'Never seen anything like it': Stratford principal endures hurricane Irma

Herb Klassen of Stratford was in St. Maarten when hurricane Irma made landfall. The principal of a school there, he says he wants to return and rebuild as soon as possible.

Herb Klassen says he'll return and rebuild as soon as he's able to

Some of the devastation near Herb Klassen's home during Irma, taken in a short period as the eye of the storm passed over St. Maarten. (Herb Klassen)

Irma wasn't Herb Klassen's first hurricane, but it was unlike anything he'd ever seen before.

Klassen is the principal of the Caribbean International Academy in St. Maarten, a private, Canadian international school.  

He's been through four hurricanes, so far, including two category 3 storms. Like the others, Klassen was on the island when Irma, a massive category 5 storm, made landfall on Sept 6. 

"It hit with quite a force," he told Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition on CBC Radio. 

He weathered Irma alone at home. The windows and door were duct taped shut, a dresser in front of his bedroom door.

"Then what you do is you simply wait it out," he said.  

Herb Klassen of Stratford is the principal at the Caribbean International Academy in St. Maarten. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

A brief calm 

After it began dying down, he went outside to see at the damage. He noticed his neighbours looking down on him from their window.

"I looked over my shoulder and noticed there was a bank of black clouds, and it looked like a storm approaching," he said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I am in the eye of the hurricane.'"

When it was all over, more than 80 per cent of his building had "blown through."

"What that means is the doors break in and the bank of windows breaks out, and at that point it becomes a funnel and everything in the condo is blown out," he said. "And there's nothing left."

The doors break in and the bank of windows breaks out, and at that point it becomes a funnel and everything in the condo is blown out.- Herb Klassen

Today, people on the island shared by Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin are trying to rebuild. The Dutch Red Cross said the hurricane destroyed nearly a third of all the buildings in St. Maarten and damaged more than 90 per cent of them, Reuters reported.

When hurricane Gonzalo, a category 3, struck the island three years ago, it took four days for the school to get back up and running, Klassen said.

This time, the damage to the island is even more severe. The academy was built to withstand hurricanes, Klassen said, and even still, several rooms, including the library and science labs, were completely destroyed. 

It could have been worse.

None of the staff or students were injured by Irma, despite several remaining on the island through the storm. 

Some were eventually airlifted out by the Canadian government, aboard WestJet flights, while others caught an airlift out courtesy of a parent, whose company sent a helicopter from nearby St. Kitts.  

Trees stripped of their leaves on St. Maarten. Klassen took this picture before returning to his condo to wait out the other half of hurricane Irma. (Herb Klassen)

Island once more on alert

Klassen said he'll return to St. Maarten soon to begin rebuilding. 

In the meantime, he's helping arrange fundraisers back here at home. He said some schools in Avon Maitland District School Board have already agreed to help.

He'd like to return as soon as he can, but said it could still be a while off.  

As of Monday afternoon, another hurricane, Maria, this one a category 3 storm, appears to be following a similar path to Irma.

And once again, island is being warned to stay on alert. 


Max Leighton


Max is as a radio producer, reporter and web-writer for CBC. He has worked in CBC newsrooms from Whitehorse to Toronto. These days, he's reporting on his home region for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.


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