'Worst ever seen': European leaders view Irma-hit islands

POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe (AP) — France’s president, Britain’s foreign secretary and the Dutch king were visiting Caribbean territories on Tuesday that have been hammered by Hurricane Irma, trying to quell accusations by residents that European governments were slow to prepare, slow to react and sometimes even racist in their responses to the devastation.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s plane brought water, food and tons of medicines and emergency equipment. His first stop was Guadeloupe, an overseas department of France, where he landed on Tuesday morning.

Macron was eventually heading to the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, where 10 people were killed on the French side and four on the Dutch, to meet with residents. He will finish off his trip on the nearby island of St. Barts.

The president is also being accompanied by doctors and experts who will be in charge of evaluating the damage.

About 1,500 French troops, police and emergency workers are already on the ground to help islanders, and 500 others were expected to arrive in the coming days, according to French authorities. But residents on the island have spoken of hunger, homelessness, a lack of water and a feeling of abandonment after the hurricane pummeled the region on Wednesday. Some felt the French government spend more efforts rescuing white tourists than black or mixed-race islanders.

Irma left entire islands and tens of thousands of people in the Caribbean without water or electricity and reduced many homes to splinters. The French, British and Dutch governments sent warships, planes and security forces to keep order and deliver aid but some of that was slowed down further by Hurricane Jose, which passed north of the region over the weekend.

A medical center was being set up Tuesday in the stadium of Marigot, a port on St. Martin, and a French military ship will provide additional medical facilities in coming days, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

He told reporters that air and sea connections with the French Caribbean islands should gradually return to normal by the end of the week, allowing up to 2,500 people a day to leave the island.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander arrived on St. Martin on Monday and said the scenes of devastation are the worst he has ever seen. The island is shared between a French territory and the former Dutch colony of St. Maarten, a largely autonomous part of the Dutch kingdom with a population of around 40,000.

“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,” Willem-Alexander said on the Dutch national network NOS.

Willem-Alexander said he was encouraged to see residents already working together to rebuild the shattered capital of Philipsburg.

“It’s been very useful to see for myself what terrible damage this storm has done and in this way to also show the population of St. Martin and the governor and prime minister that we stand together here as a kingdom and that we will solve this together,” he told reporters on the island.

Willem-Alexander was 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. Martin.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will be visiting the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla to see the relief effort firsthand. On Monday, Johnson defended the government’s response amid claims it was slow to help the British overseas territories, saying there had been an “unprecedented” effort to deal with the aftermath of the storm. At least five people died in the British territories.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said he believes the European Union should send relief funds to both the French and the Dutch sides of the island, despite their differing relationships to their former colonial powers.

“We believe in any case that everybody should benefit from that money,” he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting called to discuss the fallout from Hurricane Irma.

Koenders said he also would appeal for help from the United Nations for the islands.

Sylvie Corbet reported from Paris. Mike Corder in The Hague, The Netherlands, and Gregory Katz in London, contributed to this report.

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