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The State Department said Sunday that more than 1,200 U.S. citizens have been evacuated from the hurricane-damaged island vacation hot spot of St. Maarten amid reports of looting and violence — but the Dutch government said reports of a prison break were "unfounded."
The evacuations by military flights to Puerto Rico resumed Sunday afternoon after relief flights had been suspended because of poor weather from Hurricane Jose, the storm that followed Hurricane Irma, the State Department said.
"Evacuation efforts will prioritize U.S. citizens needing urgent medical care, followed by a broad call with additional information other U.S. citizens remaining on the island," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. "We will accommodate third country nationals on a space available basis."
"We continue to advise U.S. citizens to shelter in place at a secure location until they have specific and confirmed departure plans."
Juan Brown, 49, of Fernandina Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville, said he was flown by U.S. military plane from St. Maarten to Puerto Rico on Saturday afternoon — after having ridden out the storm in a stairwell and a service elevator shaft at a hotel.
Brown was on the island on a business trip when the hurricane hit Tuesday night.
"We all ran to stairwells. There was about, I would say, about 100 guests and about 65 staff that they had there," he said.
"It started taking on water towards the bottom, and people started panicking," he said, later adding. "It was a very dangerous situation. ... There were a lot of elderly people, a lot of kids crying, a lot of people gathering and holding hands."
Brown and his business partner, Ricardo Brignole, then left with a group to a service elevator shaft.
"That was harrowing, because to the left of us and the right of us were all rooms, and those doors and windows were getting blown out left and right, so it was taking on water the wind was just whipping in," Brown said.
Brignole, 36, said: "The power behind it was significantly strong."
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The two said they spent the next few days on the island, without electricity and running water, before they were able get on the military flight carrying more than 200 people.
Evacuees clapped, cheered and shook hands with military officials when they finally landed in Puerto Rico, they said.
"One lady actually dropped down to the floor and kissed the ground as soon as we landed," Brignole said. "It was definitely a joyous moment."
Justin Cummings, 25, of Rye, New York, was working in St. Maarten as a jiu jitsu instructor when he also got caught in the storm.
Cummings fled to a friend's apartment thinking it was structurally sound. But shortly after he got there, the hurricane violently tore through, he said.
"Out of nowhere, the hurricane shutters ripped off like pieces of paper, and simultaneously like a machine gun, every window blew, and the walls and sliding doors blew out of the room, and the hurricane came into the apartment," he said.
He survived by quickly ducking into an enclosed closet with 12 other people. But the chaos didn't end even after the storm passed, he said.
Cummings witnessed mass looting and violence on the streets by gangs of 20 or 30 people.
"In the beginning, there was no police presence and there was no government organization, and so criminals and desperate people took advantage of that," he said.
Cummings said he saw a group of people breaking into a high-end resort and cornering hotel guests to rob them.
After several days, he was able to make one of the first military flights off the island after getting a message on social media that Americans were being evacuated.
"They were only taking priority evacuees, like sick or disabled people, but I got on the plane, by the grace of God or the universe," he said. "I'm so blessed, but there are so many Americans still stuck on the island with no supplies, no power, and no food."
Meanwhile, two cruise lines said they were mobilizing ships to hard-hit islands to provide relief supplies and help people in need.
Royal Caribbean International said in a statement Sunday that it was dispatching ships to St. Maarten and the island of St. Thomas. Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that it had also deployed a ship to St. Thomas.
St. Maarten is the Dutch-controlled side of the island of St. Martin. The other part is a French overseas territory, where looting, gunshots and a lack of clean drinking water were reported.
In a statement Sunday, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said the island had suffered "little inconvenience from wind and rain that can't be tackled with repair and clean-up operations."
"Patrols appear to be effective in preventing or stopping looting and robbery," it added. "The prison on St. Maarten is now fully guarded by Dutch soldiers. Earlier rumors about escapes of prisoners are unfounded and not true."
Large-scale distribution of food and water by soldiers and aid workers will begin Monday, the ministry said.