Canadians with family members stranded in St. Maarten after Hurricane Irma hammered the Caribbean island say Ottawa isn’t doing enough to help get their loved ones home.
Mia Ko, a mother from Brampton, Ont., says her two sons were in St. Maarten when the devastating storm struck.
Ko said they attempted to catch a Sunwing flight to Canada last Monday but there were no tickets available. They also attempted to get on a U.S. military flight, she said, but were turned away because they were not American citizens.
“What [Global Affairs] told us is that they are coordinating with other nations to do the evacuation,” she told Global News. “When this happened it was devastating.”
Ko and other families are frustrated by what they characterized as a slow, and uncoordinated response by Canadian agencies and airlines.
“I’m at that stage now it’s like where is my government for my boys and other Canadians?” she told Global News. Ko said she is also worried about her sons safety following reports of robberies and looting on the island.
Monique Balmforth said she has been trying desperately to reach her brother Mike Moriarty and his wife Meryl Zavitz who are also in St. Maarten. The couple from Ajax, Ont. said they managed to get off the Island via a small Caribbean airline called Seaborne.
“Why did WestJet not pick them up? WestJet is who they flew down on,” Balmforth told Global News. “Why has the Canadian government not helped? Why do they keep saying call this number, email this person… it’s very confusing, it’s very frustrating.”
Balmforth said the couple flew to Puerto Rico — an island which has also been devastated by Irma and they still have no idea how they’ll get home.
Mariel Chan, also a medical student at the American University of the Caribbean, spoke with her sister via FaceTime and said Global Affairs Canada texted students to say there was a flight Sunday morning, but they could not get a seat on the plane.
“I’ve talked with Dutch officials here, they have no word that Canada is trying to help us,” Chan told her sister. “I talked to the U.S. embassy and they have no word on the Canadian government helping us.
“Honestly, there’s no option for us. We are stranded here. I don’t know what to do,” she said fighting back tears.
WATCH: Calgarians fed up with government timing rescuing those stranded by Irma
What is Canada doing?
Global Affairs has said that 9,000 Canadians have registered with the Registration of Canadians Abroad Service in the region and 348 Canadian citizens were asking for assistance.
Families who spoke with Global News said other countries including the U.K. and the Netherlands, deployed aircraft and resources to the region much more quickly than Ottawa. The U.S. has already made use of military planes to get 1,200 American nationals out of the Caribbean region since Irma made landfall.
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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed sympathy Monday with those Canadians trapped by Irma and said the federal government is doing everything in its power to help, including using commercial flights to evacuate those still remaining in the Caribbean.
“We are working very, very hard to bring you home,” Freeland said via conference call from Toronto. “We are very aware of how frightening, how worrying this situation is, and I am not going to rest until everybody is back and safe.”
Freeland said 390 people were brought home over the weekend and commercial flights will be returning to Toronto with the rest of those who have registered with Global Affairs Canada.
Transport Minister Mark Garneau said says 150 evacuees are expected on board a flight out of St. Maarten Monday, while an additional 90 people will be brought home from Turks and Caicos. He said relief and evacuation efforts were slowed by the damage done to airports by the storm.
“We realize that all the stranded Canadians and their relatives in Canada as passing through a very difficult moment,” Garneau said. “Getting Canadians home is our priority.”
The federal government also said it’s preparing to deploy the Canadian Disaster Assessment Team, a team of experts from National Defence and Global Affairs Canada, to the Caribbean as early as Monday.
National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also tweeted that the team will deploy to Antigua.
Canada’s Disaster Assessment Team is sent ahead of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, made up of members of the military and civilians from Global Affairs Canada. The DART can go to anywhere in the world on short notice to provide humanitarian assistance, performing life saving tasks like water purification, primary medical care; and engineering help.
Global Affairs has said it’s working with the Department of National Defence to help get Canadians home with the goal of first bringing Canadians home on commercial flights, before considering military aircraft.
Airlines sending ‘rescue’ flights
WestJet Airlines said it’s sending a plane to St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos Monday to rescue some people stranded by the storm.
“The first flight left at about 8:00 a.m. first thing this morning heading down to St. Maarten and we estimate that will arrive and probably be in the region about 3:30 p.m. this afternoon,” said Ed Sims, WestJet executive vice-president, commercial. “Very shortly afterwards we have a flight going to Turks and Caicos which we estimate will arrive around 4 p.m.”
Global Affairs said that there are spaces for non-ticketed passengers and priority will be given to children, families and vulnerable persons.
“Our primary focus is making sure we’re rescuing as many people as we can and bringing any essential supplies,” Sims said.
Sunwing picked up 189 Canadian, American and European tourists from St. Maarten on Sunday, and took them to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Air Canada has said it’s working to bring home 90 Canadians after local officials barred them from a flight leaving the storm-ravaged Turks and Caicos Islands.
*With files from Mike Drolet, Angie Seth, Reid Fiest and The Canadian Press