The State Department said Sunday more than 1,200 American citizens have been evacuated from the hurricane-damaged island vacation hot spot of St. Maarten amid reports of looting and violence — but the Dutch government said reports of a prison break were “unfounded.”
The evacuations by military flight to Puerto Rico resumed Sunday afternoon, after relief flights had been suspended because of poor weather from Hurricane Jose, the storm that followed Hurricane Irma, the department said.
“Evacuation efforts will prioritize U.S. citizens needing urgent medical care, followed by a broad call with additional information other U.S. citizens remaining on the island,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We will accommodate third country nationals on a space available basis.”
“We continue to advise U.S. citizens to shelter in place at a secure location until they have specific and confirmed departure plans.”
Juan Brown, 49, of Fernandina Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville, said he was flown by U.S. military plane from St. Maarten to Puerto Rico Saturday afternoon — after first riding out the storm in a stairwell and service elevator shaft at a hotel.
Brown was on the island on a business trip when the hurricane hit Tuesday night.
“We all ran to stairwells there was about I would say about 100 guests and about 65 staff that they had there,” he said.
“It started taking on water towards the bottom and people started panicking,” he said, later adding. “It was a very dangerous situation … there we a lot of elderly people, a lot of kids crying, a lot of people gathering and holding hands.”
Brown and his business partner, Ricardo Brignole, then left with a group to a service elevator shaft.
“That was harrowing because to the left of us and the right of us were all rooms and those doors and windows were getting blown out left and right so it was taking on water the wind was just whipping in,” said Brown.
“The power behind it was significantly strong,” said Brignole, 36.
The two said they spent the next few days on the island, without electricity and running water, before they were able get on the military flight carrying more than two hundred people.
Evacuees clapped, cheered and shook hands with military officials when they finally landed in Puerto Rico, they said.
“One lady actually dropped down to the floor and kissed the ground as soon as we landed,” said Brignole. “It was definitely a joyous moment.”
Meanwhile, two cruise lines said they were mobilizing ships to hard-hit islands to provide relief supplies and help people in need.
Royal Caribbean International said in a statement Sunday they were dispatching ships to St. Maarten and the island of St. Thomas.
“Presently, Adventure of the Seas will make a humanitarian stop in St. Maarten on Sunday and Majesty of the Seas will make humanitarian calls in St. Thomas and St. Maarten to provide supplies and also assist in transporting evacuees in St. Maarten to safety,” the company said.
Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that it had also deployed a ship to St. Thomas.
“In the wake of this devastating storm, we have deployed Norwegian Sky to St. Thomas, USVI to bring much needed supplies and assist in a humanitarian effort that is currently being organized by the government,” the company said.
St. Maarten is the Dutch-controlled side of the island of St. Martin. The other part of the island is a French overseas territory, where looting, gunshots and a lack of clean drinking water were reported.
In a statement Sunday, the Dutch foreign ministry said the island had suffered “little inconvenience from wind and rain that can’t be tackled with repair and clean-up operations.”
“Patrols appear to be effective in preventing or stopping looting and robbery,” it added. “The prison on St. Maarten is now fully guarded by Dutch soldiers. Earlier rumors about escapes of prisoners are unfounded and not true.”
Large-scale distribution of food and water by soldiers and aid workers would begin Monday, the ministry said.