacuated first from disaster zones for practical reasons, because they have access to fewer resources at a hotel. Philippe insisted on Monday that the only people being prioritised were the most vulnerable. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner, meanwhile, said he understood the islanders’ frustration but blamed the criticisms in part on the “emotional shock, an impact that’s extremely hard psychologically”.
Philippe on Monday unveiled the government’s reconstruction plan for the islands. Surrounded by eight cabinet ministers, he told reporters that getting potable water networks back online would take three months, leaving residents to rely on cisterns and bottles distributed by aid agencies.
Philippe also said that 3,500 of 24,000 homes and businesses had already seen their electrical power restored, but that 50 high-capacity generators were on their way to the affected areas amid lingering uncertainty over the state of the electrical network in the wake of the storm.
Schools are made a priority in the French aid plan. Philippe explained that large inflatable and air-conditioned tents will be deployed to get children back to school as quickly as possible with a target of early November. Of Saint Martin’s 21 schools, Philippe said, only three remain “entirely intact”.
On Monday, 278 exhausted Irma survivors from the French Antilles, some of whom lost everything in the storm, arrived at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport on an army aircraft from Guadeloupe.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)