MARIGOT, St. Martin – French and British officials promised to beef up emergency and long-term aid to their countries’ stricken Caribbean territories after seeing firsthand the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Wednesday Britain must move quickly to help as Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament an extra 25 million pounds ($33 million) would be made available on top of the 32 million already pledged.
“This is going to be a big, big job,” Johnson said as he made his way through the water-damaged rooms of a hospital on the island of Anguilla. He said Britain needs “to put the pedal to the metal” to get things back to normal.
French President Emmanuel Macron, gauging the damage to the formerly idyllic islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, said rebuilding efforts would focus on modern residential structures designed to withstand gigantic storms.
Chagrined leaders have rebuffed criticism that former colonial powers have not moved quickly enough to help citizens in their Caribbean territories after the hurricane left thousands of homes, businesses and public buildings in ruins.
Some of the tourism-dependent islands, after days without electricity and with food and water supplies, have drifted close to lawlessness.
The security situation in the British Virgin Islands was exacerbated by the escape of more than 100 inmates from a prison “breached” by Irma. Alarmed British authorities deemed the situation “very serious,” but did not provide further details.
British troops and police are helping to keep order, with more on the way. Johnson planned to visit the British Virgin Islands later Wednesday.
France’s Macron inspected the damage to St. Barts on Wednesday after spending the night sleeping on a camp cot in neighboring St. Martin, which was hit particularly hard.
He promised to rebuild St. Martin as a “model island” that would be a “showcase of French excellence” and to take steps to diversify its economy so it’s less reliant on tourism.
“I don’t want to rebuild St. Martin as it was,” Macron 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.”
He was accompanied by the French health minister, who has warned about diseases spreading on the islands where water supplies, electricity and communication were knocked out for days.
In further response 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 late 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.”
Macron said France was bringing in air-conditioned tents so children can return to school. A center will be established by Monday to begin processing requests for financial help, he said.
Macron said the Category 5 hurricane killed 11 people on 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.
Johnson said it was not possible to be unaffected by the hardship he witnessed on Anguilla. He told Anguilla governor Tim Foy Tuesday night that his visit was meant to show the U.K.’s commitment.
“It is clear this place has been through an absolutely hellish experience,” 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 ship in place to help bring in heavy equipment and the Royal Navy warship Ocean is on the way to the British Virgin Islands, though it won’t arrive from Gibraltar for about 10 days.
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.”