Lack of airstrips slowed Irma response: Feds

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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 one-two 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 emails as of Monday morning; officials said there have been no known Canadian fatalities from the storms.

— with reporting from Nicole Thompson in Toronto.

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