The devastation of Hurricane Irma has highlighted racial tensions on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, according to some residents, who claim white tourists were given priority during evacuation.
Black and mixed-race residents of the island, where there is a disparity in wealth between white and non-white people, said they had seen white tourists rescued from the category-4 storm ahead of needy mothers and children who were not prioritized by rescuers.
One St. Martin resident, Johana Soudiagom, told the Associated Press she was among a small minority of non-white people who were evacuated to Guadeloupe as the hurricane hit.
“It’s selective. Excuse me, but we saw only mainlanders,” Soudiagom told Guadeloupe 1ere television. “That’s a way of saying, ‘I’m sorry, only whites. There are only whites on the boat.'”
Nine people were killed on the French part of the island following the storm, which destroyed buildings and claimed the lives of at least 37 people across the Caribbean and a further seven people in the U.S.
“In my eyes, Irma is for the French Antilles what Hurricane Katrina was for Louisiana in the U.S.—an exposer of racial and social inequalities,” France’s Representative Council of Black Associations spokesman, Louis-Georges Tin, told the AP.
The group has demanded the French government hold an inquiry into why people evacuated from St. Martin “were not necessarily the most in distress.”
“In Florida, there were more than 1 million evacuated, and France says that with four days’ notice they couldn’t evacuate a much smaller number,” Tin said.
“The question must be asked: Does it have to do with racism?” he added.
But the French government has claimed it is far more difficult to arrange evacuation from islands than it is on a mainland where people can use their own vehicles to drive to safety.
At least 1,200 Americans were evacuated from St. Martin, while some who remained on the island describing instances of looting—somethingalso seen in Florida, with a group of alleged looters arrested in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.
Areas in the Caribbean and in the U.S. affected by Hurricane Irma are now facing massive cleanup operations, dealing with damage to buildings, injuries and a price tag expected to run into billions of dollars.