'We can't sleep in peace': Caribbean residents face destroyed homes, food shortages, thieves after Irma

As tourists are being removed from islands ravaged by Hurricane Irma, residents try to cope with homes without roofs, a lack of food, water shortages, and fears for their safety.

Dignitaries from France, Britain and the Netherlands visit devastated islands and promise aid

St. Maarten aftermath

5 years ago
Duration 0:32
This is the destruction seen by GlobalMedics arriving in St. Maarten.

Dominga Tejera picked her way around fallen palm trees rotting in mud as she returned home after a nine-hour workday as a hospital janitor on a Caribbean island that until recently seemed like paradise.

She collapsed into a small plastic chair that has served as a makeshift bed since Hurricane Irma ripped the roof from her home as it pummelled Saint Martin.

"It's sad when you come home to this," she said as she began to cry. "You try to stay strong in public, but once inside, you break."

Hundreds of people across an island shared by Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin are trying to rebuild the lives they had before the hurricane hit, celebrating little things like a rare evening breeze that clears the stifling air amid a widespread power outage and laughing as a radio announcer cheerfully announces, "The dentist is open!"

But many like Tejera are struggling to maintain a semblance of the life they had before Irma as they fight off hunger and thirst.

"There's no food here. There's no water here," said Germania Perez, 70.

Help was making it to the island, from the Dutch and French governments, other nations and private organizations. A French military ship with supplies was due to arrive Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in St. Martin on Tuesday, the second stop of his visit to French Caribbean islands hammered by Hurricane Irma. He was previously in Guadeloupe.

Images on social media show Macron touring debris-littered streets and speaking with residents on the hard-hit island. Later, he'll travel to St. Barts.

Macron's plane brought water, food, medicine and emergency equipment. The president is also being accompanied by doctors and experts who will be in charge of evaluating the damage.

Dalaney Kertzious carries clothes she salvaged from her house in St. Martin after Hurricane Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees. (Carlos Giusti/Associated Press)

Dutch King Willem-Alexander, who arrived in St. Maarten on Monday, said the scenes of devastation he witnessed in the hurricane's aftermath were the worst he had ever seen.

In images broadcast by Dutch national network NOS, Willem-Alexander said: "I've never experienced anything like this before and I've seen a lot of natural disasters in my life. I've seen a lot of war zones in my life, but I've never seen anything like this."

'Nowhere to spend the night'

The Dutch Red Cross said Tuesday that Hurricane Irma destroyed nearly a third of all the buildings in St. Maarten and damaged more than 90 per cent of them, according to Reuters. 

Willem-Alexander said he was encouraged to see residents already working together to rebuild the shattered capital, Philipsburg. He was scheduled to fly Tuesday to the nearby Dutch islands of Saba and St. Eustatius, which also were hit by Irma, but suffered less damage than St. Maarten.

Hundreds of tourists are still trying to leave the island, with dozens lining up outside the Princess Juliana Airport, where only five large letters of its name remains.

One unidentified passenger abandoned a Yorkshire terrier named Oliver, tied to a barricade with airport security tape, as some people were told they could not bring pets. The tiny dog was later rescued by a local resident who took pity on him.

As foreigners rushed to leave the island, some of those staying behind are still seeking meals and something to drink.

After a visit to St. Maarten on Monday — the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin —Dutch King Willem-Alexander said the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma was the worst he had ever seen. (Gerben Van Es/Dutch Defense Ministry via AP)

"We need water and food. It's not a 'maybe.' It's a 'for sure,"' said Phillip King, a 53-year-old tour bus driver. "My job is done right now. It's gone for a long time."

Shelter also is a growing concern for many residents.

Dalaney Kertzious, a 44-year-old port security officer, spent the hurricane at a hotel after guests were moved when the storm blew out windows. She found another hotel but has to leave with her 17-year-old daughter by Tuesday, and does not want to stay in their home because it has no roof.

"I will try my best, but I have nowhere to spend the night," she said, adding the homes of her family and friends are already full.

As night falls, residents hurry inside, fearful of robbers roaming the streets and of the handful of men walking around with sunglasses and yanking chains tied to aggressive dogs.

"We can't sleep in peace because of the thieves," said Yovanny Roque, a 48-year-old mover.

Across the island, cars lie tossed upside down, at 90-degree angles and on top of other cars. Large boats lean sideways on dry land.

"The destruction is on a biblical scale," said 51-year-old Raju Budhrani. "It's how you see it in the movies. It's actually worse than that."

"Once you have life, hope is there," said retiree Albertus Williams, 64.

At least 37 people have been killed by Irma in the Caribbean, 10 of whom were in Cuba. That is Cuba's worst hurricane death toll since 16 died in Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Havana was in recovery mode Monday, with crews cleaning away thousands of fallen trees and electricity restored to a handful of neighbourhoods. Schools were closed until further notice.

Yaneisis Martinez hugs her two dogs surrounded by the remains of her house, destroyed by Hurricane Irma, in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Cuban President Raul Castro issued a message to the nation that didn't mention the deaths, but described damage to housing, the electrical system and agriculture.

He also acknowledged destruction in the northern Cuban keys where Cuba and foreign hotel management firms have built dozens of all-inclusive beach resorts in recent years. The Jardines del Rey airport serving the northern keys was destroyed, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported, tweeting photos of a shattered terminal hall littered with debris.

"The storm hit some of our principal tourist destinations, but the damage will be repaired before the high season," starting in November, Castro wrote.

To the east, in the Leeward Islands, known as the playground for the rich and famous, governments came under criticism for failing to respond quickly to the hurricane, which flattened many towns and turned lush, green hills to brown stubble.

British army commandos take part in recovery efforts in the British Virgin Islands on Monday. (Joel Rouse/British Ministry of Defence/Reuters )

Residents have reported food, water and medicine shortages, as well as looting.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was travelling to Barbados on Tuesday and was expected to make trips to the heavily damaged British Virgin Islands and to Anguilla. Johnson has rebuffed charges that Britain has been slow in its response to the catastrophe. 

Britain has sent more than 700 soldiers and 50 police officers to the British Virgin Islands to help restore order. A landing ship is in place and a Royal Navy ship will join it.

With files from Reuters