As much of the media's attention shifted to Hurricane Irma's impact on Florida, the affected Caribbean islands were left cut off from aid in recent days as officials assessed the storm's damage. The region's isolation gave way to desperation as residents scavenged for food and drinking water—leading to media reports of "looting." But critics questioned the characterization of the chaos that's broken out on the islands, highlighting the difference between looting and survival.
St. Martin experienced some of the worst damage last week, with Irma reportedly leveling 95 percent of the island's structures. The island, a territory of the Dutch and the French, experienced a severe food and water shortage after the storm, with businesses reportedly gouging prices on necessities; the Wall Street Journal interviewed two American vacationers who paid $150 for Gatorade and water in the wake of the hurricane.
For most St. Martin residents, such prices are out of the question. The New York Times reported that people searched for necessities at grocery stores over the weekend, with fights eventually breaking out amid the food shortage. A 63-year-old resident told the Times, "All the food is gone now. People are fighting in the streets for what is left."
"Some people steal luxury things and booze, but a lot of people are stealing water and biscuits," said Paul De Windt, a newspaper publisher in St. Martin, to the Times.
The Dutch and French said they would send more troops to join the 265 military personnel that were already stationed in St. Martin, but the response seemed aimed largely at stopping the so-called "looting."
"We need to restore public order to Saint-Martin," said Annick Girardin, minister of France's overseas territories, in a BBC report. "I was out this morning and this afternoon and there was looting right there in front of my eyes. There is a strange mood at the moment in Saint-Martin, so we need to think about public order."
But many rejected the characterization of post-disaster survival as "looting."
In an interview with the Washington Post last week, retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore questioned reports of looting in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, speaking from his experience of overseeing military relief efforts in Houston and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
"There's no doubt that on any given day, there are people who are going to steal other people's stuff," said Honore. "But what we see after these storms is a greatly over-exaggerated concern...That's not looting, that's survival mode."
Critics on social media agreed:
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— Stacy (@stacydavisgates) September 11, 2017
Also, when there is a hurricane/disaster, that is not looting! Stores are corporate entities that can write off the loss. Survival first. pic.twitter.com/1qTuK8mcug
— Tia Oso (@Tia_Oso) September 8, 2017
"Looters"—Do what you gotta do to survive. Your life is far more important than dry folks' feelings or some grocery chain's bottom line.
— Danielle Muscato (@DanielleMuscato) August 31, 2017
Setting an example of neighborliness and compassion, one owner of a diving supply business located on Virgin Gorda (VG) in the British Virgin Islands—where the UK government faced criticism for its slow response to the storm and its failure to set up contingency plans before Irma hit—asked those trapped on the island to help those in need and urged anyone who might be in need to help themselves to items that might be found at the shop.
"If you DO get a call from anyone in VG - our shop there might have clothes and shelter in Leverick Bay," said the owner of Dive BVI on Facebook. "I know some looting has started as people are desperate to find resources. Take anything we have left if it helps you get through this time."