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Canadians stranded by Hurricane Irma criticize federal government’s rescue efforts

In a photo provided by the Dutch military, storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on St. Maarten in the Caribbean on Sept. 7, 2017.

GERBEN VAN ES/NYT

Cecilia Chan and her daughter Mariel spent Sunday morning in sweltering heat on the tarmac of the hurricane-ravaged St. Maarten airport, hoping to board a flight home to Canada.

They finally got to the front of the line, only to be told they could not get on the Sunwing plane because their names were not on the passenger list, said Alia Chan, Mariel's older sister.

They thought the Canadian government had finally dispatched a plane to rescue them, Ms. Chan said. For the past week, her mom and sister have slept on mats in the auditorium of the American University of the Caribbean, where Mariel is a first-year medical student. At home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., Alia Chan has started a Facebook petition to persuade the Canadian government to rescue those stranded on the Caribbean island. The United States has already sent military planes to rescue its citizens, she said.

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"It's just unfortunate that with our own government in a situation like this, you hear no word and you don't see any action," Ms. Chan said in an interview. "It's like, what are we waiting for?"

The Chans are not alone. Canadians vacationing in the Caribbean expressed frustration with what they see as the government's tardy response. They also criticized charter airline Sunwing for not being more pro-active in evacuating Canadians in the path of the hurricane.

Their complaints come just as Hurricane Irma cuts a swath through Florida, home to many Canadian snowbirds.

A senior government official said Canada is making every effort to assist Canadians abroad. Ottawa is preparing to deploy the Canadian Disaster Assessment Team, a joint group of experts from National Defence and Global Affairs Canada, to the Caribbean as early as Monday.

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"We are deploying the Disaster Assessment Team to evaluate how our gov can provide humanitarian assistance in the region," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted Sunday evening. National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan tweeted that the team will deploy to Antigua.

The assessment comes before the deployment of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, known as DART, a group of military members and civilians that helps to stabilize regions after natural disasters. By Sunday, Global Affairs Canada said 296 Canadian citizens have requested assistance. Officials acknowledged Canadians are frustrated but urged patience in a difficult situation. Global Affairs is working closely with the Department of National Defence and reviewing all options, an official said. The goal is to bring Canadians home on commercial or charter flights, and the final option would be a military aircraft.

Canadian officials did not explain why Canada has yet to send military aircraft to St. Maarten, but noted that commercial flights are always the first option. WestJet says it's working on organizing rescue flights. Air Canada did not respond to messages.

Alia Chan said her mother travelled to St. Maarten with her sister to help her get settled into her dormitory at the university. They haven't showered for six days, she said, and are living on granola bars and bottled water. They have had no contact from the Canadian government, she said.

Other Canadians also struggled to leave the island. After the storm struck, Michael and Meryl Moriarty, a vacationing couple from Ajax, Ont., were first asked to leave their resort but were eventually able to keep their rooms, according to their friend Jill Davis.

In e-mails sent to Ms. Davis, the Moriartys described how they repeatedly showed up at the airport. Ms. Moriarty e-mailed her friend from the airport in St. Maarten on Sunday morning. "It's really bad here, been here since 6, in the blazing sun since 7:30, they've been giving out water and umbrellas," she said, referring to the Dutch military.

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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, but eventually got on a plane bound for San Juan.

A Sunwing spokeswoman said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that the airline was not in charge of the passenger manifest. "We're told that priority boarding was given to people requiring medical attention and families with children," she said.

In Cuba, the Sunwing spokeswoman said 976 customers from Canada are stranded in Havana and Varadaro, where the airport was closed on Saturday. Kim Wlodarczyk, a 19-year-old college student from London, Ont., counts herself one of the lucky ones to have made it home from Varadaro last Thursday with a friend. "We had to argue our way onto the flight," she said. There was a lack of communication, she said, between a Sunwing rep at the resort, who told her not to worry about the pending hurricane, and Sunwing officials in Canada who were organizing extra flights.

The Sunwing spokeswoman said the airline had more customers in Cuba than all other Canadian airlines combined and is working diligently to get them home as soon as the airport reopens. "As Hurricane Irma's projected path evolved," she said, "the evacuation plan has been a complex operation."

As Irma lashed Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday, Anthony Richards and his wife were not taking any chances. They loaded their five rescue dogs into their SUV late Wednesday evening and drove 25 hours straight from their Miami-area home to her parents' house in Temple, Tex. Born and raised in Vancouver, Mr. Richards's career in the cruise-ship industry brought him to Florida six years ago.

Mr. Richards said he was less worried about the winds and water than about the prospect of the city facing days without power and dwindling supplies.

"My main fear wasn't the storm itself, it was the aftermath," Mr. Richards said in a telephone interview. "It can get a little dangerous with people in Miami, when they get into survival mode."

There were already long lineups for gasoline early Thursday morning, Mr. Richards said, with cars backed up to the highway and motorists shouting at each other.

In addition to two gallons of water and seven days' worth of dog food, Mr. Richards packed a 40-calibre Beretta for protection.

"I felt most stressed getting out of the Miami area. After that, it was like taking a good road trip," he said.

Helen Gonzalez and her husband, nurses in Orlando, and their 12-year-old daughter, prepared to spend the storm at the hospital. The city has imposed a curfew to ensure no one is on the road during the worst of the hurricane, meaning hospital staff have to camp out at work to ensure they are there for their shift. Ms. Gonzalez, who is originally from Milton, Ont., packed three days' worth of food and water, and prepared to sleep on an air mattress in an office.

Not that she particularly minded: Ms. Gonzalez described a camaraderie at the hospital as everyone prepared to face the storm together.

"I feel safer here than at home," Ms. Gonzalez, who works a 12-hour night shift in the neonatal care unit, said in an interview.

With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and Greg Keenan

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this article said an Ajax couple were threatened with expulsion from their hotel because authorities wanted rooms for local police who lost their home, according to their friend. In fact, there was a miscommunication and the couple does not know why they were asked to move.
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Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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