St. Martin's residents struggle with desperate conditions in wake of Irma

Photo via @orgeesxm on Instagram

PHILIPSBURG, St. Martin (AP) -- Dominga Tejera picked her way around fallen palm trees rotting in mud as she returned home after a nine-hour workday as a hospital janitor on a Caribbean island that until recently seemed like paradise.

She collapsed into a small plastic chair that has served as a makeshift bed since Hurricane Irma ripped the roof from her home as it pummeled St. Martin as a Category 5 storm.

"It's sad when you come home to this," she said as she began to cry. "You try to stay strong in public, but once inside, you break."

Hundreds of people across an island shared by Dutch St. Martin and French St. Martin are trying to rebuild the lives they had before the hurricane hit, celebrating little things like a rare evening breeze that clears the stifling air amid a widespread power outage and laughing as a radio announcer cheerfully announces, "The dentist is open!"

But many like Tejera are struggling to maintain a semblance of the life they had before Irma as they fight off hunger and thirst.

"There's no food here. There's no water here," said 70-year-old Germania Perez.

Help was making it to the island, from the Dutch and French governments, other nations and private organizations. A French military ship with supplies was due to arrive Tuesday, coinciding with a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, who arrived Tuesday  in Guadeloupe, the first step of his visit to French Caribbean islands.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander, who arrived on Monday, said the scenes of devastation he witnessed on St. Martin in the hurricane's aftermath were the worst he had ever seen.

In images broadcast by Dutch national network NOS, Willem-Alexander said: "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 he was encouraged to see residents already working together to rebuild the shattered capital, Philipsburg. He was scheduled 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.

Hundreds of tourists are still trying to leave the island, with dozens lining up outside the Princess Juliana Airport, where only five large letters of its name remains.

One unidentified passenger abandoned a Yorkshire terrier named Oliver, tied to a barricade with airport security tape, as some people were told they could not bring pets. The tiny dog was later rescued by a local resident who took pity on him.

As foreigners rushed to leave the island, some of those staying behind are still seeking meals and something to drink.

"We need water and food. It's not a `maybe.' It's a `for sure,"' said Phillip King, a 53-year-old tour bus driver. "My job is done right now. It's gone for a long time."

Shelter also is a growing concern for many residents.

Dalaney Kertzious, a 44-year-old port security officer, spent the hurricane at a hotel that evacuated its guests after the storm blew out windows. She found another hotel but has to leave with her 17-year-old daughter by Tuesday and does not want to stay in their home because it has no roof.

"I will try my best, but I have nowhere to spend the night," she said, adding that the homes of her family and friends are already full.

As night falls, residents hurry inside, fearful of robbers roaming the streets and of the handful of men walking around with sunglasses and yanking chains tied to aggressive dogs.

"We can't sleep in peace because of the thieves," said Yovanny Roque, a 48-year-old mover.

Across the island, cars lie tossed upside down, at 90-degree angles and on top of other cars. Large boats lean sideways on dry land.

"The destruction is on a biblical scale," said 51-year-old Raju Budhrani. "It's how you see it in the movies. It's actually worse than that."

"Once you have life, hope is there," said 64-year-old retiree Albertus Williams.

At least 35 people have been killed by Irma in the Caribbean, 10 of which were in Cuba. That is Cuba's worst hurricane death toll since 16 died in Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Havana was in recovery mode Monday, with crews cleaning away thousands of fallen trees and electric restored to a handful of neighborhoods. Schools were closed until further notice. President Raul Castro issued a message to the nation that didn't mention the deaths, but described damage to "housing, the electrical system and agriculture."

He also acknowledged destruction in the northern keys where Cuba and foreign hotel management firms have built dozens of all-inclusive beach resorts in recent years. The Jardines del Rey airport serving the northern keys was destroyed, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported, tweeting photos of a shattered terminal hall littered with debris.

"The storm hit some of our principal tourist destinations but the damage will be repaired before the high season," starting in November, Castro wrote.

To the east, in the Leeward Islands known as the playground for the rich and famous, governments came under criticism for failing to respond quickly to the hurricane, which flattened many towns and turned lush, green hills to a brown stubble.

Residents have reported food, water and medicine shortages, as well as looting.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson defended his government's response to what he called an "unprecedented catastrophe" and promised to increase funding for the relief effort. Britain sent a navy ship and almost 500 troops to the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos islands.