A big blow for St. Maarten as Sunwing pulls out for winter; Dominica devastated by Hurricane Maria

This a crushing blow for the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, one of the favourite Caribbean retreats for Canadians every winter. Sunwing, a popular supplier of flights from Canada to the Dutch/French island, says they’re pulling out of all flights through the end of next April because of major damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

The island’s airport was badly hurt by the storm, and many hotels also were badly damaged. That’s hard enough on folks who live there, but losing thousands of Canadian visitors will mean an even bigger loss for an island where folks rely on tourism to feed their families.

And now the lovely island of Dominica, which I visited last year and loved for its people and natural beauty, has been devastated by Hurricane Maria. “We have lost all that money can buy,” said the nation’s Prime Minster, who had the roof torn off his home by winds said to be in the 160 mph range. I haven’t seen detailed reports but it sounds awful, and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico could be next for Maria.

The situation in Dominica sounds terrible. I got a note from the Caribbean Tourism Organization this morning with the following update:

Dear All,
This message from Hartley Henry, the principal advisor to Dominica’s prime minister:
This is Hartley Henry – Principal Advisor to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica.
It’s 4 30am and I just spoke with Prime Minister Skerrit via satellite phone.  He and family are fine.  Dominica is not!! Tremendous loss of housing and public buildings. The main general hospital took a beating. Patient care has been compromised.
 Many buildings serving as shelters lost roofs, which means that a very urgent need now is tarpaulins and other roofing materials.
Little contact has been made with the outer communities but persons who walked 10 and 15 miles towards the city of Roseau from various outer districts report total destruction of homes, some roadways and crops.
Urgent helicopter services are needed to take food, water and tarpaulins to outer districts for shelter. 
Canefield airport can accommodate helicopter landings and it is expected that from today, the waters around the main Roseau port will be calm enough to accommodate vessels bringing relief supplies and other forms of assistance.
It’s difficult to determine the level of fatalities but so far seven are confirmed, as a direct result of the hurricane. That figure, the Prime Minister fears, will rise as he wades his way into the rural communities today -Wednesday.
The urgent needs now are roofing materials for shelters, bedding supplies for hundreds stranded in or outside what’s left of their homes and food and water drops for residents of outlying districts inaccessible at the moment.
The tarmac at Mellville Hall [Airport] was not too badly damaged so the strip should be opened in a day or two for larger relief planes to land.
The Prime Minister is hoping to make contact with ABS Radio in Antigua this morning to speak directly to the outer world as to the state of Dominica and its urgent needs. 
The country is in a daze – no electricity, no running water – as a result of uprooted pipes in most communities and definitely to landline or cellphone services on island, and that will be for quite a while.
In summary,  the island has been devastated. The housing stock significantly damaged or destroyed. All available public buildings are being used as shelters; with very limited roofing materials evident.
The country needs the support and continued help and prayers of all.
Will update further as new information is received.  

I’m not seeing much in the way of any reports from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it sounds like there was significant damage from Hurricane Maria, which appears to have slid some 50 miles or more off-shore the west coast of the island. The bigger situation this morning appears to be Puerto Rico, which is taking Maria head-on.

Here’s what I reported earlier in the week:

As well, with Hurricane Maria heading west, Sunwing on Tuesday (Sept. 19) said it has decided to pick up its customers in the Dominican Republic and send them home in advance of the storm’s projected landfall. Air Canada Vacations said it is sending five planes to the DR to evacuate its guests. I didn’t see any information along these lines on the WestJet site, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t follow suit.

As for Dominica, this statement was sent out Monday night by Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit:

“Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.

“So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with. The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn away roofs in the city and the countryside.

A severely damaged building in Dominica.

“Come tomorrow morning we will hit the road, as soon as the all clear is given, in search of the injured and those trapped in the rubble.
I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating…indeed, mind boggling. My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured.

“We will need help, my friends, we will need help of all kinds.

“It is too early to speak of the condition of the air and seaports, but I suspect both will be inoperable for a few days. That is why I am eager now to solicit the support of friendly nations and organisations with helicopter services, for I personally am eager to get up and get around the country to see and determine what’s needed.”

Powerful stuff. And heart-breaking.

As for damage from Hurricane Irma, a report on the website travelweek.ca said Sunwing will add flights from Toronto and Montreal to both Cancun and Montego Bay, Jamaica on the same days as they were slated to fly to St. Maarten. One assumes the new customers can all be fit into resorts in those destinations, but there’s no way of knowing.

“Impacted customers have been provided the option of re-booking alternative vacation packages at a special rate, choosing from other available options or cancelling for a full refund. Customers who booked with their travel agent are encouraged to contact them directly to make arrangements,” says Sunwing officials said.

I sent a note this morning to WestJet to ask what was up and was sent a link to their latest blog, which says the airline has decided to “remove regularly scheduled flights to and from Cayo Coco (CCC) and Santa Clara (SNU) in Cuba and to and from and St. Maarten (SXM) through Oct. 31, 2017.”

That’s still quite significant for folks on St. Maarten/St. Martin and in Cuba, which has enough troubles as it is.

WestJet also said guests booked for travel through Dec. 31 will be offered flexible change/cancel for these destinations.

A note on the Air Transat site says airline operations to Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria in Cuba have been suspended until Oct. 31, 2017. Operations to Holguin will continue as normal, while operations to Varadero should resume on Sept. 22, 2017, they said.

“To meet the higher demand, we will be increasing the capacity on our flights to the Dominican Republic and Mexico during the months of September and October 2017.”

Travelweek was reporting that Air Canada Vacations will send “25 Product Specialists” to the island to assess if it can continue to receive guests at a level that ACV customers expect. Given what Sunwing and WestJet have already decided, that doesn’t sound promising to me, folks. Not at all.

On top of visiting ravaged St. Maarten, Air Canada Vacations specialists will stop at the Turks and Caicos, Cuba and other destinations to do on-sist inepsections of beaches, hotels and infrastructure.

That could have a domino effect and could, in theory, drive up prices in destinations that weren’t hit by Irma.

The hurricane season in the Caribbean traditionally runs from August until late fall. The worst storms are said to usually occur between mid-August and mid-September. But given what seems to be a changing climate pattern around the world (eight people were killed by a wind storm in Romania the other day) who really knows?

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • ann welland 19 September 2017, 3:02 pm

    sunwing guests were housed in Sonesta hotels and grand beach hotel and they announced that they are closed and not taking reservations. Who knows when repairs will be completed. Sunwing needs to plan winter routes.

    • jimbyers 19 September 2017, 3:06 pm

      Thanks for the note, Ann. Sunwing has said it will boost flights to Cancun and Jamaica to make up for loss of St. Maarten/Martin. Let’s hope Jamaica and other Caribbean islands are spared….

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