Toronto man, elderly parents in Cuba 24 hours before Hurricane Irma hit are frustrated by Sunwing's response

Li Xin Tuo and his elderly parents had been vacationing in Cuba for 24 hours before Hurricane Irma hurled toward the Caribbean nation, forcing them to flee their beach resort and narrowly escape the devastation. And they aren't alone.

Li Xin Tuo and his elderly parents had to flee their beach resort just hours after arriving

Hurricane Irma battered Cuba on Saturday with deafening winds and unremitting rain, pushing seawater inland and flooding homes. (Desmond Boylan/AP Photo)

Li Xin Tuo and his elderly parents had been vacationing in Cuba for 24 hours before Hurricane Irma hurled toward the Caribbean nation, forcing them to flee their beach resort and narrowly escaped the devastation. And they aren't alone.

Hundreds of travellers were trapped by the Category 5 storm with 200 km/h winds that uprooted trees, tore off roofs and damaged hotels in some of the island's best-known beach resorts when it made landfall Saturday afternoon. 

Now the Toronto resident is left questioning why their travel agent, Sunwing, didn't cancel their trip before they left, instead allowing them to fly to the Caribbean which was under a hurricane watch at that time. 

One of the lucky ones

Tuo and his 84-year-old mother, Xiuzhen Wang, and 81-year-old father Zenglin Tuo, who were visiting him from China were supposed to be vacationing in Cayo Santa Maria, a pristine key located off the northern coast of Cuba's mainland, for a week when their trip was cut short. 

Li Xin Tuo, left, and his parents, Zenglin Tuo, centre, and Xiuzhen Wang, right, were in Cuba for 24 hours before Sunwing evacuated them due to Hurricane Irma's threat. The family is now demanding answers as to why they were allowed to go. (Submitted by Li Xin Tuo)

But Tuo says his family is one of the lucky ones — having been some of the first to arrive at the Varadero airport, in the island's most famous beach getaway spot where Ontario-based travel agent, Sunwing, flew out its travellers. 

They managed to board one of the first flights out to Canada on Saturday morning before the hurricane hit.

"Many people who followed us from the hotel and arrived in the Varadero airport later, they were told there was no space onboard," he said.   

Cuban authorities shut down the Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport in Varadero later that day, as the first Category 5 storm to make landfall on the island since 1932 passed over the northern keys, just grazing the mainland with its full force. 

Palm trees sway in the wind prior to the arrival of the Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba on Friday. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

In a statement sent to CBC News Sunday, Sunwing, an Ontario-based travel agency and airline, said: "The evacuation plan in Cuba was especially complex as Sunwing had more customers in Cuba than every other Canadian airline combined as Hurricane Irma's projected path evolved.

"As a result of the volume of passengers and unexpected airport closures, and the complexity of moving people via land to remaining departure points, the effort has been challenging, however we are working in cooperation with local officials to return them home safely as soon as the Varadero airport reopens."

The last of the country's airports — Jose Marti International Airport in the country's capital, Havana — closed Saturday afternoon when Irma neared the end of a 320-kilometre trek westward along the top of the island. 

'A really hard trip'

To get out of Hurricane Irma's path, Tuo and his parents endured a 15-hour evacuation by bus from Cayo Santa Maria to Varadero, located around 325 kilometres west. 

"It was a really hard trip," he said and the bus journey was even harder for his parents, both in their 80s.

Three of 14 evacuation buses contracted by Sunwing to take travellers from Cayo Santa Maria to Cuba's mainland city, Varadero, collided while en route. (Submitted by Li Xin Tuo)

The family was on one of the 14 buses evacuating tourists to Varadero.

But Tuo explained the nine-hour drive in heat over 30 C left him concerned for his 84-year-old mother's health.

One of the evacuation buses collided with two others in the convoy, causing the whole fleet to be delayed for several hours. A drive that typically takes up to four hours took nearly nine hours instead. 

Hundreds of people wait to be evacuated in the lobby at the Grand Memories Varadero Resort on Friday. (Submitted by Li Xin Tuo)

When the trio arrived in Varadero early Friday, Tuo says, hundreds of Sunwing clients were huddled in the lobby of Grand Memories Varadero waiting to go to the airport while the storm evolved and the schedule shifted. 

Many people who followed us from the hotel and arrived in the Varadero airport later, they were told there was no space onboard.- Li Xin Tuo

High winds and torrential rains presented challenging conditions. The situation was also aggravated by his parents' mobility issues, he says, noting hotel staff helped them manage their luggage between their room and the lobby.  

"There was a bell boy service in the morning, so we are the lucky ones. I asked my parents to ride on a cart to the lobby," he said. 

All had to pack up in the dark and many people had to pull their suitcases between the villas while battling the elements, using the beach towers as shelter from the monstrous storm. 

'We didn't have any information'

The ordeal has now left Tuo questioning why Sunwing didn't cancel their trip in the first place.

The family left Toronto's Pearson International Airport Tuesday while Hurricane Irma, the most powerful on record ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean, roared towards islands in the northeast Caribbean. 

A man stands in a flooded street during the passage of Hurricane Irma in Havana on Saturday. (Yamil LageéAFP/Getty Images)

"We didn't receive any communication from Sunwing where I booked my vacation," he stated. 

"That makes me so frustrated because we stayed there for just one day and we had no idea. This was a huge suffering and we didn't have any information regarding the situation there." 

If I had known that from other ways I wouldn't have let my parents go.- Li Xin Tuo

Tuo had booked a week-long vacation in Cayo Santa Maria for them while his parents were visiting from China.

"I feel a little bit guilty. If I had known that from other ways I wouldn't have let my parents go," he said while fighting back tears. He also noted this was the only time they could all go to Cuba together. 

Tuo told CBC News from his home in Etobicoke on Sunday that Sunwing did not give him the option to cancel their trip before leaving and hasn't offered them a refund or a chance to rebook their vacation yet. 

"I checked my email after I came back. I did not receive any personal communication from Sunwing either before or after I came back," he said. 

"They have my cellphone, they have my email when I booked my vacation, but we didn't receive any communication."  

'We deserve an answer'

Tuo says he was also told by other passengers that Sunwing had notified them that their trips had been cancelled to Cuba a day after he and his parents departed. 

"How come they didn't know anything on Tuesday?" he asked.

Sunwing said in a statement Sunday that "since Sept. 1, the company has sent close to 30 flights to repatriate customers from destinations under hurricane watch or warning."

Tuo "can't believe" the travel agent didn't know about the hurricane watch covering the Caribbean since they first began sending flights to the evacuate the region on Sept. 1 — four days before the family flew to Cuba. 

"How come we didn't get any warning about the hurricane watch?" he asked. "I think we deserve an answer."

'Issuing compensation'

CBC News reached out to Sunwing. When asked why they didn't cancel trips to Cuba sooner, the travel agency claims they "did allow cancellations once we knew the projected path of Hurricane Irma."

They did not specify when they became aware of the projected path. 

Janine Massey, a spokesperson for Sunwing, also provided reassurance that they "will be issuing compensation for the unused portion of our customer's vacations." 

It's not clear if that will include the time it took to evacuate the resorts or not.