Local teacher safe in Dundas County after surviving category five hurricane Irma

Seen in image above: April Vandodewaard teaching at the Caribbean International Academy in Cupecoy, St. Maarten. Photo provided by April

Kelsey Smith
Nation Valley News

IROQUOIS — Imagine this: You’re over 3,200 km from home, a category five hurricane is headed your way, and you’re on an island with nowhere to go. This was the horrific nightmare come true for area resident April Vandodewaard.

Vandodewaard got the chance of a lifetime to begin her teaching career in the Caribbean through an International Job Fair at Queen’s University.

Currently in her second year at the Caribbean International Academy in Cupecoy, St. Maarten, teaching math and physics to Grades 11 and 12 students, she was really enjoying her time on the tropical island. 

The image above shows Caribbean International Academy, on the Netherlands portion of the island where April Vandodewaard teaches Grade 11 and 12 math and physics, before hurricane Irma. Courtesy photo

Her dream quickly turned into a nightmare when she was forced to quickly evacuate her apartment — as she knew it would be ‘unsafe’ — and instead took shelter in the nearby, more ruggedly constructed campus’ student residence. All she brought with her were a few changes of clothes, her laptop, and her passport.

She and four other students took cover in a well built room as Irma began its two-day assault on Sept. 6.

Fortunately for them, the school had been given notice of the approaching hurricane and were well prepared with a running generator, food, water, and other needed supplies. 

The campus after being hit by the category 5 hurricane. Photo courtesy of April Vandodewaard.

Though she played it safe and found the right spot to wait out Irma, her roommate and roommate’s boyfriend, along with their dog, stayed put in their apartment. They used a mattress and bed frame as as barrier inside the apartment’s bathroom where they took refuge from the storm.

Shortly after the hurricane had passed, Vandodewaard raced over to her apartment to check on her friends.

To her surprise and relief everyone was safe and uninjured, even as the roof had been torn off the building from above their heads.

The South Dundas native packed up as many of her unharmed personal affects that she could fit into a single garbage bag and headed back over to the residence building.

Her belongings were soaked and dirty from the dirty water that burst through the windows and absent roof of the apartment.

There was no power or running water to wash her clothing so she did the next best thing. “I did laundry in the pool,” she laughed.

Although there were several attempts to leave the island over the next five days, nothing ever panned out for Vandodewaard, who found herself effectively stranded amid the wreckage.

She reported that Americans seemed to have priority as the first to be evacuated, noting she learned of one military flight that was available to citizens of the U.S. exclusively. 

She also heard of a situation where a cruise ships had arrived to rescue desperate people and their pets from the island. But only once all of their possessions were loaded aboard did folks learn their dogs couldn’t come along; only smaller animals like cats were allowed onto the ship. Many were forced to stay behind, while their belongings — including their dog crates — stayed on board and sailed away.

Then on Monday Sept. 11, just as she thought all hope was lost, she got some good news.

While walking through town she ran into the school’s principal. He told her that he and his wife had their names on seats for a flight back to Canada and they could reserve a seat for her as well. She needed to be at the airport for noon with one carry-on bag.

She had earlier made plans to meet with friends for lunch around noon, but thought that heading back to Canada might be a better idea instead.

After arriving on time at what was left of the destroyed airport — passengers had to be processed outdoors on the tarmac — she was informed the flight’s departure time would be delayed until 2:30 p.m. She and many others ultimately stood outside in the scorching Caribbean heat for over four hours before the “Canadians only” plane finally arrived around 5 p.m. Unfortunately, boarding turned out to be a “very slow process” as well, after the Westjet plane touched down.

“There were no scanners to check bags and our boarding passes were hand-written,” Vandodewaard said. 

“I was very sunburnt but still incredibly thankful for what Westjet did for us,” she added. “They had water and a snack waiting for us at our seats. They were very accommodating. When we arrived in Toronto they provided a hotel room and connecting flight to anyone in need. I needed a flight to Ottawa. They also gave us a free meal on the plane and provided us with a free meal voucher for breakfast the next day.”

The airline provided Canadians with a free rescue flight. Vandodewaard heard through the grapevine that the Americans on their earlier military flight out may have been charged a whopping $1,500 once they arrived safely back in the States. “It might just be a rumour but that’s what I heard,” she clarified.

The math and physics teacher is very grateful to be back in Canada safely but worries about her many friends and students that are still over there.

Before leaving she ran into a few of her students whose parents had their businesses completely destroyed and are just “trying to get off the island and go anywhere.”

A few students even told her they want to go back to school just to get things off their minds.

As for when she will be able to return to work she replied,  “We’ll see what happens. With the electricity slowly being restored I am hopeful, and I do want to go back.”

As things stand right now, there is still no running water anywhere and very few areas with electricity.

She has heard the “owner of the school wants to reopen in two weeks.” But Vandodewaard herself is not so sure if that’s feasible.

“It was an experience … I’m fine not having to go through that again,” she said as she sighed with relief.


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