‘It was the scariest thing ever’
Devastating hurricane Irma trapped Ashleigh Whitley and her parents on Saint Martin
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.”
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.
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.