Macron, Johnson Visit Hurricane-Hit Caribbean, Rebuff Criticism


French President Emmanuel Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson traveled Tuesday to the hurricane-hit Caribbean, rebuffing a wave of criticism over the relief efforts as European countries step up aid to their devastated island territories.

Macron's plane touched down in Guadeloupe on Tuesday en route to St Martin, a French-Dutch territory, amid growing frustration about lawlessness there.

"He needs to come to look around, so that he realizes the horror here," local resident Peggy Brun told AFP.

Speaking in Guadeloupe, Macron said the government began preparing "one of the biggest airlifts since World War II" days before Irma hit last Wednesday.

"Now is not the time for controversy," he said, adding: "Returning life to normal is the absolute priority."

The French, British and Dutch governments have faced criticism for failing to anticipate the disaster with an editorial in The Telegraph newspaper last week calling the response "appallingly slow."

But Macron assured that "it wouldn't have been possible to have had better anticipation."

Johnson will visit the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, where Britain has now sent 997 military personnel to help with relief efforts and security.

"The UK is going to be with you for the long term," Johnson assured in a video message to islands' residents.

Johnson has dismissed the criticism as "completely unjustified", saying an "unprecedented" relief effort was under way.

"This is a very big consular crisis and I am confident we are doing everything we possibly can to help British nationals," he said.

- Food and water shortages -

Dutch King Willem-Alexander is already in the region, which bore the brunt of one of the most powerful storms on record and where local residents and holidaymakers are becoming increasingly desperate.

The death toll from Irma stood at more than 40 on Tuesday.

Fifteen were killed on the French-Dutch island of St Martin and neighboring St Barts, at least 10 in Cuba, nine in the British Caribbean islands, at least four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, at least two in Puerto Rico, one in Barbuda and at least one in Haiti.

Authorities have begun evacuating locals and tourists from the hardest-hit territories, where many have complained about a breakdown in law and order and widespread shortages of food, water and electricity.

A mother picking up her daughter, a survivor who flew into Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport on Monday, said government help was non-existent on St Martin.

"They gave us phone numbers but they didn't work. Only social media and solidarity worked," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"People were left to their own devices. They had to set up militias and take turns defending themselves" against looters, she said.

"All the gangs came to the French side... with guns and machetes. It's unbelievably chaotic."

- 'Everyone's turned feral' -

Briton Claudia Knight said her partner Leo Whitting, 38, was stranded on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands archipelago.

"Everyone's turned feral and no-one's going out without being armed... It's turning really nasty," she told the Press Association news agency.

"Leo carries a knife with him," she said.

British junior foreign minister Alan Duncan said 100 prisoners escaped in the British Virgin Islands during the hurricane.

The Dutch king spoke of his horror at what he found.

"Even from the plane I saw something I have never seen before," the Dutch royal told the NOS public newscaster.

"I have seen proper war as well as natural disasters before, but I’ve never seen anything like this."

"Everywhere you look there's devastation, you see the collapse," he added.

- 'Expensive legacy of empire' -

The British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean are highly dependent on aid, making them what The Times called "an expensive legacy of empire."

In France, opposition figures have accused Macron's fledgling government of bungling the response to the disaster.

Radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon has called for a parliamentary inquiry and far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the government had left the islanders to "fend for themselves."

There has been criticism too of the Dutch response.

"They reacted far too late. The French were much quicker on St Martin to evacuate people," Kitty Algra, a tourist, told the Dutch newspaper AD.

Long queues formed Monday at the airport on the Dutch side of St Martin as people waited to be evacuated.

"Here at the gates (to the airport) they don’t know anything," Brigitte van der Posch, 46, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper, adding that the evacuation was "chaotic."

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