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Macron heads to Saint-Martin as government criticised for Hurricane Irma reaction

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A French gendarme chases off looters in Saint-Martin on 8 September Martin Bureau/AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron was to fly to the storm-ravaged island of Saint-Martin on Monday evening as the authorities came under fire for alleged lack of preparation for Hurrican Irma hitting the French West Indian territory.


Macron was to fly out accompanied by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer and Health Minister Agnès Buzyn.

The government hopes to avoid a situation where all teachers and other civil servants leave the island, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said on Monday, adding that "reinforcements" to the teaching staff would be sent.

The island's hospital was "operational" and there was no shortage of medicines, according to Buzyn.

The death toll from Hurricane Irma was put at 30 on Sunday evening, with 14 in the French island of Saint-Barts and on Saint-Martin, which is divided between France and the Netherlands.

A first estimate from insurers pus the cost at 1.2 billion euros.

Saint-Martin's airport suffered only limited damage and should reopen during the week, the company that manages it said.

A military plane carrying 278 evacuees, including about 20 babies and 50-70 children, was expected to land at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport as the president headed in the other direction.

About 85 tonnes of food, a million litres of water and 2,200 kilos of medical supplies have been sent to the island, officials say.

Poor preparation alleged

But, with looting and chaos reported on Saint-Martin, the government's handling of the storm has come under fire.

Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has demanded a parliamentary commission to look into an alleged lack of preparation, a call that has backed up mainstream-right parliamentary leader Eric Ciotti, while Florian Philippot of the far-right National Front claimed local people had been abandoned to "violence and looters".

Socialist former overseas territories minister, Victorin Lurel, who lives in Guadeloupe, told RFI that the government had been far too slow to react, comparing it unfavourably to the Dutch response.

"We can’t understand that on two small islands with a total of 50-60,000 inhabitants, sick people weren’t evacuated ahead of time, that three or four days after the catastrophe there wasn’t a hospital boat, or that more forces weren’t sent," he said. "And then there’s a glaring lack of communication. Local officials were excluded, local people weren’t informed, charities that have formed a human chain here in Guadeloupe to provide relief aid haven’t had the necessary logistics support. And when aid is delivered, there’s no guarantee it will be distributed. And the neighbourhoods weren’t made safe."

Collomb and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said they would welcome an inquiry, while complaining about "political polemics" by people who "home in on suffering".

"We made the right decisions," was Collomb's response. "We had 1,100 persons on the island before the [anticipated] arrival of Hurricane Jose. Today we will have 1,500 and in the next two days we'll have 2,000. You see we had taken precautions."

Local police say that 23 arrests have been made in the last five days, while making a distinction between "thefts that we could almost describe as of necessity ... of food" and looting of electrical goods.

"Now it’s time to rebuild and if Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Eric Ciotti want to launch a big appeal to help local officials on the island, we welcome that," Collomb commented. "And, concerning the parliamentary commission, we’re in favour of evaluation so we willingly accept a parliamentary commission. They will see the extent to which the teams are mobilised."

Irma, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm, hit Florida on Sunday, claiming three lives in car accidents.

US President Donald Trump declared a state of natural catastrophe and said he would visit the area.