Hurricane Irma: A McGill Perspective
Hurricane Irma, the fourth hurricane of the 2017 season, started on August 30th, near the Cape Verde Islands (1). It became a Category 2 storm within 24 hours, a Category 4 by September 4th, and by September 5th, grew to the strength of a Category 5 (2). Hurricane Irma has hit several Carribean Islands, as well as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama (3). This hurricane, while devastating, has felt relatively far away from Canada, a distant tragedy we have little control over. This could not be further from the truth from one of our fellow McGill students, Annabelle Vlaun. Annabelle is a U3 student at McGill majoring in microbiology and immunology and minoring in education, and her sister is a U1 economics major. She and her sister are from one of the islands hit by Hurricane Irma, St.Martin. Here, Annabelle shares with us her family’s experiences with Hurricane Irma, and the impacts this disaster has had on her community.
1) Where in St. Martin are you from?
St. Martin is a very small island shared between the French and the Dutch. I was born on the Dutch side and lived there until the age of 10, then I lived on the French side until I moved away for university.
2) How long have you lived there?
I was born and raised there. Lived there my entire life (18 years) until I started at McGill. The same goes for my younger sister who is also studying at McGill now.
3) Is your family still living there?
My parents still live on the island and they plan to stay. My dad is 7th generation St. Martiner and my mom moved from France to St. Martin when she was five years old and has lived there since. She considers St. Martin to be her home too.
4) How has your family been impacted by Hurricane Irma?
There has been extensive damage to our home, but when you live on such a small island you consider the entire place to be your home. Everything I knew and loved and grew up with is gone. 95% of all infrastructure on island has been seriously damaged. Some of our friends have lost their roofs and everything they have ever owned. People have lost loved ones. A family friend of ours passed away due to medical complications that could not be treated after the devastation. An acquaintance of my parents lost his roof and waited out the hurricane in the cabinet under his kitchen sink to stay alive. My parents have been lucky compared to others – they are not suffering from PTSD, as so are many of the people they know. After Irma, St. Martin was also hit by Jose and Maria. My mom said she had panic attacks during both. Every time she hears wind blow she feels nauseous and scared. Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. They have no running water at the moment, no electricity either; it's been over a month now and it is not expected to be restored until the beginning of November. My father and many others no longer have jobs because businesses are destroyed passed reparation. The island depends on tourism as the major source of economy so the economy is essentially dead. They are estimating it will take 8 months to a year for life on island to go back to normal.
5) How have you been impacted by Hurricane Irma?
The first few days after Irma, my sister and I had no way to communicate with my parents and we were worried sick for their lives. We usually communicate over internet but there is currently none. My parents manage to catch a phone signal or internet signal every couple days. It's hard going from talking to them every day to hoping they will manage to reach you this week. Also, knowing everything they have been through we (my sister and I) want to be there to support them but it's hard with lack of modes of communication. I've had to get a part time job to help support my sister and I through school given that my parents were our financial supporters but they no longer have jobs and will not have any for months. A disaster like Irma really helps put things into perspective for you. In the 3 days after the storm, my sister and I didn't know if my parents were dead or alive; not knowing was driving us crazy. They are safe and that's all we could hope for. Some days I wonder "have my parents had the means to shower today?" Or "I hope they have food and water". It really makes you realize what the important things in life are.
6) When was the last time you were home?
My sister and I were both home this summer. I returned to Montreal just under 2 months ago. It's crazy to think that the home I left is not as it was, that the restaurants I went to are just piles of debris, that the nature I love so much is destroyed. Irma left not a leaf on the trees back home; our natural ecosystems left polluted with debris and damaged due to the powerful wind, rain and waves.
7) When is the next time you plan on going home?
My sister and I wanted so badly to go visit my parents to support and comfort them, but my parents want us to stay here and focus on our studies. They are glad that we have evaded this trauma. We've discussed seeing each other for the Christmas holidays. My parents don't want us to go home because of the state the island will still be in. It's very likely I will not go back to St. Martin until next summer.
8) What can the average person at McGill do to help?
My parents have asked my sister and I to start a fundraiser. They want to create a Clean Up Team that can help clear debris from private properties. Their plan is to purchase equipment for this team of locals who have lost their jobs which will allow them to be hired by people on island who need help clearing debris. This is the link to our campaign. https://www.gofundme.com/helpvictimsofirma
There are also many Non-for-profit organizations you can donate to help hurricane victims.
I think the most important thing people for McGill can do to help is to have awareness. Be aware that you may have colleagues or students of friends on campus who are affected and who may not be receiving support because their families are caught in the disaster. Be aware that there are a number of islands in the Caribbean that have been devastated by Irma, Jose and Maria, and they all need help. Be aware that these are small islands that don't have the resources to help themselves, that's why we need so much outside support. Understand that though most islands are territories of First World countries, we are NOT First World countries and that means basic necessities like running water and electricity will not be running in a matter of hours or days. Though we may not be a topic covered by the media anymore, we still need help because it is going to take us months and maybe years to fully recover.
1) World Vision, 2017. Hurricane Irma: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-response-news-stories/hurricane-irma
3) Loria and Mosher, 2017. “Irma is Finally Leaving Florida and Now Hammering Georgia – Here’s the Latest” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-irma-strength-category-forecast-updates-2017-9
World Vision, 2017. Hurricane Irma: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-response-news-stories/hurricane-irma
Loria, Kevin and Mosher, Dave 2017. “Irma is Finally Leaving Florida and Now Hammering Georgia – Here’s the Latest” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-irma-strength-category-forecast-updates-2017-9
Photos taken by Annabelle Vlaun.