SAN ANDRES, Colombia – Four days after Hurricane Iota slammed this Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua with winds in excess of 258 km/h (160 mph), an uncertain recovery was under way on Friday.
Many residents of San Andres were jolted awake late Monday by the first Category 5 storm in history to strike Colombian soil.
People living in low-income neighborhoods on the island’s eastern shore saw their roofs torn off by the winds and their homes flooded by the storm surge.
“By the time we noticed, our house was full of saltwater. The sea rose around 6 meters (20ft) here. We ran to reach the clothes so they wouldn’t get wet, but it was very late. The wind and the force of the sea was very strong,” Daridel Polo Robles tells EFE.
The concrete slabs of homes were swept away, along with a stretch of the coastal road, while all that remains of the leafy trees that separate Daridel’s place from the beach are bare, twisted branches and uprooted trunks.
San Andres, a popular tourist destination, fared better in the storm than the other two major islands in Colombia’s Caribbean archipelago, where hardly any structures survived Iota.
Dozens of people from continental Colombia are arriving daily at Gustavo Rojas Pinilla International Airport in San Andres in search of news about loved ones in Providencia and Santa Catalina, which have been incommunicado since Monday.
Daridel says he never before experienced anything like Iota in his 56 years on San Andres.
“This was more fierce than Joan,” he says, referring to the hurricane that claimed more than 300 lives in Central America and the Caribbean in 1988.
Samuel Manuel, another long-time resident, agrees.
“Joan came 30-some years ago, but this (Iota) was stronger. The water came in, the refrigerator went over, everything went over,” he tells EFE, adding that the storm was upon them so quickly that neither he nor his neighbors had time to save any of their belongings.
He is thankful that his grandchildren, who usually sleep at his home, were not there when Iota struck.
“Now I’m left with nothing. None of my children is working. They are professionals and they are looking for work in big stores and things like that to help me. Last night the (local) government leaders came and brought some food packages to start,” Samuel says. “But I can’t depend on the government for everything.”
Wrapping up a visit to the archipelago on Friday, Colombian President Ivan Duque said that while some areas in San Andres suffered heavy damage, the island’s tourism infrastructure remained largely intact.
“The hotel and tourist services, commercial transportation to San Andres, are active and must remain active, obviously with rigorous monitoring,” he said.
Samuel Manuel, meanwhile, steps gingerly on the roof tiles that litter his property and he clears the rubble and debris as he contemplates his next move.
“I don’t know what more to do or who to ask for help,” he says. “I know that the government is assisting us, I also want to do something because if I don’t work, how do I eat, how do I live?”