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Published On: Mon, Sep 11th, 2017

Canadians struggle to return home from Caribbean after Hurricane Irma

CanadiansPHILIPSBURG - While Floridians began facing Irma's mighty fury on Sunday, Canadians who survived the hurricane's charge through the Caribbean islands desperately struggled for days in its chaotic aftermath.

For Winny Liang, Janet Han and Ania Danilina, what was supposed to be their annual St. Maarten getaway turned into nerve-wracking days where they witnessed looting, had to barter for water and attempted to find a flight out.

Ms. Liang and Ms. Han, who are from Toronto, were staying with their friend, Ms. Danilina, a Canadian living in Los Angeles who has a condo in the St. Maarten capital, Philipsburg.

When Irma made landfall during the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, the trio initially took shelter in the bathroom.

The howling gusts were punctuated by sounds of glass, branches and other debris crashing onto their building, Ms. Liang recalled in an interview Sunday.

There was a respite in the morning, while they were inside the eye of the hurricane, but the fury resumed after 40 minutes, forcing the women to hide in a closet.

Afterward, part of the unit was flooded and they had trouble opening its door because it was jammed with broken glass and rubble from a badly damaged neighbouring condo. Elsewhere in the building, couches, mattress, ripped drywall and broken balcony spindles were heaped around. The wrought-iron gate in the lobby had been ripped.

Outside, Ms. Liang said, there were fallen trees, cars flipped on top of each other, buildings without a roof.

They didn't have power or running water anymore. They bartered, trading cigarettes and cheese to get drinking water.

Outside, there was looting and they saw men walk away with television sets.

A Colorado family was also staying in the condo to visit their son, who was attending medical school in St. Maarten. Thanks to that family, the three women were eventually able to visit the St. Maarten Medical Center and get a hot meal.

By Friday, they heard radio reports that foreigners at a hotel nearby had been robbed at gunpoint. That news made them determined to leave the island.

In the afternoon, they saw cars evacuating hotel guests. They followed them to the Princess Juliana International Airport.

The women saw people in a queue and joined them. "We didn't know whose plane it was. We didn't know where it was going, we just got in line," Ms. Han said.

Even though they weren't registered, they managed to talk their way onto a flight to Curacao operated by Insel Air, a Dutch Caribbean carrier that had been ferrying supplies to St. Maarten.

"We're just anxious to get home now," Ms. Han said when reached in Curacao.

Other Canadians also struggled to leave the island.

After the storm struck, Michael and Meryl Moriarty, a vacationing couple from Ajax, Ont., were first threatened with expulsion from their hotel because the authorities wanted rooms for local police who had lost their homes in the disaster, according to their friend Jill Davis.

In e-mails sent to Ms. Davis, the Moriartys described how they repeatedly showed up at the airport.

"Massive lineup, saw a Sunwing jet but unable to get aboard before it left, Dutch military wouldn't allow us to show our passports, we had to get in line and it took off," said an e-mail the couple sent Saturday.

"Was our best hope. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told only Americans were allowed on the remaining planes. It broke our hearts when we and our Barbadian friend and their children were turned away."

They tried again the next day. "It's really bad here, been here since 6, in the blazing sun since 7:30, they've been giving out water and umbrellas," Ms. Moriarty e-mailed her friend.

A Sunwing flight landed in the afternoon, bringing supplies and four members of Global Medic, a Toronto-based aid organization.

The Moriartys were not able to board the flight before it left, however. Eventually, after an eight-hour wait, they got on a plane bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Photo: Michael and Meryl Moriarty, from Ajax, who were stranded in St. Maarten.

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