By Alvin Baez
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Despite 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 evacuees due on Thursday.
Visibly shaken residents from St. Martin and the Virgin Islands arrived on Tuesday in U.S. military aircraft, bringing tales of terrifying winds and a breakdown in 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 U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas early on Thursday, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism 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 kmh) winds struck hardest on 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 scale of the destruction seemed to catch the wealthy nations off guard.
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 friend's more secure place.
"The fact is, that's the end of Sint Maarten," he said as 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.
Other countries in the region also helped. St. Lucia has agreed to house prisoners from Turks and Caicos 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 instructed his diplomats in the Caribbean to offer unspecified help to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Mexico is itself reeling from an earthquake and a hurricane and this week canceled an offer of aid to the United States after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Peter in Castries, St. Lucia, and Tracy Rusinski in Chicago; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott)