Stranded in St. Maarten, Toronto medical student searches for food, water after Hurricane Irma, family says

A Toronto father is worried about the fate of his daughter, who is stranded on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma destroyed 60% of homes on the island, according to the French interior minister

Toronto medical student Morvarid Sanandaji is among 500 students trapped at the American University of the Caribbean school of Medicine after Hurricane Irma devastated the island. (Submitted by Morvarid Sanandaji)

A Toronto father is worried about the fate of his daughter, who is stranded on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and he's critical of the federal government's response to the crisis and the plight of Canadians caught in the path of the storm. 

Morvarid Sanandaji, 24, was supposed to start medical school this month in St. Maarten — her white-coat ceremony set to take place this week. But as the most powerful storm on record ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean churned toward the Dutch Caribbean island territory, it became clear the first day of school wouldn't happen.

Morvarid Sanandaji, 24, is trapped in St. Maarten, where she's attending medical school. (Morvarid Sanandaji/Facebook)

"She's a very brave girl, but for the first time she said, 'I'm scared,'" said Khashayar Sanandaji, Morvarid's father, who spoke to CBC Toronto from his home.

Sanandaji said he and his wife haven't slept in three days — since Hurricane Irma made landfall on the island.

While contact with their daughter has been sporadic, the family says their phone messages and emails asking for information and help from the Canadian government went unanswered until Friday afternoon. 

Bahar Sanandaji, Movarid's mother, said Saturday she received a call from Global Affairs Canada yesterday. 

"They took down her name," she said, adding her main concern is an evacuation plan for her daughter. 

Prior to this, the Sanandaji family asked their local MP Ali Ehsassi to intervene, out of frustration with Global Affairs Canada.

Ehsassi told CBC Toronto he has reached out to several consular officials, who he says will have a better sense of the situation on the island. 

"Her name has been submitted to Canadian authorities," he said, adding he was told they will reach out to her family shortly. 

'They've done their best'

In the aftermath, both student residences were completely destroyed — and clean drinking water is scarce. There is a generator for electricity, but "for a few more days only," said Khashayar Sanandaji. (Submitted by Morvarid Sanandaji)

Khashayar says the damage to St. Maarten is devastating and feels the Canadian government should be doing more.

According to accounts from residents stranded on the island, he says, "groups of American and Canadian students roamed the neighbourhood around the campus in search of food and water" on Thursday.

"They found car keys and were able to find the car it belonged to.… They loaded the car with as much supplies that they could find from the rubble of homes destroyed to bring back to campus."

She's a very brave girl, but for the first time she said 'I'm scared.'- Khashayar Sanandaji, Morvarid's father

He alleges the students also found shampoo in one of the homes and bathed themselves in a swimming pool before returning to the university.

Morvarid, along with 500 other students and faculty, have taken shelter since Tuesday evening on the America University of the Caribbean School of Medicine campus, as the worst part of the storm hit. 

Bahar asserts she is happy with the university's response.

"Under these extreme situations, they've done their best," she told CBC Toronto Saturday.

"They've kept the students in a safe building and they've kept order. They've had regular meetings with the students there and from what I've heard from my daughter is that they do have a lot of food and water that the university is providing them." 

Hurricane Irma seen from space churning toward Florida on Thursday. (NOAA National Weather Service National Hurricane Center/Handout via Reuters)

In the aftermath, both student residences were completely destroyed — and clean drinking water is scarce because access has turned on and off. There is a generator for electricity, but "for a few more days only," said Khashayar.

Being inside a medical university adds additional challenges, with cadavers and medical supplies that need to be kept in controlled environments.

"People are starting to get sick in the building and disease is beginning to spread and morale is very low," said Sanandaji, based on conversations he's had with his daughter.

Hurricane Jose headed for St. Maarten

Hope came on Thursday, when Morvarid told her parents the university said they would try and get the students to Chicago via a military plane — but that hope died on Friday morning, when Morvarid called in tears, saying they were told they'd have to wait out the next hurricane before flying out.

Hurricane Jose was recently upgraded to a Category 4 storm with 240 km/h winds that could punish some of the most devastated areas all over again. 

The National Hurricane Center in the U.S. issued a hurricane warning for St. Maarten Friday afternoon.

'I have left messages and sent emails'

Sandandaji says Global Affairs Canada and the embassy have been of no help to him and his family.

"I have left messages and sent emails to government offices and have received no response," he said.

When contacted by CBC Toronto, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Natasha Nystrom did not say how many Canadians are currently stranded in St. Maarten or if the ministry was aware of Morvarid's situation. 

Instead, Nystrom said in a statement the Canadian government is monitoring the situation and "is actively making every available effort to assist Canadian citizens affected by Hurricane Irma."

She would not specify what those efforts are. 

'No country has a good, solid contingency plan'

"This is a crisis that needs to be taken seriously," said Sanandaji.

Morvarid Sanandaji's family contacted their Willowdale MP Ali Ehsassi for answers after not receiving a response to their phone calls and emails to Global Affairs Canada. (Ali Ehsassi)

Ehsassi says the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has left St. Maarten "very much unsettled," and Canadian authorities are scrambling to deal with the situation on the ground. 

"The scale of the devastation is such that no country has a good, solid contingency plan in place for evacuation," he added after speaking with Canadian, French and Dutch officials.

"If opportunities do become available to have her evacuated that we obviously do so, and we also liaise with other countries." 

A Dutch coast guard Dash 8 patrol plane, which is contracted from Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace. Two of the company's planes have been flying relief missions to hurricane-flattened St. Maarten. (Wade Fleet)

In the meantime, Ehsassi recommends others with family or friends trapped in St. Maarten get in touch with the government. 

On their travel advisory website, Global Affairs warns against all travel to St. Maarten due to Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose.

"These are very, very difficult circumstances," said Ehsassi. "There is assistance that is going into St. Maarten, but to the best of our knowledge, no country has embarked on a mission to evacuate their nationals."

Have you been affected by Hurricane Irma? Email us.