‘It was the scari­est thing ever’

Dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane Irma trapped Ash­leigh Whit­ley and her par­ents on Saint Martin

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FRONT PAGE - IAN MACALPINE

A Kingston teacher is re­call­ing a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing and af­ter hur­ri­cane Irma, which on Sept. 6 and 7 swept through the Caribbean is­land where she was work­ing and where her par­ents were liv­ing as well.

Ash­leigh Whit­ley, 36, a Re­giopolisNotre Dame Catholic High School grad­u­ate and a uni­ver­sity-trained ed­u­ca­tor, was teach­ing high school ge­og­ra­phy at the Caribbean In­ter­na­tional Acad­emy, a Cana­di­an­based school on the is­land of Saint Martin, one of the Lee­ward Is­lands in the Caribbean Sea.

The is­land is shared by the Dutch and French and, at 87 square kilo­me­tres, is smaller ge­o­graph­i­cally than the 124-square-kilo­me­tre Wolfe Is­land. Saint Martin has a pop­u­la­tion of about 60,000 and thou­sands more fre­quent its many re­sorts dur­ing the tourist sea­son.

Her par­ents, Neil, a for­mer high school teacher, and Vikki, a re­tired nurse at Kingston Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal, joined her a few years ago and live in Grand Case, on the French side, a pic­turesque sea­side vil­lage brim­ming with French restau­rants and with the feel of the French Riviera.

But when Irma hit, all of that changed, and the Whit­leys had a front-row seat to the car­nage, dev­as­ta­tion and de­spair af­ter­wards.

Just be­fore the hur­ri­cane hit, Whit­ley’s par­ents moved in with her at the school be­cause the Gen­darmes or­dered them to be evac­u­ated from their water­front apart­ment.

Whit­ley lived at the board­ing school and was re­spon­si­ble for four for­eign stu­dents who were not able to leave the is­land prior to the storm.

“I couldn’t evac­u­ate be­cause of my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the stu­dents, and my par­ents weren’t leav­ing with­out me, and all the flights were full for try­ing to evac­u­ate be­fore the hur­ri­cane hit,” Whit­ley told the Whig-Stan­dard by phone on Thurs­day morn­ing.

At the school res­i­dence, they tried to make the build­ing as se­cure and liv­able as pos­si­ble be­fore Irma hit by board­ing ev­ery­thing up, mak­ing sand­bags and try­ing to gather as much food and wa­ter as they pos­si­bly could.

Other teachers evac­u­ated from their homes on the is­land and went to the school as well. About 15 peo­ple gath­ered at the school to wait out the mon­ster Cat­e­gory 5 trop­i­cal storm.

In all, the group spent 15 hours hud­dled in the school.

“It was pretty crazy. We were all kind of bunkered down and prayed for the best,” she re­called from St. Kitts and Ne­vis, where her fam­ily was evac­u­ated to on Sun­day. “The storm went right over us. We got the eye and the eye wall and the de­struc­tion was un­be­liev­able.”

The is­land took a di­rect hit from Irma, with sus­tained winds of about 289 km/h and gusts up to 354 km/h, Whit­ley said.

All the board­ing came off the win­dows and the doors and they also lost power, in­ter­net and ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“Cars were wrapped around poles, we saw build­ings ex­plod­ing in front of us, in­su­la­tion ev­ery­where, the metal zinc from the roofs was be­ing ripped off,” Whit­ley said.

“My par­ents ended up los­ing their place, the roof went, the sec­ond-floor bal­cony went and we kind of lost ev­ery­thing. “We’re lucky to be alive.” Whit­ley said she took on re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for or­ga­niz­ing food and wa­ter for the group and get­ting her for­eign stu­dents off the is­land.

“You just go into kind of sur­vival mode and you want ev­ery­one to stay safe and it was dif­fi­cult. We had no elec­tric­ity, no run­ning wa­ter and our food and drink­ing wa­ter was be­ing oblit­er­ated with that many peo­ple.”

Af­ter the storm passed, Whit­ley said their trou­bles didn’t end.

“There was loot­ing, there was peo­ple with guns and ma­chetes. They were loot­ing the stores and com­ing into peo­ple’s houses and apart­ments. We were on a 24-hour cur­few and we started run­ning out of food and wa­ter,” she said. “There was only so much we could do be­cause it wasn’t safe to re­ally go out­side at all be­cause of the loot­ing, and there was some ri­ot­ing and they were set­ting cars on fire.”

Whit­ley had heard that peo­ple broke into the cus­toms of­fice on the French side and stole all of the as­sault ri­fles and were us­ing them to rob peo­ple.

“Go­ing through the hur­ri­cane was scary enough, but the af­ter­math was just as bad, re­ally,” she said.

Like many Cana­di­ans caught in the Caribbean af­ter hur­ri­cane Irma, they didn’t ini­tially get any help from the gov­ern­ment.

“Then we were try­ing to get out, but the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, I don’t know where they ever were, but they weren’t do­ing any­thing for us,” Whit­ley said.

She said a man named Mark from the gov­ern­ment would come by and give the group up­dates, which were pretty bleak in terms of what the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment was do­ing to get them out, Whit­ley said.

“There was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion about what was go­ing on or where we could get help and how long we would be ba­si­cally trapped there with noth­ing,” she said. “We tried to get on Amer­i­can mil­i­tary planes, but be­cause we’re Cana­dian they wouldn’t let us on.”

Whit­ley was able to get her stu­dents off the is­land and she had to be evac­u­ated be­cause of a se­vere kid­ney in­fec­tion. Her par­ents were able to go with her.

She and her par­ents were taken to St. Kitts and Ne­vis, a 25-minute he­li­copter ride south. Those is­lands were rel­a­tively un­touched by the hur­ri­cane, ex­cept for los­ing power for a few days.

Whit­ley was able to get medical treat­ment for her in­fec­tion in St. Kitts.

On Satur­day, Whit­ley and her par­ents will be fly­ing from St. Kitts to An­tigua, and will then fly on a West­Jet flight to Toronto.

“Then we’ll get the car we left in Toronto and drive back to Kingston,” she said.

Therewil­lbe­moretodoback­intheLime­stone City to re­build their lives, she said.

“It’s just a mat­ter of try­ing to get back now and get or­ga­nized be­cause we lost all of our clothes, ev­ery­thing be­cause we were liv­ing down there. We lit­er­ally each have a plas­tic bag.”

She’s not sure if she can ever go back to Saint Martin.

“I would say not for a year, just by the level of de­struc­tion,” she said.

Whit­ley said 95 per cent of the build­ings were af­fected and un­in­hab­it­able.

“I love that is­land,” she said. “My par­ents and I have been go­ing there for 15 years and I would like to go back as soon as I can, but it’s a mat­ter of safety and a mat­ter of re­sources, too. You don’t want to take away lo­cals’ re­sources when we do have a place to stay in Canada.”

She said there’s still no power or run­ning wa­ter on the is­land.

“Un­til that gets set up, you can’t re­ally start to re­build any­thing.”

The day of Wed­nes­day, Sept. 6, when hur­ri­cane Irma passed over the is­land, will al­ways be etched in Whit­ley’s mem­ory.

“I will never for­get that day in my whole en­tire life,” she said. “It was the scari­est thing ever.”

COUR­TESY OF ASH­LEIGH WHIT­LEY/SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Pho­tos of the dev­as­ta­tion on the is­land of Saint Martin af­ter hur­ri­cane Irma swept through last Wed­nes­day. A Kingston fam­ily was trapped on the is­land af­ter the hur­ri­cane.

COUR­TESY OF ASH­LEIGH WHIT­LEY/SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Ash­leigh Whit­ley Ash­leigh Whit­ney, back, is seen with her par­ents, Neil and Nikki, on the is­land of Saint Martin af­ter sur­viv­ing hur­ri­cane Irma af­ter it swept through the area last Wed­nes­day. They were trapped on the is­land af­ter the hur­ri­cane.

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