Trapped with Hurricane Irma at the door
As hurricane Irma devastates large parts of the Caribbean, about a dozen local people are planning a trip to Haiti to help a community there rebuild from the damage done by a hurricane last year. (The Associated Press)
Todd Chisholm was huddled in the bathroom of his St. Maarten condo, with his back pressed against the door in a desperate effort to keep the screaming wind at bay.
The 51-year-old Canadian who works as a faculty member at Caribbean International Academy in Cupecoy, St. Maarten, awoke in the early morning hours Wednesday, as Hurricane Irma slammed into the island, said his girlfriend, Welland resident Kimberly Babin, 46.
“He was in the kitchen to make coffee and on the other end of his second-floor condo unit, the windows blew in,” Babin said. “It was like the storm was in that room.”
Chisholm ran to the other side of the condo, but the shutters protecting that side of the building were quickly ripped off and the window glass was shattered by the 290 km/h wind.
She said her boyfriend then found shelter in a bathroom located in the centre of his condo, and hunkered down with his dog, a border collie named Jack.
“He basically sat there for between three to four hours, with the bathroom door buckling,” she said.
Chisholm emerged from the bathroom as the storm subsided, to survey the wreckage that surrounded him.
“He described it as looking like bomb went off. It looks like a war zone. Everything was destroyed and in shambles, everywhere,” said Babin, who has been in contact with Chisholm daily since the Category 5 hurricane hit, although the contact has been sporadic.
“Sometimes it’s only for 30 seconds. Sometimes it’s for an hour, depending on the signal on his phone,” she said.
Chisholm is one of several Niagara area residents who found themselves in the path of the hurricane that has since slammed into Florida after being downgraded to a severe tropical storm.
St. Catharines resident Deborah Brannan spent months saving up to surprise her husband Tom with a Sunwing vacation to Cuba to celebrate his 65th birthday.
They barely escaped that vacation with their lives, Brannan said.
“We finally got on a plane and got out of there 15 or 20 minutes before it was completely leveled.”
Brannan said she was part of a group of 187 Canadian tourists who arrived in Cayo Coco, Cuba, at about the same time as other airlines had begun evacuating people from other parts of the island.
“It was five days of hell, I have to tell you,” she said. “The 187 of us are lucky to be alive.”
She said within nine hours of arriving, the tourists were told to prepare for evacuation.
They were eventually loaded aboard a convoy of 17 buses that ultimately brought them to the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana for a flight back to Canada – a trip that was further delayed when three of the convoy buses were involved in a collision.
“It sounds like a horror story that someone made up, but I’m telling you we lived it.”
Brannan said the storm hit as the plane took off from Havana, and if it wasn’t for the skill of the pilot she fears they might not have made it through.
She said she and her husband were so scared as the plane took off that they said goodbye to each other.
“We didn’t think we were going to make it back,” she said.
Brannan said the plane had to stop to refuel in Nashville, where the passengers were left in a U.S. Customs holding area for hours with no food or water, until customs agents ordered pizza and cases of water.
The airline posted a statement Sunday on its website, sunwing.ca, regarding the Cuba evacuation.
“Unfortunately, the evacuation plan in Cuba was especially complex as Sunwing had more customers in Cuba than every other Canadian airline combined as Hurricane Irma’s projected path evolved,” the statement says. “As a result of the volume of passengers, unexpected airport closures, and the complexity of moving people via land to remaining departure points, the effort has been challenging ...”
A CBC story about the ordeal of another Sunwing passenger on that trip says the travel agency “did allow cancellations once we knew the projected path of Hurricane Irma.”
The article quotes Sunwing spokesperson Janine Massey, saying the company “will be issuing compensation for the unused portion of our customer’s vacations.”
In St. Maarten, Chisholm had been staying in a residence at the medical university next door to the Caribbean International Academy since the storm ended — a building that was strong enough to survive the most powerful storm the Atlantic Ocean has ever seen.
He was one of nine Canadian teachers still within the campus residence as of Monday morning. Their students had already been rescued from the wreckage aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, along with students from a medical school.
But Babin and Chisholm’s mother, St. Catharines resident Diane Chisholm, faced growing frustration as residents of other countries were rescued from the ruins, leaving the Canadians behind.
“Supplies are getting low, water is getting low. The generator, they don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Babin said. “They just want the Canadian government to step in and take care if their citizens. They felt abandoned.”
Niagara Centre MP Vance Badawey said federal government representatives and the Global Affairs Office, in particular, have been working to get the Canadians in St. Maarten home, while keeping them as well as their loved ones in Canada informed.
“I personally have been in contact with individuals,” Badawey said, adding he spoke with Chisholm and Babin at about 6 a.m. Monday.
“I was reassuring him that we’d do everything we can with the resources that we have available,” he said. “We were trying to facilitate any and all resources to help these people out.”
Babin said she learned Monday that a WestJet Airlines plane was expected to depart for St. Maarten Monday afternoon to rescue Canadians remaining on the island, including her boyfriend. She was planning a trip to Toronto to greet Chisholm when he arrived.
Babin was expecting another late night, but she didn’t mind.
“It’s OK. Are you kidding, I haven’t slept in days anyway,” she said, laughing. “If I could, I’d fly there and get him myself.”
Babin said the hurricane has also had a long term impact on plans that she and Chisholm had made together.
She recently sold her Welland home, quit her job and booked a flight for Oct. 1, planning to join Chisholm on the island.
“We were planning to start our lives together down there,” she said.