At first, Kaiann Macleay was grateful to be alive after Hurricane Irma ravaged the St. Martin resort where she and her husband were staying.
Then, after the storm subsided, they went outside and saw the true extent of the devastation. Amid debris from homes, resorts and businesses, she said that some people were snatching up anything they could get their hands on, from necessities like gas to luxury goods like perfume.
“I was faced with the reality that we were in a really, really bad situation,” Macleay told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
It’s been nearly one week since Irma struck the half-Dutch, half-French island as it tore through the Caribbean, and basic necessities are still scarce. Reports of looting and robberies continue, forcing everyday people to defend themselves.
As weary residents and tourists slowly make their way out, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the overseas territory Tuesday. He offered assurances that power will be restored, running water will return and schools will reopen in the coming weeks.
But to those who fled the deteriorating conditions, it sounds like wishful thinking for the short term.
Patrols with machetes
After spotting prowlers on resort property after the hurricane, Macleay’s husband and other guests formed a volunteer patrol. Armed with machetes and kitchen knives, they took turns keeping night watch over the property.
“It just felt like you had to call yourself to action and do it because no one was gonna protect us other than ourselves,” Lachlan Macleay said. “We had to rise to the occasion and band together.”
It quickly became apparent “assistance was not arriving,” his wife added. “We had to prepare to take care of ourselves and figure out a way to survive.”
As the week went on, staying safe meant staying on the property. In the streets of St. Martin, Macleay said she saw people stealing gas from cars and mattresses and televisions from stores.
Dominique Vilier described similar conditions on the Dutch side of the island, known as Sint Maarten. He’s from the island and he married his American wife there three days before Irma made landfall. Their newlywed bliss was short-lived.
His wife, Frances Bradley-Vilier, moved to the island three years ago and made it her home with Vilier. After the storm, it didn’t take long for them to realize they had to leave.
“It’s really like the end of the world over there right now,” she told CNN. “I’m not trying to be dramatic but there’s no water, there’s no electricity, there’s no way to communicate with each other.”
Her husband said people are robbing others for whatever they have. Government patrols are overwhelmed by people on the streets with guns, he said. CNN has been unable to verify claims of looting and armed citizens on the streets.
The night before he left, Vilier said two people tried to break into his house “and I had to scare them off.”
“That’s when I decided I have to leave,” he said. “It’s madness. They’re all over the place. It’s really crazy right now.”
Bradley-Vilier left first on Saturday on a flight to Puerto Rico for American citizens. After arriving, she anxiously awaited news from her husband. It seemed uncertain if he would make it, given limited availability and strict citizenship requirements, she said. Eventually, he was able to come over with his aunt, an American citizen.
‘St. Martin would be reborn’
But as Macron and other European politicians flew out to their overseas territories and promised reconstruction, the administrative complexities of these tiny islands make a coordinated response difficult, aid officials and experts say.
Speaking Tuesday at the Pointe-A-Pitre Airport at Guadeloupe, another French territory, Macron pledged that “St. Martin would be reborn.”
He condemned reports of looting and vowed to restore order by deploying 2,000 security personnel to street patrols on the island. He promised that water and electricity would be up and running soon again in the French territories, adding that he hoped schools would be reopened, at least for a few hours early next week.
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.
King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands visited St. Maarten on Monday, and described the devastation as “beyond anything you can imagine.” Starting Wednesday, officials will scale back a 24-hour curfew and let people out from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Despite the present chaos, the Viliers hope to return to the island.
“Sint Maarten will always be home. This is where I’m from. But it won’t be the same,” Vilier said. “It just takes a couple hours, from paradise to hell.”