U.S. Orders In Troops to Quell Island Violence : St. Croix Looting and Lawlessness in Wake of Hurricane Damage Spurs Authorization by Bush
President Bush ordered more than 1,000 military police, federal marshals and FBI agents to St. Croix on Wednesday as the Coast Guard began evacuating residents and tourists terrorized by violence on the streets and looting in stores and homes shattered by Hurricane Hugo.
In a wave of lawlessness that spread across the island, eyewitnesses reported looting by men and women, children and the elderly, even police and National Guardsmen. Armed gangs were reported roaming the streets. Ham radio operators said between 300 and 500 inmates had broken out of a hurricane-damaged prison and were loose in the city.
Tourists and residents alike pleaded for evacuation. Fifteen tourists were quoted as telling the first outsiders to arrive on the island after Hugo’s devastation: “Please get food! Please get water! Please help us! They’re looting. We’ve seen police looting. We’ve seen National Guard looting. There’s no law and order here.”
Some looters offered poverty as the justification for plundering. Roberto Rivera, 22, a store clerk whose wife pushed a cart full of clothes and shoes, said: “When starvation comes, people are going to start breaking into people’s homes. People are afraid of running out of food and are taking stuff from the stores even if they don’t want to.”
Several of the looters insisted that shop owners had invited them to help themselves, explaining that their insurance would cover the losses.
In Washington, Bush announced that he had authorized the troops and federal police because “conditions of domestic violence and disorder exist in and about the Virgin Islands endangering life and property.” He said local law enforcement could no longer keep the peace.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush authorized deployment after receiving a request for help from Virgin Islands Gov. Alexander Farrelly. In Christiansted, the governor said he had not asked for federal help to restore order. But Holland Redfield, a Virgin Islands territorial senator and legislative liaison to the White House, said he asked for assistance from Washington.
Fitzwater said Bush’s authorization called for deployment “as necessary.” That left the actual dispatching of military police units and federal police officers up to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburg and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
At the Justice Department, spokesman David Runkel said Thornburg sent 100 U.S. marshals and FBI agents to Christiansted immediately. At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Keith Schneider said that Cheney was preparing to send 1,100 military policemen from bases in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana and North Carolina.
Heavily armed Coast Guardsmen began evacuating tourists and residents from the island even before the troops and federal police arrived. Personnel from the cutter Bear went ashore during the afternoon and took 40 people back to the ship, said John Ware, a petty officer at Coast Guard headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Our shore party basically determined there was a complete breakdown of authority,” Coast Guard Lt. Jeff Karonis said in Miami. “There’s a very high indication that innocent people are going to get hurt in an act of violence there. We don’t know who is in control of the island. There is widespread looting.
“There doesn’t seem to be a form of control.”
The Coast Guard said the evacuees were being taken to Puerto Rico. It said six cutters were in the area and that a C-130 cargo plane was ready to help if needed.
Claim Response Slow
Many residents of St. Croix complained bitterly about what they called the slow response to their plight from local and U.S. authorities “I can’t believe there are no U.S. troops or presence here yet. We are a U.S. territory,” said Marise James, 31, an attorney in Christiansted. “We feel terribly forgotten.”
Throughout the day, looters sacked stores at Sunny Isle, the island’s largest shopping center, and at markets and smaller shops through Christiansted.
A few merchants guarded store doors. At one shopping center on the outskirts of town, armed men stood watch on the roofs of several large stores. Outside of one electronics store, a makeshift plywood sign read: “Looters will be shot on sight.”
But the looters had free access to most stores. They carried bags and boxes, wheeled carts full of food, clothes and household items. Some even packed furniture onto the beds of pickup trucks.
The mood among the looters was casual, almost jovial, and the scene had the appearance of a weekend flea market.
Fail to Report
Police and National Guardsmen stationed on the island were hardly visible outside the downtown area. Many of them, coping with their own property losses, had not yet reported for duty, according to officials.
Although some residents said they had personally seen National Guardsmen packing looted goods into their trucks, government officials denied that this happened. They said guardsmen may have been retrieving stolen goods or delivering food to shelters.
For Paul Gelep, a retired jeweler from Fitchburg, Mass., his St. Croix “shangri-la” had turned into a “living hell.”
Gelep, who moved to Christiansted in February, survived the terror of Hurricane Hugo’s devastating assault--but now lives in fear of looters.
He and his neighbors began taking turns standing armed guard at their large trailer home park.
“We’re completely isolated here,” said Gelep, sitting in the kitchen of his trailer, one of the few Hugo left standing. “We do have some weapons. Our backs are up against the wall. If it’s necessary, we’ll use them.”
Tourists sat on the porch of the King Christian Hotel, protected by hotel employees carrying shotguns. “It was horrendous,” said Rose Hertzog of Northampton, Pa. “I thought we were going to die.”
In addition to pleading poverty, looters argued that, once food supplies were exhausted, they would not be able to feed their families.
“Everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t we?” said one young housewife.
Eugene Mitchell stood watch at his small grocery store and called the situation “near anarchy.”
Mitchell, who claimed good rapport with his customers and neighbors, said the looters had been “very respectful--while I’m here.” The problem, he said, is when he went away. “I just stay here ‘till I fall, and then I go home to sleep.
“We need federal troops to reassure the community that the government is in place and doing its best to get a handle on a very unfortunate situation,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have the manpower to do it alone.”
Armed Mobs Reported
Reports reaching Washington said machete-armed mobs had taken to streets on St. Croix--and that looters included even small children and old women.
Amateur radio reports relayed from the island said that prisoners who had escaped its hurricane-damaged prison were terrorizing residents. Gunshots were heard.
Frank A. Bracken, undersecretary of Interior, ordered to go to the Virgin Islands on Tuesday, confirmed that the prison had been damaged and that inmates had gotten loose. He told of a general feeling of fear.
Bracken told his boss, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., that the federal government needed to establish security before aiding post-hurricane cleanup.
“He said there had been a lot of devastation, that every store he had seen on the island appeared to have been looted, and that he was very concerned about security,” said Interior spokesman Steve Goldstein.
A Coast Guard spokesman said: “Our understanding is that there has been a breakdown in law and order. . . . The situation is serious. Looting and civil disturbances continue.”
Storm devastation on St. Croix was widespread.
Most of the homes on the island were badly damaged or destroyed. Dozens of small boats littered parking lots, where they had been towed. Others rested awkwardly against the sides of buildings. At a small sea-plane landing site near the bay, several aircraft lay tumbled over on their sides.
Roads throughout the island remained littered with fallen trees and broken power poles and electrical lines. Three days after Hugo’s ravaging passage, St. Croix was still without water or lights or telephones.
It remained virtually cut off from the outside world.
Gov. Farrelly, who stopped briefly to talk to a small group of reporters visiting the island by helicopter, said up to 70% of its structures were destroyed. He said it will take four weeks to restore water service and electrical power.
Farrelly said he would maintain an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
In his request for federal help, Redfield, the Virgin Islands territorial senator, said he had described the scene on St. Croix as the devastation left by “an atom bomb"--but that the first priority for assistance was “reestablishing law and order.”
“If it continues this way, panic will set in and it will get worse,” Redfield said.
Before the evacuation, the Coast Guard had been involved in hurricane relief. At the same time that he authorized troop deployment, Bush declared the Virgin Islands a disaster area. The declaration made more hurricane relief available, along with federal disaster assistance. A similar declaration was expected for Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, at the north end of Hugo’s arc of destruction, the hurricane was being called the territory’s worst natural disaster in half a century. Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon described it as a “tragedy of the greatest proportions” and said he would ask President Bush to declare the island a disaster area.
In Washington, White House officials said Bush already had ordered the Pentagon to send troops and equipment to restore electricity and water.
The Pentagon sent a C-141 jet transport with portable generators and communications gear and another with 17 tons of additional equipment and 16 officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The Coast Guard flew an HC-130 cargo plane between San Juan and the offshore island of Vieques.
It carried emergency supplies to the island.
Troops Patrol Capital
National Guard troops patrolled the capital of San Juan to prevent plundering. Thirty persons reportedly were arrested for looting, but officials said the police were able to bring the situation under quick control.
Lack of fresh water posed a serious problem for homes, hotels, hospitals and emergency shelters. Banks and supermarkets in San Juan were open on a limited basis, but retail stores remained closed, their windows cracked, taped or boarded up.
All across San Juan, people were selling water, milk, juice and food from the back of trucks. Everywhere, hot, thirsty residents searched for water, carrying large plastic water jugs. Streets were hopelessly gridlocked. Only a handful of stoplights worked, and traffic police were few.
Only a few gasoline stations had emergency power to operate their pumps, and lines formed hundreds of cars long.
At Isla Verde commuter airport, charter flights and Coast Guard aid missions resumed, taxiing around dozens of small airplanes tossed about the field. Damage there was estimated at $20 million.
Luis Munoz Marin International Airport reopened to flights to and from the United States, but departures and landings were limited to daylight hours. The main terminal was operating on emergency power and few lights.
Airline officials were unable to communicate with air fields in the Virgin Islands and at other Caribbean destinations.
Contributing to this story were staff writers Bob Secter in Puerto Rico; James Gerstenzang, Ronald J. Ostrow, Stanley Meisler, Melissa Healy, Don Shannon and Douglas Jehl in Washington; and Paul Lieberman in Los Angeles.
HURRICANE WATCH--From Florida to the Carolinas, residents were preparing for the storm. Page 14
CHAOS ON ST. CROIX
President Bush authorizes troops to restore order on St. Croix after reports of wild looting on the U.S. Virgin Island in the wake of Hurricane Hugo.
Coast Guard ships began evacuating tourists and residents “who fear for their safety.”
All communications on the island were wiped out by the fierce storm. Ham radio operators on the mainland heard pleas for help.
Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh ordered 100 marshals and FBI agents to protect federal officials and property on the island.
PICTURE OF CHAOS--Officials painted a grim portrait of the events that led President Bush to authorize the use of troops, FBI agents and marshals to restore order. Page 16