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European leaders arrive in Irma-struck Caribbean as aid effort ramps up

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the Caribbean on Tuesday pledging to rebuild the French territories ravaged by Hurricane Irma, amid mounting criticism that European nations and the US had neglected their responsibilities in the region.

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Hilary Clarke
Ben Westcott (CNN)

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the Caribbean on Tuesday pledging to rebuild the French territories ravaged by Hurricane Irma, amid mounting criticism that European nations and the US had neglected their responsibilities in the region.

But as European politicians also fly out to their overseas territories and promise reconstruction, the administrative complexities of these tiny islands makes a coordinated response difficult, aid officials and experts say.

Hurricane Irma arrived last week with Category 5 strength at a patchwork of independent island nations and territories in various forms of association with France, the Netherlands, the US and the UK.

Irma killed at least 38 people in the Caribbean, including 10 in Cuba and the rest on the other smaller islands, notably Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, the British territory of Anguilla, the US Virgin Islands and the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten which is half-French and half-Dutch.

On Tuesday, children's charity UNICEF said the international community should have a role to play in the relief effort.

"We need to go beyond the thought that these are territories and leave it to the respective governments," Khin-Sandi Lwin, who is leading UNICEF's response in the Caribbean, told CNN. "Normally in this situation there would be an international appeal."

UNICEF is relying on regular program money for the region but has set a target of $2.3 million it wants to raise from governments and private donors.

The World Food Programme said that up to 200,000 people were in need of aid in the eastern Caribbean.

"WFP is providing some 30 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, enough to feed more than 17,000 people for three days, being airlifted by WFP from Haiti to the hub in Antigua (where the population of Barbuda has been evacuated) and to nearby St. Martin," it said in a statement.

Priority is being given to the most vulnerable, including families living in shelters, families with malnourished children, female-headed households, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly, the WFP said.

Speaking in Guadeloupe, Macron promised to rebuild the French territories flattened by Irma, namely St. Martin and St. Barts.

"I am here to talk about reconstruction," he said. "When such a thing happens, life is never the same again. I want to rebuild not just a new life but also a better life."

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands visited St. Maarten on Monday, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson touched down in Barbados later Tuesday to oversee relief efforts.

Although there has been criticism of the respective governments' response in France and in the Netherlands, whose territory St. Maarten saw looting and violence, it is the UK government that has come under the most fire.

UK criticized for response to Irma

Johnson arrived in Anguilla Tuesday to offer his support to islanders there and in the British Virgin islands, all of which suffered major devastation from the storms.

"Seen for myself #Irma damage on Anguilla & extraordinary efforts of local people supported by UK response to recover & get back to normality," he tweeted.

Speaking in the UK Parliament, Alan Duncan, secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, said more than half a million British nationals -- both residents and visitors -- were caught up in Irma.

"I am rather dismayed by the sweeping criticism ... they are unsupported by the facts. For instance, the French don't deploy in advance specifically for hurricanes, what they do is have troops permanently based there because the nature of French overseas territories' government is different from ours. Our overseas territories are self-governing. The French govern directly. And therefore they have soldiers there all the time," Duncan said.

The UK has had a naval vessel, Mounts Bay, preloaded with disaster relief supplies in the Caribbean since July, and within a couple of days had restored electricity at Anguilla's hospital and cleared the airport runway before repositioning to the British Virgin Islands.

Duncan said the Royal Air Force was transporting supplies all the time and 997 military personnel were now in the Caribbean. Another Royal Navy ship, HMS Ocean, has left Gibraltar and will be active in the Caribbean in about 10 days, he said.

But there has been loud criticism in the media and from the islanders themselves.

"All over the island, Anguillans are saying that the response has been really sorely lacking. We are feeling very much like the step-child," Josephine Gumbs-Connor, an Anguillan lawyer, told CNN on Monday.

Alasdair Pinkerton, a senior lecturer in geography and geopolitics at the Royal Holloway University of London, said Britain's overseas model made it difficult for Britain to respond quickly to crises like Hurricane Irma.

"We struggle to respond to tragedies in our own country, let alone those Britain has a responsibility for 2,500 miles away," he said.

Patrols and charter boats

Meanwhile, France's Macron stressed that running water and electricity would be back soon in France's Caribbean territories, and that he hoped schools would be reopened for at least a few hours early next week.

The President said he planned to go on a patrol in St. Martin on Tuesday night with French security forces to see for himself that law and order have been restored following reports of widespread looting.

Many local residents were discovering that self-help is sometimes the most efficient.

Nils Erickson has lived on the US Virgin Island of St. John since 1994 but had recently returned to the US and watched the storm unfold from his home in Newport, Rhode Island.

"One by one everyone went quiet. There was no communication coming out of St. Thomas and St. John. My wife and I were paralyzed by this feeling of powerlessness," he told CNN on Tuesday.

So he used his own money to charter boats to ferry people to safety.

"I maxed out my credit card and emptied my savings. We've got eight boats, three directly with this company, who are coming to help run trips to St. John," he said. "We've gotten 800 people out so far from St. John and St. Thomas."

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne estimated about 95% of the buildings on Barbuda had been damaged, if not destroyed.

'There's no supplies'

Evacuees arriving in the United States from St. Martin spoke of their horror as the hurricane passed overhead and the difficult cleanup that has followed.

"The problem now is there's no supplies," one woman told CNN at San Juan airport in Puerto Rico, where evacuees were being taken.

"(We're missing) gas for vehicles, diesel gas for generators, diesel gas for all the trucks and front loaders needed to clear the rubble."

The woman, who didn't give her name before being rushed away by officials, said she was flying with her children back to the US to stay with her sister while her husband looked after their house in St. Martin.

"The biggest problem right now is the lack of communications. People just don't know what's happening," she said.

Newlywed Frances Bradley-Villier said all that was left in St. Martin was "devastation."

"I've never experienced a hurricane before in my life ... I can't even come up with the right words to explain the emotion, the anxiety, just not knowing, the fear," she said.

Her husband, Dominique Vilier, told CNN there had been looting and robbing in the wake of the hurricane, which has left them without food and water.

"It's very terrible right now ... I actually had two persons try to break into my house at night the day before yesterday and I had to scare them off," he said.

European aid arrives

As Macron headed to St. Martin, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb announced that France was currently working on delivering water to affected neighborhoods across the island.

He said food supplies were being provided by 1,500 helpers on the ground in the West Indies, with the number rising to 2,000 over the coming days.

UK billionaire Richard Branson, who rode out the storm in his home in the British Virgin Islands -- which President Barack Obama visited when he left the White House -- is also rallying for relief.

A spokesman for his airline, Virgin Atlantic, told CNN that Virgin had "restarted flights to and from Antigua, and we're also taking essential aid on those flights for the island and wider BVI [British Virgin Islands] region."

The European Union has also committed to providing $2.4 million for emergency relief.

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