Free­land ‘not go­ing to rest’ un­til Cana­di­ans home

Feds say lack of airstrips, in­fra­struc­ture slowed hur­ri­cane evac­u­a­tions

The Observer (Sarnia) - - NATIONAL NEWS - LEE BERTHI­AUME

OT­TAWA — Fed­eral min­is­ters ex­pressed sym­pa­thy Mon­day for the hun­dreds of Cana­di­ans af­fected by Hur­ri­cane Irma as well as their wor­ried fam­i­lies back home, even as they sought to ex­plain why more wasn’t done ear­lier to help them.

The gov­ern­ment ex­pected most Cana­di­ans need­ing as­sis­tance in the Caribbean to have been evac­u­ated by com­mer­cial flights by the end of the day, in­clud­ing 90 from Turks and Caicos and 150 from St. Maarten.

Some hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance was also be­ing read­ied or al­ready on the way to the re­gion, with the ex­pec­ta­tion that much more would fol­low in the com­ing days, weeks and even months.

A spe­cial team from Global Af­fairs Canada and the De­part­ment of Na­tional De­fence is in An­tigua to de­ter­mine what help is needed af­ter the re­gion en­dured the onetwo punch of hur­ri­canes Irma and Jose.

But For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land said the top pri­or­ity was help­ing those Cana­di­ans af­fected by the hur­ri­canes, which to­gether caused wide­spread de­struc­tion across the Caribbean.

“We are work­ing very, very hard to bring you home,” Free­land told a brief­ing via con­fer­ence call from Toronto, where she planned to meet many of the re­turn­ing Cana­di­ans at the air­port later in the day.

“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.”

Of­fi­cials said they had re­ceived re­quests for as­sis­tance from 368 Cana­di­ans, though they ac­knowl­edged there may have been oth­ers who hadn’t yet been able to get in con­tact with Global Af­fairs.

Air Canada and WestJet flights were sched­uled to ar­rive Mon­day.

The gov­ern­ment’s move to ac­tion Mon­day fol­lowed a storm of crit­i­cism over the week­end from fam­ily and friends of those trapped by the hur­ri­canes, who ques­tioned why more wasn’t done sooner.

Many noted that the U.S. and sev­eral other coun­tries had de­ployed their mil­i­taries to evac­u­ate ci­ti­zens and won­dered why Canada hadn’t done the same and was in­stead re­ly­ing on com­mer­cial air­lines.

One of the Cana­dian Armed Forces’ mas­sive C-17 trans­port planes is sched­uled to ferry hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies to the re­gion later this week and will be avail­able to evac­u­ate any strag­glers.

But Con­ser­va­tive for­eign af­fairs critic Erin O’Toole called on the gov­ern­ment to send var­i­ous military air­craft im­me­di­ately to coun­tries where com­mer­cial air­lines were hav­ing dif­fi­culty op­er­at­ing.

Lib­eral min­is­ters main­tained there was no short­age of air­craft thanks to the com­mer­cial air­lines; the prob­lem, they main­tained, was with hav­ing enough space to land the planes.

“From the be­gin­ning, the air­lines have been avail­able,” Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau said at Global Af­fairs head­quar­ters in Ot­tawa.

“The main prob­lem has been the avail­abil­ity of the airstrips on which to land and in some cases per­mis­sion to leave with pas­sen­gers. So I can un­der­stand peo­ple say­ing: ‘Hey, where are the air­planes?’ ”

Kim­ber­ley Babin, whose boyfriend was teach­ing in St. Maarten when Irma hit, was among those who said they felt aban­doned by the gov­ern­ment over the week­end.

Babin wel­comed the news Mon­day that her boyfriend was sched­uled to re­turn on a WestJet flight, but be­lieved the gov­ern­ment’s spring to ac­tion was largely the re­sult of pres­sure from friends and fam­ily.

“When it came down to it,” she said from her home in Ni­a­gara, Ont., “it was more (the friends and fam­ily mem­bers) that were the in­stru­men­tal key play­ers in help­ing our own loved ones.”

St. Maarten, lo­cated on the Dutch side of an is­land di­vided be­tween French and Dutch con­trol, was dev­as­tated by the hur­ri­cane.

An es­ti­mated 70 per cent of the homes were dam­aged or de­stroyed by Irma and four peo­ple died, ac­cord­ing to the Dutch gov­ern­ment.

One of the big mys­ter­ies over the week­end was why an Air Canada pas­sen­ger plane that had ar­rived in Turks and Caicos sev­eral days ago wasn’t al­lowed to leave with evac­uees.

Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties had safety con­cerns as the air­port was badly dam­aged by Irma, Garneau said, but the plane was sched­uled to leave late Mon­day af­ter Cana­dian of­fi­cials ne­go­ti­ated its de­par­ture.

“I cer­tainly un­der­stand how (the Cana­di­ans still in the re­gion) are feel­ing stressed and I can un­der­stand how their rel­a­tives are feel­ing stressed,” Garneau said. “But quite of­ten there is a log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion.”

Global Af­fairs said its emer­gency cen­tre had pro­cessed 2,140 calls and e-mails as of Mon­day morn­ing; of­fi­cials said there have been no known Cana­dian fa­tal­i­ties from the storms.

This Sept. 6, 2017 photo pro­vided by the Dutch De­fense Min­istry shows storm dam­age in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma, in St. Maarten.

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