Look­ing into the eye of Irma

Strat­ford ed­u­ca­tor stag­gered by the sheer power of hur­ri­cane Irma


Dur­ing his time as prin­ci­pal at 13 schools across five coun­tries through­out the Caribbean and around the world, Herb Klassen has en­dured a to­tal of four hur­ri­canes.

“Irma was my fourth one. I was in two in the Ba­hamas and three years ago I was there for Gon­zalo, but that was a cat­e­gory 3. I’ve never seen any­thing like this,” Klassen said. “This was the most pow­er­ful storm ever recorded in the At­lantic.”

For the past four years, Klassen, a for­mer prin­ci­pal with the Avon Mait­land District School Board (AMDSB) in Strat­ford, has served as prin­ci­pal for the Caribbean In­ter­na­tional Academy in St. Maarten, a Cana­dian school with a stu­dent body made up pri­mar­ily of Cana­dian and in­ter­na­tional stu­dents whose par­ents are work­ing in the coun­try.

“We track hur­ri­canes com­ing across the At­lantic. That’s some­thing that we al­ways do. We have hur­ri­cane kits and we pre­pare our teach­ers for them in hur­ri­cane sea­son,” Klassen said. “So, we saw it off the coast when it was just a storm with a let­ter-num­ber clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Then it came through and it be­came a cat­e­gory 1-2 – it was named Irma – and then it was a cat­e­gory 3. We watched it com­ing across, so five days be­fore we al­ready knew it was on its way.”

When the hur­ri­cane reached cat­e­gory 4, mem­o­ries of the year­long ef­fort to re­build St. Maarten fol­low­ing the dev­as­ta­tion of hur­ri­cane Luis in 1995 had the is­land’s res­i­dents un­der­stand­ably con­cerned.

“When it hit five, they started say­ing this could po­ten­tially be the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane ever recorded,” Klassen re­called, “and then the eye came down right to­wards us.”

As the cen­tre of the storm was bar­rel­ing down on St. Maarten, Klassen and his staff were forced to close the school Sept. 4. They sent all but four of the school’s 280 stu­dents home to their fam­i­lies – the re­main­ing four were in­ter­na­tional stu­dents liv­ing in the school’s dor­mi­to­ries – and then headed home them­selves to pre­pare for the worst.

Ac­cord­ing to Klassen, Irma struck at around 2 a.m. the fol­low­ing morn­ing and sowed havoc un­til around 10 a.m. Sept. 7. Klassen him­self spent much of that time boarded up in the bed­room of his apart­ment, ex­cept for a 20-minute pe­riod while the eye of the storm passed over­head and he ven­tured out­side to take pho­to­graphs.

“I was in for a good 18 hours. I went out­side dur­ing the eye – I think it was about eight in the morn­ing. I thought it was over with – it was quiet – and I took pic­tures. I pho­tographed the dam­age. I was out for a good 25 min­utes and the eye took about 35, 40 min­utes to pass over. And then when I saw that, I knew very quickly what was go­ing to hap­pen and I knew the back part of the storm is al­ways worse than the front part,” Klassen said.

When it hit five, they started say­ing this could po­ten­tially be the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane ever recorded.” Herb Klassen

Although nu­mer­ous tor­na­does, high winds and heavy rain caused quite a bit of dam­age to cars, neigh­bour­ing apart­ments and other build­ings, Klassen’s home was po­si­tioned to es­cape the worst of it.

Once he emerged from his bed­room bunker and made sure his apart­ment was in­tact, Klassen re­turned to his school to sur­vey the dam­age and make sure the staff and stu­dents who had weath­ered the storm there were OK.

“First thing we did was go through and find out who was there and who we can ac­count for. Only one teacher hasn’t re­sponded. She lives in Oys­ter Pond, which was also hit badly, but they were right on the ocean. So her and her hus­band, I haven’t heard from them. They’re the only ones still un­ac­counted for,” Klassen said.

Thanks to the school’s backup gen­er­a­tor, a do­na­tion of food from the Le­banese restau­rant across the street and a pool full of fresh wa­ter, the four stu­dents and 12 staff still at the school were able to live there for the next seven days be­fore the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment could evac­u­ate them.

“We gath­ered all (28 of the school’s) teach­ers to­gether and we all went over en masse to the air­port. We con­tacted Global Af­fairs in Ot­tawa. They had all of our names and they said, ‘We’re fly­ing in with a West­Jet flight. Be at the air­port,’” Klassen said.

Klassen fi­nally ar­rived home in Strat­ford on Tues­day af­ter land­ing in Toronto late Mon­day night. With the vast ma­jor­ity of St. Maarten’s in­fra­struc­ture de­stroyed by hur­ri­cane Irma, in­clud­ing a por­tion of the school, Klassen ex­pects the re­con­struc­tion process to be lengthy.

Since the Caribbean In­ter­na­tional Academy is a Cana­dian school, it will not re­ceive fund­ing from the St. Maarten gov­ern­ment to be re­built. Us­ing his con­nec­tions to Strat­ford and AMDSB, Klassen is hop­ing to raise a por­tion of the funds needed to re­build his school.

“We’re go­ing to try and open up by Jan­uary and get the kids through be­cause, if you’re in Grade 12, you don’t want to have to do it again and you want to go off to univer­sity or col­lege,” Klassen said.

“… This year we have 37 kids that will grad­u­ate and they’ll go off to univer­sity in eight dif­fer­ent coun­tries around the world. We can’t de­lay that. Hope­fully in Jan­uary we can open up for the sec­ond se­mes­ter. First se­mes­ter, I’m go­ing to try and get our se­nior stu­dents on­line, and the other ones are just go­ing to be half a year be­hind.”

Un­til an of­fi­cial fundraiser for the school is es­tab­lished here in Strat­ford, Klassen said those who wish to as­sist with the re­con­struc­tion ef­fort on St. Maarten should di­rect their do­na­tions to the Cana­dian Red Cross.


As the eye of hur­ri­cane Irma passed over­head, Herb Klassen pho­tographed the dam­age to his apart­ment build­ing caused by the first half of the storm.


As the eye of hur­ri­cane Irma passed over­head, Herb Klassen pho­tographed the dam­age to his apart­ment build­ing caused by the first half of the storm.


Strat­ford na­tive Herb Klassen was liv­ing in St. Maarten when Hur­ri­cane Irma struck the is­land last week.

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