Wednesday January 17th, 2018 12:04AM

French president vows help for Irma's damage in Caribbean

By The Associated Press
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MARIGOT, St. Martin (AP) — Nearing the end of a sweeping visit to assess the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild the wrecked island of St. Martin and diversify its economy from a sole reliance on tourism.

Macron stayed overnight on St. Martin, reportedly sleeping on a camp cot. He was heading to the heavily damaged island of St. Barts Wednesday with the French health minister, who has warned about diseases spreading on the islands after water supplies, electricity and communication were knocked out for days.

In further responses to complaints that his government didn't do enough to handle Irma's wrath, Macron also pledged to evacuate residents of his country's Caribbean territories and provide services and shelter for those who choose to stay.

"What we have seen today are people determined to rebuild and return to a normal life," Macron said Tuesday. "They are impatient for answers and some are very, very angry. The anger is legitimate because it is a result of the fear they have faced and of being very fatigued. It is certain that some want to leave, and we will help them in that effort."

He said France was bringing in air-conditioned tents so children can start classes again soon, and that a center would be established by Monday to begin processing requests for financial help.

Macron pledged to rebuild St. Martin as a "model island" that would be a "showcase of French excellence."

"I don't want to rebuild St. Martin as it was," he said. "We have seen there are many homes that were built too precariously, with fragile infrastructure. The geography of the homes was not adapted to the risks."

Macron said the Category 5 hurricane killed 11 people in St. Martin, while another four people died on the Dutch side of the island, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.

The president was joined in the region by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose itinerary focused on the badly damaged British Virgin Islands and Anguilla. Johnson also defended the British government following criticism that it had failed to provide enough help to British Overseas Territories devastated by the storm.

In London, Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament an additional 25 million pounds ($33 million) would be spent on recovery efforts as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson oversaw early aid efforts in Anguilla.

Johnson told Anguilla governor Tim Foy Tuesday night that his visit is meant to show the U.K.'s commitment.

"It is clear this place has been through an absolutely hellish experience, and it is no doubt at all that you need help with power generation, with getting the hospital back up and running, getting the airport back up and running, and schools properly set — all kinds of things need to be done," Johnson said.

He said 1,000 British troops are in place to help residents and several hundred more are on the way. Britain also has a landing ship in place on the British Virgin Islands to help bring in heavy equipment and the Royal Navy warship Ocean is on the way, though it won't arrive from Gibraltar for about 10 days.

Some 60 British police officers are also helping restore order in the British Virgin Islands. British officials said the security problem was heightened when more than 100 "very serious" prisoners escaped from a prison after it was "breached" by the hurricane. The officials did not provide further details on the incident.

The visits came as residents tried to revive a sense of normalcy with small gestures like sharing radios and rescuing dogs.

The Dutch Red Cross said 90 percent of buildings on the Dutch territory of St. Maarten were damaged and a third destroyed as Irma roared across the island it shares with French St. Martin.

Yogesh Bodha, a jewelry store employee, said there was no response from European officials for two days and he hasn't seen many changes since Dutch authorities arrived on St. Maarten.

"They should've been more organized than they were," he said. "We have not received any food or water. They say it's on its way. Let's see."

For Liseth Echevarria, who works as a bartender in St. Maarten, offering whatever she could to family, strangers and abandoned pets was helping her cope — and those around her were doing the same.

The manager of a marina next door threw over a hose so Echevarria and her husband could have a semblance of an outdoor shower. He also offered them a temporary power connection from his generator so they could charge phones and listen to the sole radio station still broadcasting.

"This is the only communication that St. Maarten has with the world right now," she said.

It was thanks to that radio station that she found out about a flight for all Latin Americans stuck in St. Maarten. She rushed to the airport with her brother, who was evacuating back to Colombia. As she dropped him off, Echevarria saw a Yorkshire terrier tied to a metal barricade, abandoned by a passenger fleeing the island and told they couldn't bring pets on the plane.

Echevarria scooped up the dog named Oliver and took him home to meet her three other dogs, including one rescued from a neighbor's property. The neighbor fled with her son after the hurricane destroyed their home. There was nothing left of it other than jagged pieces of wood and a shower curtain covered in colorful butterflies tangled in a toppled tree.

Echevarria's husband, Lex Kools, a civil engineer, jumps over the fence every day to feed the other two dogs on the property.

"They were attacking each other, they were so hungry," he said.

At Echevarria's and Kools' home, the couple fed relatives and the girlfriend and two children of Echevarria's cousin, all of whom were staying with them.

Near the front door, a large plastic table sagged under the weight of boxes of spaghetti and cookies, soup cans, chips, bags of almonds and macadamia nuts and rice. Underneath were dozens of bottles of water.

The couple said they took the goods from a grocery store blown open during the storm.

They said they had planned on buying the items, but no one was working at the store and they were running out of food and water. They looked at each other as they observed looting.

"Do we do this as well?" Kools recalled thinking. "Everybody was just running inside. It was chaos."


Coto reported from Philipsburg and Katz reported from London. AP writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.


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