Reports of armed gangs looting, may just be poor residents struggling to cope in the absence of an adequate state response.
As Hurricane Irma strikes the U.S. state of Florida, residents in the Caribbean islands of Saint Martin, Saint Bartholome and the British Virgin Islands have been left behind with little support to face the humanitarian crisis caused by the storm.
According to the latest count, nine people died on Saint Martin — and four on the Dutch side — and hundreds more were injured.
Around one million people have had no water or electricity since the eye of the hurricane hit Saint Martin last Tuesday, with winds of 250 kilometers per hour.
Besides the poor hygiene, the lack of food and water, residents on the French side have accused local authorities of racially profiling the people who were trying to leave the island via sea or air.
Airports allegedly restricted access to people of color, while the local channel Guadeloupe 1ere reported that a boat, Archipel 1, evacuated about 300 white tourists, mostly from the United States, from Saint Martin to Guadeloupe, with “only three black people on board,” according to a witness. The boat's captain told the channel that he had been ordered to do so by local authorities — but they later denied the claim.
60,000 people signed a petition on Change.org demanding airlines stop speculating on the flight prices after they skyrocketed while many were trying to leave the island in a bid to escape the hurricane and its aftermath.
Irma destroyed around 95 percent of the French side of Saint Martin, the Dutch part suffered about 70 percent damage.
Opposition lawmakers from both the left (France Insoumise) and right (Les Republicains) of centrist President Emmanuel Macron's government have called for a legislative commission to investigate why the French residents could not be properly evacuated and if airlines did speculate on prices.
Criticized for his management of the disaster, Macron is now due to visit Saint Martin on Tuesday one week after Irma hit the island, as some describe chaotic scenes of a “civil-war like situation,” with armed gangs allegedly looting all stores across the island.
A French legislative report already warned in 2014 about the worrying levels of poverty on the side under its administration — 30 percent of the population is unemployed, and the lack of quality infrastructures make it ill-prepared to deal with natural disasters.
French far-right supporters have jumped on the reports of unrest to condemn “multiracial societies” as “insane and a factor for crime.” They have also criticised the mainstream media for overlooking “the hunting of white people in Saint Martin”, or claiming that looting there gave “a taste of what we will live in with France for the next disaster.”
1140 army reserves, police officers and firefighters went to the territory before Irma arrived, and 1000 more have been deployed on Sunday.
Residents say they have been sent to protect the much needed aid provisions, but have failed to distribute any.
Guadeloupe's union leader Elie Domota believes this shows the “colonial management” of France in the islands, reported BFMTV, with security the only public service boosted to address the crisis.
"On Saint Martin, food provisions are protected with fire guns, but what about distribution?"
In a video published by Le Parisien which went viral on social media, a Black resident explained that people were “not stealing, but surviving.”
“After 4 days with no water no electricity, no roof over our heads, two babies to take care of — one is only two-month old, with skin rash now because of the lack of basic hygiene and the heat — and ahead of another hurricane coming along, they gave us three bottles of water. And then they complain that people loot (...). This is not stealing, this is surviving,” he declared.
"This is legal looting." 12 liters of water cost almost US$17 on Saint Martin.
A military officer interviewed by Le Figaro confirmed that the people arrested were not young delinquents. “We are facing people in need, who have no more resources since the water and electricity supplies have gone,” he said, describing people “acting as a way to survive and feed their families. As a matter of a fact, the stores targeted by the looting are above all selling products for basic needs.”
On the Netherlands side of Saint Martin, authorities have also militarized security.
The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said looting broke out after the storm, but there are now more than 200 Dutch troops and police patrolling the island.
While the Dutch King Willem-Alexander will leave on Sunday for the island of Curacao to be briefed on relief operations.
The British government sent about 500 military troops to Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands in a bid to address the security situation.
The BBC's North America Bureau Editor Paul Danahar tweeted that media restrictions have been put in place.