CHRISTIANSTED, U.S. Virgin Islands — 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.