x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

A tale of two relief efforts in the Caribbean

Both France and Britain have been criticised for their lack of preparation for Hurricane Irma, but aid is finally beginning to flow to affected islands

France's president Emmanuel Macron looks at damaged houses destroyed by Hurricane Irma during his visit to St Martin. Christophe Ena / The Associated Press
France's president Emmanuel Macron looks at damaged houses destroyed by Hurricane Irma during his visit to St Martin. Christophe Ena / The Associated Press

As symbols of the dynamism of their countries’ response to Hurricane Irma striking former colonial outposts, French president Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, struck a keen contrast on Tuesday.

President Macron, facing a day of protest from unions at home, flew into Guadeloupe and immediately started to pledge that he would personally see the region back on its feet as soon as possible

“St Martin will be reborn, I promise,” Mr Macron told reporters at the airport in Pointe-a-Pitre. “I will shake up all the rules and procedures so the job is done as quickly as possible. It will be done quickly, it will be done well, and it will be done better.”

He then took a helicopter into St Martin, which bore the brunt of the storm and where more than 200 people are still listed missing. With his shirtsleeves literally rolled up, Mr Macron walked through streets still strewn with debris, and met residents of the French overseas territory, dandling babies and expressing his horror and concern.

He was subsequently reported to have spent the night sleeping in a camp cot in a police station on the island, before heading to St Barts, another island with French heritage.

Meanwhile, some 660 kilometres to the south east on Tuesday, Mr Johnson arrived in Barbados as part of a similarly hastily arranged trip to British Virgin Islands and Anguilla and other affected territories.

Dressed in a beige sports jacket and slacks and looking the worse for the hot weather, footage of his arrival in the Caribbean showed him addressing a nonplussed company of British squaddies on an airport runway, making confused small talk with them: “Have you just got here or have you been here for days?”

“24 hours, sir,” a soldier answered.

“Where have you been?”

“We’ve literally just been in a military camp on the other side of the airfield.”

Optics, that modern political buzzword which defines what you are seen to be doing and its importance to the perception of how well you are doing your job, has rarely been more succinctly illustrated.

Both Britain and France have faced serious criticism about the paucity of their immediate reaction to Irma. Neither country — nor the Dutch, who have sovereignty over the other side of the St Martin island — anticipated the disaster or got enough aid to the afflicted areas quickly enough.

The French leader, eager to draw attention from tens of thousands of striking workers filling the streets of Paris, produced an eye-catching display backed by a pledge of €50 million (Dh220m) and a deployment of 2,000 security forces with their boots on the ground already.

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Read more:

Irma is gone at last, after reducing Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys to a disaster zone

Uprooted trees, houses crushed and flooding: Cuba feels the force of Irma

Nature is the most awesome destroyer of all

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Mr Johnson arrived to a chorus of criticism about the British relief effort, from local politicians and also a former Crown official who served as attorney general of Anguilla for two years until 2016.

Writing in the Guardian, Rupert Jones called the aid offered “derisory” and said the £32m (Dh156m) allocated by the government for British overseas territories — of which £28m has already been spent — was “a drop in the Caribbean Sea”.

Mr Johnson did travel to Anguilla on Wednesday, and announced further government funds and the arrival of more British forces, including the naval flagship, the Ocean, but the damage in PR terms has been done.