Medical students urge the government to help Canadians stranded in St. Maarten

Students were able to leave the island

Some Canadian medical students who managed to escape before hurricane Irma pummelled St. Maarten are urging the federal government to do more to bring home their colleagues who weren’t so lucky.

Dulani Samarappuli of Calgary, who just finished her first year at the American University of the Caribbean School, said she was one of five Canadians from the school who managed to board one of the last flights to Canada on Tuesday morning before the devastating storm hit.

“My plan was to pack up everything in the house, take shelter on campus and ride it out,” the 26-year-old said. “But the night they said Irma would be a Category 5, I started to get more nervous and so did other students.”

Samarappuli she and four other students decided at the last minute to go to the airport last minute to see if they could catch a flight to Toronto.

The Sunwing flight was booked, but Samarappuli said they were told to wait in case some passengers did not show up. Before take off, she said, they were able to board the plane.

The massive storm directly hit the island — which is divided between the French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten — early Wednesday, pounding its airport and leaving thousands of tourists and locals desperate to escape.

Dutch officials said the situation remained “grim” Saturday on the island where widespread looting had broken out and a state of emergency was in force.

Dutch government estimated Saturday that 70 per cent of houses were badly damaged or destroyed, leaving much of the 40,000 population in public shelters as they braced for the arrival of hurricane Jose.

Now safe at home, Samarappuli said she and about 25 other Canadian students from the school who fled St. Maarten in time have banded together to get all the Canadians hunkering down at the university back home.

They created an online petition that garnered more than 500 signatures as of Saturday night to draw attention to the situation in hopes that the Canadian government would do more to rescue citizens who are worried about their safety and running out of supplies.

“They have curfews in place in the evenings to keep people safe and at home, and students are not allowed to leave campus without security guards,” she said. “But they are definitely afraid as far as how much worse it could get.”

After Irma, aerial footage shot by Dutch marines showed that Maho Beach’s sands had washed away and the airport was badly damaged. The Dutch military is using the runway, which was inundated by high tides during the hurricane, to ferry in aid supplies but officials say it’s not yet open to civilian flights as there are no runway lights or air traffic control.

Samarappuli said some American students have been evacuated from the island by the U.S. military, adding Canada should do the same. Although Sunwing evacuated some Canadian tourists from St. Maarten to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic on Saturday, Samarappuli said she hasn’t heard of help coming from the Canadian government.

“I and all my colleagues have been trying all day and all week to try to reach government (officials) and get some sort of answers as to what they are doing to help and when that help is going to come,” she said. “So far we haven’t gotten any answers.”

The Canadian government said in a teleconference Saturday that it is closely monitoring the progress of Irma, as well as hurricane Jose.

Officials said they had received calls from about 222 Canadians across numerous Caribbean islands requesting consular help and disaster assessment teams are poised for deployment if necessary.

— With files from The Associated Press

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