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article imageFrance flies in aid to stricken Caribbean islands

By AFP     Sep 7, 2017 in World

France on Thursday flew in water, emergency rations and rescue teams to stricken French territories in the Caribbean hit by Hurricane Irma where at least eight people have been killed and another 21 wounded.

The death toll was updated to eight from six for the island of St Martin, a which is divided between the Netherlands and France and is home to about 80,000 people in total.

A day after the Category Five hurricane smashed its way across St Martin and the nearby French-run island of St Barthelemy, French and Dutch officials scrambled to activate a rescue plan to help their citizens.

Footage from a Dutch naval helicopter showed scenes of widespread devastation, with dozens of shipping containers overturned, buildings with rooves torn off and debris flung far and wide.

"The destruction is massive," French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters in Paris.

A 200-strong French delegation of troops, rescuers, soldiers and medics flew to the larger French island of Guadeloupe where rescue efforts are being coordinated for surrounding territories.

Collomb said that the airport on the French side of St Martin had "not been hit so much," allowing helicopters and eventually other aircraft to fly in 100,000 emergency rations, fresh water and equipment.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Dutch side of the island was "not reachable at this point because of the huge damage to the airport and the harbour."

Telephone networks were still down on both sides and Collomb warned that death toll could rise as rescue teams scour far-flung parts of St Martin as well as St Barthelemy, which is also known as St Bart.

Rescue dogs have been flown in because "unfortunately there is work to be done on St Bart where the damage is very significant," French Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin said.

St Bart, home to around 9,500 people, is known as a famed holiday destination and playground for the rich and famous such as Beyonce, Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow.

- 'Everything is destroyed' -

Speaking to broadcaster RTL, 20-year-old Koen who lives in the town of Voorhout on St Martin said he was shocked by the scenes which greeted him after the storm passed.

"There is huge damage. Sand has been blown over everything. Everything is destroyed," he said.

And Paul Windt, director of the Daily Herald newspaper, told RTL that communications were down.

"We have no power, no electricity, no gasoline. Fixed line telephones are still working. But the authorities are finding it hard to communicate with residents," he said.

Before the Category Five hurricane hit, the Dutch defence ministry had stationed two naval vessels nearby, equipped with a helicopter and supplies. And 100 soldiers were deployed there and on several other Dutch islands beforehand to help protect residents.

"Our highest priority is to restore public amenities," naval Lieutenant Egbert Stoel told RTL from Curacao, another Dutch island.

He said the airport and port were "out of action" and that the fire department had been "severely affected".

"We will try to get the airport up and running as soon as possible so that extra resources can be brought (in)," he said.

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