Strung like beads along the northeast edge of the Caribbean, the Leeward Islands are tiny, remote and beautiful, with azure waters drawing tourists from around the world.

The wild isolation that made St Barts, St Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands holiday paradises has turned them into cutoff, chaotic nightmares in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which left 22 people dead, mostly in the Leeward Islands. Looting and lawlessness were reported yesterday by both French and Dutch authorities.

The then Category five storm snapped the islands' links to the outside world with a direct hit, pounding small airports, decapitating cellphone towers, filling harbours with overturned, crushed boats and leaving tourists and locals desperate to flee. The situation worsened with Category four Hurricane Jose, which shut airports and halted emergency boat traffic.

Looting, gunshots and a lack of clean drinking water were reported on the French territory of St Martin. Federal officials deployed C-130s to evacuate hundreds of US citizens from the island to Puerto Rico. The USS Wasp evacuated hospital patients from St Thomas in the Virgin Islands to St Croix and Puerto Rico. The Norwegian Cruise Line used a cruise ship to rescue 2000 tourists.

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Carol Basch, a 53-year-old document analyst from Savannah, Georgia, was among those evacuated to Puerto Rico. When Irma hit St Martin, she huddled for four hours in a hotel bathroom, hearing furniture being tossed around her room. She said locals had welcomed her into their house and gave her food and a sofa to sleep on.

More than 1100 police, military officials and others were deployed to St Martin and St Barts. France is sending more Foreign Legion troops and paratroopers starting today.

In Dutch St Maarten, 70 per cent of houses were badly damaged or destroyed, leaving much of the 40,000 population in public shelters. Some 230 Dutch troops and police were patrolling to maintain order and deliver aid and a further 200 would arrive. Britain announced a package of 42 million for Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks & Caicos.

Once known for pink sandy beaches, the island of Barbuda is now a disaster zone. Its people fared better than those on other islands, since its sister island Antigua was only a 1.5-hour boat ride or a 20-minute flight away.

Irma also battered Cuba. Coastal cities were clobbered by high winds that upended trees, toppled utility poles and scattered debris across streets. Roads were blocked and a museum was in ruins.

- AP