TORONTO — Thousands of passengers are flying home today in a race against the clock as airlines bring back the last of their rescue flights before Hurricane Irma strikes. The Category 5 hurricane devastated the small island of Barbuda and took its toll on St. Maarten and is now on track to hit Turks & Caicos, the Bahamas and then Florida by the weekend.
The centre of the storm is now about 180 kilometres north of Punta Cana and is moving west-northwest near 28 kph.
More than half the island of Puerto Rico is without power, leaving 900,000 in the dark and nearly 50,000 without water. Puerto Rico’s public power company warned before the storm hit that some areas could be left without power from four to six months because its staff has been reduced and its infrastructure weakened by the island’s decade-long economic slump.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicts Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as passes just to the north of the D.R. and Haiti on Thursday, nears the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night and skirts Cuba on Friday night into Saturday.
It will then likely head north toward Florida, where people are rushing to board up homes, fill cars with gasoline and find a route to safety.
Gov. Rick Scott, who has mobilized parts of the state’s National Guard, declared a state of emergency and asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so gasoline tankers can get fuel into Florida quickly to ease shortages.
An estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland.
Meanwhile Hurricane Katia is hovering in the southern Gulf of Mexico, threatening to hit the vulnerable Mexican coast as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, possibly late Friday or early Saturday. It had winds of 130 kph and was located about 335 kilometres east of Tampico, Mexico.
A third hurricane, Jose, is growing far out in the Atlantic. It was no immediate threat to land, though the forecast track showed it could affect the Irma-blasted Leeward Islands over the weekend.
Here are the latest updates from the airlines:
Air Canada is flying an extra 6,000+ seats northbound, in addition to its regular schedule, over the course of 3 days to get passengers out of Irma’s path.
Air Canada is operating a total of 24 additional flights to bring customers home early from the D.R. (Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, Samana), Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Orlando), Cuba (Varadero, Holguin, Havana and Cayo Coco), Antigua and Providenciales, from Sept. 5 to Sept. 7. Air Canada is using larger aircraft with more seats for flights from the region, including Havana and Nassau.
WestJet has added extra flight segments into Puerto Plata, Punta Cana and Turks and Caicos to bring guests home.
All change/cancel fees can be waived to and from all impacted destinations for travel between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11, 2017.
For GDS WestJet air bookings, WestJet says there is no need for agents to call to receive a waiver code to waive a change fee for their client. Agents are asked to add the generic waiver code *IRMA0917* in the endorsement field and process the exchange in their GDS.
For WestJet Agent (TA Web) bookings and WestJet Vacation bookings: for SIREV/Revnet/Contact centre bookings, for clients that are impacted and wish to either cancel or exchange their ticket without a change fee, contact the Travel Support Team at 1-877-664-3205.
As of yesterday Sunwing had sent in or is in the process of sending 12 unscheduled flights to repatriate customers from the affected destinations.
Sunwing’s hurricane policy has been extended to all southbound passengers that were scheduled to travel to any of destinations listed below between Sept. 6 and 10 inclusive. Clients can change destinations or rebook for travel at a later date.
Here’s a summary of the special flight arrangements Sunwing has made:
- St Maarten/St Martin: Special flights were sent to St Maarten/St Martin on Sept. 5 to evacuate affected passengers. Southbound services due to operate Sept. 7 have been cancelled.
- Dominican Republic: Rescue flights operated Sept. 6 to Punta Cana and Puerto Plata to evacuate customers who were meant to be returning to Canada from Punta Cana Sept. 7 and from Puerto Plata Sept. 8. Southbound flights to Punta Cana have been cancelled on Sept. 6 and 7. Sept. 8 flights to Puerto Plata have also been cancelled.
- Cuba: All southbound flights to Cayo Coco, Holguin, Camaguey and Cayo Santa Maria on Sept. 6, 7 and 8 have been cancelled. Special flights to Cayo Coco, Holguin and Cayo Santa Maria will be operating on Sept. 7 to repatriate customers due to return Sept. 8. Flights to Varadero and Manzanillo are scheduled to operate as normal on these dates. However the hurricane policy still applies for customers seeking to rebook or change destination.
- The Islands of the Bahamas: The southbound flight to Freeport, Grand Bahama scheduled to operate Sept. 9 has been cancelled. A special flight will operate Sept. 7 to bring customers home early.
- Florida: The southbound flights to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale due to operate Sept. 9 have been cancelled. A rescue flight has been added on Sept. 8 that will bring home customers from both destinations, including passengers on MSC Divina that will be docking earlier than scheduled in Miami on Sept. 8 to avoid the hurricane.
All new flights times are posted at sunwing.ca/arrdepinfo.asp as they become available.
After getting its passengers out of the D.R. Transat has now deployed a total of 10 flights to Cuba to evacuate its clients from that island: four flights to Varadero, three to Santa Clara, two to Cayo Coco and one to Holguin. All aircraft should arrive in Cuba on Sept. 7, and passengers should be back in Canada in the afternoon or late evening.
With files from The Associated Press