Battered and weary after being pummelled by Hurricane Irma, terrified residents Saturday awaited an unprecedented second monster storm bearing down on already devastated Caribbean islands.
“Return to the safest shelters before the hurricane arrives, and avoid areas which could flood,” police in the French part of St Martin pleaded, only three days it was ravaged by Irma.
Jose, a Category Four storm, will bring heavy rains and winds of 130 to 150 kilometres an hour, meteorologists said.
But it may give islanders some relief and veer about 100 kilometres to the North of St Martin and St Barts when it hits later Saturday.
Many on the once paradise island of St Martin divided between France and The Netherlands will be wondering where to go.
Irma left at least 12 dead and hundreds injured across the island, and with the clean-up barely begun, authorities are struggling to get aid to the stricken population.
Watch: scenes of devastation in St Martin
Across the island – a popular tourist destination known for its vibrant nightlife and pristine beaches -roofs were ripped off, windows blown out, cars and boats tossed about like matchsticks and palm trees uprooted by Irma when it barrelled through on Wednesday.
Debris still clogs the streets, many homes have been left uninhabitable, communications have not been fully restored, and tens of thousands are already without power, food and water.
It was “an illusion” that islanders could prepare properly for Jose’s arrival, said Dutch Navy commander Peter Jan de Vin.
“Everything that is loose and lying around and which can be picked up by the winds and thrown around is a projectile that can injure or kill,” he told the Dutch daily NRC newspaper, urging people to seek shelter.
Seventy per cent of the infrastructure on the southern Dutch part, known as Sint Maarten, was destroyed by Irma, according to Dutch officials.
At the only fully operational airport in the French north, exhausted women including one with a baby born just hours previously, children and the elderly waited hoping for flights out to nearby Guadeloupe or even mainland France.
Amid reports of looting, French and Dutch troops have also fanned out across the island seeking to restore order.
“The atmosphere is grim. People are walking around with weapons, but I can’t confirm there are machetes,” De Vin said.
But he insisted that Dutch troops were “getting more of a grip on the situation.”
One Dutch holidaymaker told the tabloid De Telegraaf though that he and about 50 guests had barricaded themselves into their hotel in the town of Philipsburg, claiming there were armed gangs on the streets.
“Groups of several people, sometimes whole families, are roaming the streets with knives and firearms,” Dick Algra, 61, a retired captain with the KLM airline, told De Telegraaf by telephone.
“Shops are being broken into and everything carted away.”
The hotel manager was warning guests to stay in the hotel as it was “too dangerous” outside, he said.
In a race against time, Dutch and French troops and aid workers have been sent to the region.
The French interior ministry said about 1,105 people had been deployed including police, troops, firefighters, health workers, and engineers from the EDF electricity company.
Twelve sick and wounded patients from Dutch Sint Maarten were airlifted to a hospital in nearby Curacao late Friday for treatment.
Dr Lisandra Berenos-Riley, from the Sint Elisabeth hospital in Willemstad, said the situation in the hospital in Sint Maarten was “disastrous”.
“The surgery theatre no longer exists. And as well as their existing patients they have to deal with people who have been injured in the hurricane,” Berenos-Riley told the Dutch broadcaster NOS.
In a further bid to restore order, curfews have been put in place in several islands.
And on Barbuda, left virtually uninhabitable by Irma, a flotilla of small boats was sailing the entire population of about 1,800 people to safety some 40 miles away on the twin island of Antigua, the British daily The Times said.