When 13 Trinis, stranded in St Maarten in the wake of Hurricane Irma, could not make it to home, their country came for them. This is what unfolded at the Princess Juliana International Airport yesterday, as close to 200 travellers were left stranded at the terminals.
The TT nationals, along with 21 Guyanese, three Jamaicans, six Dutchmen, two French nationals, two St Lucians and one Bajan were brought to Trinidad yesterday after they were stranded at the airport for almost a week.
The return trip was organised and coordinated by Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL) as well as private donors as part of a wider relief effort to bring much-needed supplies to the hurricane stricken island.
Corporate Communications Manager for Caribbean Airlines Dionne Ligoure said the company, together with other private stakeholders, were hard at work since the devastation began last week, piecing together goods to carry to the island and coordinating response efforts on the ground with authorities in St Maarten.
Before landing in St Maarten, Ligoure said, “It was really a combined effort not only from CAL but from Blue Waters, National Petroleum, Boeing and a number of other different private benefactors who made this possible. It’s a humanitarian effort and, at this time, we don’t know what exactly we will be going into.”
Ligoure, who was accompanied by immigration officers and other staff, began the arduous task of sifting through the crowds to find T&T nationals who were stranded and other nationals to bring them home.
One woman was emotional as she described the ordeal of waiting in line with her children since last Wednesday.
“It’s really hard because we can’t do anything besides wait in line right now. There’s very little food or water coming in and a lot of people often have to go without.”
However, after a day’s long task, almost 50 people were brought back to TT yesterday evening. Newsday understands that the other nationals were placed on adjoining flights last night or are awaiting placement today.
According to reports, the Dutch military assumed control over the airport since the devastation began last week, providing relief through water and food and ensuring law and order was maintained.
Upon arrival to St Maarten yesterday morning, the devastation was clear, as entire buildings and vehicles were still overturned. On the mountains just adjacent to the airport, acres of forest were stripped bare by strong winds. At the shipyard, dozens of vessels had run aground, with debris and wreckage strewn across the coastline.
Further inland onto the outskirts of St Maarten’s capital of Philipsburg, power lines were strewn across streets and residents alongside emergency authorities attempted to clear the streets of debris. Newsday spoke to several residents who said that while the situation was still dire, they said that it was an improvement from the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
One resident said, “We still don’t have any electricity and we need to rely on stored water but in the end it is better than a week ago when the hurricane actually happened.”
Asked whether reports of looting and lawlessness were true in the aftermath of the hurricane, residents said that while there was some chaos earlier last week, joint police and military patrols and a curfew had quelled such activities.
St Maarten, which is bordered to the north by the French colony, St Martin, was up until yesterday unavailable to outsiders, including media personnel. Newsday understands that French military authorities have begun the task of cleaning up St Martin, which was hardest hit during Irma’s passing.
St Maarten which is heavily dependent on the tourist industry for income is now crippled as several bars, hotels and resorts were gutted by Irma and remained closed up until yesterday. Newsday spoke to resident and business owner Velden, who said that he was unsure what the future of St Maarten was, in the wake of the devastation.
“It’s hard because tourism was what really kept my country alive, not agriculture or anything like that,” Velden said. “With the damage done and the state of the economy as it is, I don’t know when we will be able to get back on track.”
While the destruction left behind by Irma was evident, many citizens were optimistic that a silver lining is just over the Horizon for St Maarten.