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European leaders visit devastated islands

Profile image for Danica Coto, Nicolas Garriga and Sylvie Corbet
Danica Coto, Nicolas Garriga and Sylvie Corbet, Associated Press

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- France's president and the Dutch king visited Caribbean territories on Tuesday that were hammered by Hurricane Irma, bringing in much-needed food, water and medical supplies amid accusations that European governments had been unprepared, slow to react and sometimes even racist in their responses to the devastation.

The visit came as residents tried to revive a sense of normalcy amid the chaos and destruction wrought by the Category 5 hurricane with small gestures like sharing radios and rescuing dogs.

The Dutch Red Cross said more than 200 people were still listed as missing on St. Maarten, but with communications extremely spotty a week after the storm hit it wasn't clear how many were simply without cell service and power and unable to let friends and family know they had survived.

The organization said 90 percent of buildings on the Dutch territory were damaged and a third destroyed as Irma roared across the island it shares with French St. Martin.

Yogesh Bodha, a 37-year-old jewelry store employee, said there was no response from European officials for two days, and that 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."

For Liseth Echevarría, who works as a bartender in St. Maarten, offering whatever she could to family, strangers and abandoned pets was helping her cope -- and those around her were doing the same.

The manager of a marina next door threw over a hose so that Echevarría and her husband could have a semblance of an outdoor shower. He also offered them a temporary power connection from his generator so they could charge phones and listen to the sole radio station still broadcasting.

"This is the only communication that St. Maarten has with the world right now," the 27-year-old said.

It was thanks to that radio station that she found out about a flight for all Latin Americans stuck in St. Maarten. She rushed to the airport with her brother, who was evacuating back to Colombia. As she dropped him off, Echevarría saw a Yorkshire terrier tied to a metal barricade, abandoned by a passenger fleeing the island and told they couldn't bring pets on the plane.

Echevarría scooped up the dog named Oliver and brought him home to meet her three other dogs, including one rescued from a neighbor's property. The neighbor fled with her son after the hurricane destroyed their home.

There was nothing left of it other than jagged pieces of wood and a shower curtain covered in colorful butterflies tangled in a toppled tree.

Echevarría's husband, Lex Kools, a 26-year-old civil engineer, jumps over the fence every day to feed the other two dogs on the property.

French President Emmanuel Macron flew into Guadeloupe on Tuesday before heading to hard-hit St. Martin, where he met in debris-littered streets with residents. He was accompanied by doctors and teams of experts who were to help lead the recovery effort.

"The situation is very critical," he told the residents. "What I want to do is to have a very fast recovery, so we are trying to fix the situation regarding health, education, access to water, energy and telecom." He said he hoped changes would be noticeable by week's end.

Macron said 11 people were killed in 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.

At a news conference in the Pointe-a-Pitre airport before departing for St. Martin, Macron said the government's "top priority" was to help island residents return to normal life.

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

"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.

FEATURED PHOTO: Residents wait in front of the houses destroyed by Irma during a visit by France's President Emmanuel Macron in the French Caribbean islands of St. Martin on Tuesday. (Christophe Ena/AP)