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France defends its handling of island hurricane preparations

A palm tree lays on a car after the passage of Hurricane Irma, near the shore in Marigot, on the island of St. Martin, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. The island is divided between French St. Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten. (AP Photo/Amandine Ascensio

PARIS (AP) — The French government is defending its handling of hurricane preparations in the French Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, after being criticized by opponents for not preparing enough and by locals who felt abandoned by authorities amid the devastation.

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner, speaking Sunday with Europe1-CNews-Les Echos, said he “perfectly (understood) the anger” of residents after Hurricane Irma tore through the islands, killing nine people, destroying houses and cutting off the water supply. Extra troops had to be sent to stop subsequent looting. Another four people were killed on St. Maarten, the Dutch side of St. Martin, the Dutch government reported Sunday.

But Castaner insisted President Emmanuel Macron’s government deployed robust emergency planning methods and sent plenty of equipment to the islands, with emergency help given “first priority.” He said officials had known of the “extremely high risk” days in advance and had mobilized military and health care personnel in nearby Guadeloupe.

Castaner said many islanders were suffering from “an impact of emotional shock, an impact that’s extremely hard psychologically.”

Far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, who lost the presidency to Macron in May, accused the government on Saturday of having “totally insufficient” emergency and security measures in place. The families of stranded island residents have taken to social media networks to voice similar criticism.

Macron held an emergency meeting Saturday about Irma and the approaching Hurricane Jose. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe later insisted that the government’s support for Irma’s victims isn’t “empty words.”

“I am aware of the fear, the exhaustion and the anguish that the current situation is causing families in the Antilles and on the mainland,” he said. “We are completely mobilized to rescue, to accompany and to rebuild.”

The criticism comes as Macron’s popularity has been sinking over unpopular domestic policies like reforming labor laws.

France’s main electricity provider EDF says it transported 140 tons of electrical equipment to the Caribbean to help restore the power supply, since much of the electricity across St. Martin and St. Barts was wiped out after Hurricane Irma hit Wednesday.

EDF said the equipment — transported from mainland France via two large aircraft — arrived Sunday in neighboring Guadeloupe. It included fifty generators, motor pumps and flood kits that will be transported to the islands by boat as soon as conditions permit.

Camp beds, sleeping bags and life-saving equipment were also sent to help EDF’s Rapid Electric Intervention Force (FIRE) teams, which were arriving from Martinique, Guyana and Corsica to support those already on Guadeloupe.

France’s interior minister said Sunday he shared the relief of many residents in St. Martin and St. Barts that Hurricane Jose spared the islands further devastation.

Gerard Collomb, speaking at a press conference in Paris, said “Jose passed miles from the coasts” and “it did not add what we feared: more difficulties.”

Collomb said authorities were now concentrating on getting the 1 million tons of water that has been delivered into the hands of residents on the islands. He added that restoring security — after reports that some shops were looted — is a priority for police and soldiers.

Collomb also dismissed as false a report that prison inmates on the Dutch part of St. Martin had escaped amid the devastation.

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Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.

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