SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Saddled with economic problems and its own damage from Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico is taking thousands of refugees from the U.S. Virgin Islands whose homes were destroyed by the storm, with a cruise ship carrying up to 2,000 more due to set sail for the U.S. territory on Wednesday.
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Visibly shaken residents from St. Martin and the Virgin Islands arrived on Tuesday on U.S. military aircraft, bringing tales of terrifying winds and a breakdown of law and order.
"The people of Puerto Rico - what big hearts you guys got because our (local) government did nothing - nothing," said William Vonfabrice, 61, from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "People coming at us with machetes, offering bullets and saying 'There is more for you,' breaking into houses, hurting people."
Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas cruise ship was expected to depart the badly damaged St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Wednesday evening bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism Beverly Nicholson-Doty said.
Irma skirted Puerto Rico last week, knocking out power to 70 percent of the island, damaging buildings and killing at least three people, but the destruction was not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The storm's 185 mph (297 km/h) winds hammered a string of tiny Caribbean islands that are territories of Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. Homes, hotels, hospitals, marinas and airports were badly damaged and the extent of the chaos seemed to catch the wealthy nations off guard.
Britain's government said local authorities had imposed a curfew on the British Virgin islands, where locals complained of widespread looting and violent crime after Irma.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited the islands on Wednesday, calling them a "scene of utter devastation" on Twitter as his government announced £25 billion ($33 billion) in extra aid for its territories.
The nations all have launched military relief operations but locals and tourists have criticized the response for being too slow and not reaching everybody evenly.
Visiting the French Caribbean on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to quickly rebuild St. Martin, a French territory shared with the Netherlands. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met with security officials in Anguilla.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander said the destruction he saw in St. Martin was on a scale he "had never seen before."
'THE END OF SINT MAARTEN'
Charles Morrison, 89, an evacuee from the Dutch part of the island, Sint Maarten, said one person was killed when the hotel he was staying in was flooded and partially destroyed. Morrison then took shelter in a friend's more secure place.
"The fact is, that's the end of Sint Maarten," he said as he was pushed through San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in a wheelchair.
Puerto Rico has $70 billion in debt, a poverty rate above 46 percent, and near-insolvent pension and health systems, a fact not lost on the arrivals.
"God bless Puerto Rico and the hearts because you guys are struggling. And from the hardest struggle, that's where the real people come out," Vonfabrice said, thanking Puerto Rico for sending food, water and ships to the Virgin Islands.
A Puerto Rico government spokeswoman said the financial situation and expected length of stay of the 2,000 refugees due to arrive in San Juan was still unclear, but that expenses would be covered by emergency federal funding.
Puerto Rico has set up a large convention center to house refugees who cannot afford to go to a hotel.
Other countries in the region also helped. St. Lucia has agreed to house prisoners from the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands, after the storm damaged the prisons in those British territories.
The Cayman Islands has sent police to help reinforce security in the British Virgin Islands after more than 100 prisoners escaped when the storm breached the prison.
Mexico's foreign minister Luis Videgaray instructed his diplomats in the Caribbean to offer unspecified help to Puerto Rico and Cuba even as it seeks to cope with the fallout from a massive earthquake.
St. Thomas resident Laci Rivers, 33, was waiting on board the Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas, eager to bring her two small children to safety after days of uncertainty.
"Everyone is stressed and hungry and confused," she said.
Rivers said her car was broken into with a hammer, items were stolen from the flattened sushi restaurant where she worked, and she saw fights break out in St. Thomas among increasingly desperate people jostling for food and water.
She was under no illusions about what would happen to her home in western St. Thomas. "We've already realized it's going to be looted while we're gone," she said.
($1 = 0.7571 pounds)
(Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Sarah Peter in Castries, St. Lucia, and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott and Phil Berlowitz)