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Over Saint Martin, Canadian surveillance pilot bears witness to Hurricane Irma’s destruction

Members of the Dutch military and Coast Guard offload much-needed equipment and supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma’s destructive pass over the island of Saint Martin earlier this week.

Flying the first reconnaissance mission at low altitude over the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, Wade Fleet said it looked as if a box of toothpicks had been dropped from a great height and left scattered over the countryside.

Below, he could see homes destroyed, streets flooded and a people facing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma.

"It's just crushing. The infrastructure is basically gone," Mr. Fleet said by telephone Friday. "There's a lot of debris around. Everywhere."

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Mr. Fleet, a Canadian pilot, flies for PAL Aerospace, a Newfoundland-based company under contract to the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard to operate maritime surveillance and search and rescue flights from Curacao. Saint Martin, a popular tourist destination with a population of about 80,000, is divided between France (St-Martin) and the Netherlands (St. Maarten).

At daybreak Thursday, Mr. Fleet was at the controls of the first flight to survey the damage. From 15 kilometres out, the island looked normal, he said. Conditions were still rough as remnants of the storm's winds buffeted his Dash-8 aircraft, but the island looked serene, he said.

"When you get closer, that's when you start seeing the devastation and the damage," Mr. Fleet said. Homes were flattened and some supermarkets had simply disappeared, he said. Communications towers were scythed down by the winds and satellite dishes demolished. Trees and vegetation seemed to have been wiped from the earth.

"When we got really close, we could see people milling about, trying to find stuff, things they can use for the next while to support themselves," he said.

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He flew low over the Princess Juliana airport, made famous by images of beach-goers watching incoming jumbo jets landing almost right on top of them. He said the sand from those beaches was entirely blown away by the storm.

"Most of the beaches are gone," he said. "It's just rock now."

Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of the homes on the island appeared to be uninhabitable, Mr. Fleet said. That's a big concern as Hurricane Jose, which was upgraded to a Category 4 storm Friday, approaches the island hot on the heels of Irma. To have so many people without shelter will create serious risks for the population. And, in its aftermath, will come the challenge of providing the basic necessities of life to a population lacking electric power.

Mr. Fleet said he and his colleagues have been going flat-out from dawn till dusk and have flown a total of five relief flights to St. Maarten so far. Co-ordinating with the Dutch military from the island of Curacao further south, they've brought supplies such as water, ready-to-eat meal packs and medical supplies such as blood and bandages.

They've also transported Dutch marines and police from Curacao to assist in recovery efforts and to secure public order on St. Maarten.

"I'll be cautious about this, but there's concerns. People are getting desperate now when it comes to looting. The Dutch are taking a proactive effort to make sure marines are there and police," he said. "We're going to use every bit of daylight we can to keep moving relief supplies in."

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Mr. Fleet said that as the last flight left at sundown Thursday, one of his colleagues saw a flashing light coming from the blown-out window of a resort property.

"It was somebody flashing SOS," Mr. Fleet said. "That gives you an idea. When you see the toll and fatalities, I don't think it's been properly accumulated yet."

He worries that as these storms bear down on the United States, the world will forget about the small, Caribbean nations that are already suffering. Mr. Fleet also flew over the island of Barbuda, and said it looks to be similarly devastated.

Mr. Fleet said the last request out of St. Maarten was for more brooms, so he and his team scrambled to fill the order. He said authorities there are bracing for the next storm, and anticipating that clearing the landing strip will require more equipment than they've got.

"We're on an expedition to find as many brooms as we can to get them on their way," he said.

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