Survivor of Hurricane Irma in St. Martin:

“The U.S. Air Force came in...
took only the American citizens”

October 2, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


A reader sent an interview that was done recently with a high school student who was living in the Caribbean island of St. Martin when Hurricane Irma hit in early September. To this day, various European powers and the U.S. control Caribbean islands—under various terms like “territory,” “commonwealth,” or other phrases that disguise an actual colonial relationship. In the case of St. Martin, the island is actually split—one side ruled by the French, the other by the Dutch. This irrational division of a very small island was done to serve imperialist interests, and as the student reveals in this interview, this division into weak colonial governments greatly aggravated the problems people faced during and after the storm.

The student lived on the French side and went to school on the Dutch side. She and her family evacuated to the Dutch side shortly before Hurricane Irma hit. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: How did you evacuate to the Dutch side?

A: So, what you can do on the island is—there is no border patrol because it is one island, but two countries. So we could just cross over as much as we wanted all day. My boyfriend’s parents were kind enough to say look, it’s really bad—because we were like, about a 100 meters, maybe even less, away from the beach... we knew we were going to get hit really bad. So they offered—”our house is made out of full concrete, come and join us, you’ll be safe, we’ll try and take care of you as much as possible.”... We packed up our bags, tried to make everything waterproof and safe in the house, and we put everything in our cars and left straightaway and went to their place.

Q: Did they open the shelters before the hurricane hit?

A: On the French side, but not on the Dutch side. The shelters were only opened afterwards on the Dutch side. But maybe during the eye of the storm they realized, oh, ok we need to open it because people are out on the streets and the storm is coming back again. Because what happens during a hurricane, you have the full force of the storm, you have the middle part where it goes quiet for about 25 minutes and you think the storm is over. A lot of people, they don’t know that and they continue like nothing ever happened, and then the storm comes back with full force of wind again.

Q: After you were in the Dutch side you heard stories about in the French side being crazy.

A: They eventually tried to block out the borders because they didn’t want people from the French side coming to the Dutch side and people from the Dutch side to go to the French side. And after the whole week of not talking to each other, the two governments decided to come together and try and fix something. But they spent a week—oh we are not going to talk to you, you are on that side. It’s like when you are one island, two countries, this is the time when you need to get together, but it took them one whole week to actually finally get together. It was ridiculous.

Q: So the hurricane came, and it basically destroyed the island. A lot of the people who were in the houses that didn’t evacuate were actually trapped.

A: They were either trapped, or they managed to get out in time and go to neighbors. It all depends, you don’t really know, because after the hurricane you can’t exactly—there’s no internet, there’s no communication, even the radio station was down. So we have an old-fashioned radio, and we tried our best, but for the first couple of days you wouldn’t hear anything. There’s nothing on the station. Then they got it going... And people, if they wanted to get a message through, they called the radio station from other countries. Or the government officials would come in and talk on the radio station. Because there was no communication, there was no internet, there was no phone calls, nothing.

Q: How many people are on the island, do you know?

A: I don’t know. I know that overall after all the evacuation, the population dropped down to roughly 6,000, but people were still trying to get out. So it’s probably a lot lower now. But driving on the roads, you see there’s nothing there. There’s also a curfew, but hardly any people are driving around. After a week, you see, everyone is gone. It’s like a ghost town.

Q: You were also hearing stories of people taking the food and...

A: Yes, there was a lot of looting and stealing. I can understand from a point of view if it is for food and water, and you have nothing left, that’s understandable. But then you also had on one side, stealing cars and motorbikes. It’s unnecessary... If it were me, honestly—I’m not saying I’m a looter or anything, but if I were walking by and the store was open and I had a family to take care of, I was a mother, yes, I would go and take food and water. Because I don’t have money. I’ve lost everything. And my kids are going to die...

I don’t have too much news for the French side because I wasn’t there, but on the Dutch side there was a lot of water that was brought in.

Q: Do you know from where?

A: Different companies that came in, mainly the U.S. Air Force, and things like that. They came in, they brought water, but the government didn’t know what to do with this water. The water was just there on the airport runway, just sitting in the sun, and there’s people who are starving and need water for hydration. After a week in the area we lived, which was right next to the airport, we only saw water that was to be washed with. It was out of a tank, so it was to be washed with, not drinking water, and that’s seven days later after Hurricane Irma.

Q: You were saying also about the process of evacuation, how some boats came and were just picking up certain people.

A: The company that came in to help us, they came in a bit late, but they still helped. They were taking all nationalities and also pets if you had, with specific requirements, like the certification to travel and the shots and everything. And that company was Royal Caribbean. That company helped us. They took us on the boat. There was help for doctors, help for food, water, anything you needed, a bed with towels, toothbrushes. Anything you needed if you came with completely nothing. They were there. And then you also had other companies, private companies, who came in and helped...

The U.S. Air Force, they came in, took people—only the American citizens—took them and put them on the flight and took them out. And they did that constantly. All day you could see them. The Canadians did the same thing. And then eventually, once the tourists were taken out, the locals could be dealt with.

Q: The United States took all of its citizens and then never came back?

A: All of its citizens, and that was it. Nothing to do with the locals who need help. “You are American? Ok, you can get on.” That’s it. But if you are from St. Martin, no one cares. So a lot of people were stuck, especially—like “Oh I’m from St. Martin, which plane do I get on”? “Oh you can’t get on a plane because you are not American.”...

I was telling my dad, this is ridiculous. It breaks my heart. This is not human. How could you do this? Have some emotion and understanding. And the French marines or Dutch marines, the individual people, they don’t have any control. Like you come and you beg them for water but they can’t do anything, because it’s not them who has the orders. They have to take command from the commander. I saw one Dutch marine, he’s looking at us, and he started crying, because he can’t do anything. He feels completely hopeless...

Q: That’s how you got out of there, through Royal Caribbean?

A: Yeah. But then too, I saw planes coming in and out all day, but it’s not just like you can hop on a plane and get out. They were requesting certain people. For those who are from the island it was hard: “Well what about us? We need help too. Ok I get it, you are a tourist, you paid to come here, but we live here. This is our home, we have lost everything, have some sympathy.”

Q: What do you think what it says about the role of the United States?

A: I feel like the government, they have the ability, they have all the devices, the technology, everything. Airplanes, helicopters, whatnot. It’s just a big country. There’s food and water and everything. There’s money. I’m pretty sure you could have come and helped us. You brought your citizens out, but is it going to hurt you to even help us for a bit?



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