PROVIDENCIA, Colombia – Hundreds of residents of the Colombian island of Providencia who lost everything when Hurricane Iota swept away their homes are fleeing each day to the nearby island of San Andres, while those who cannot do so are seeking shelter in the main church, one of the few buildings remaining standing after the storm.
The Providencians, whose lives changed radically last Monday when the powerful hurricane blasted the second largest island in the archipelago – also comprising San Andres and Santa Catalina –, are being evacuated on humanitarian flights operated by the Colombian air force that depart daily from the El Embrujo airport and land at the international Gustavo Rojas Pinilla terminal.
After Iota left them homeless, local residents have been asking to be put up in the homes of friends and relatives living on San Andres, which the storm did not devastate to the same degree.
“My daughter is 16 and has a problem with curvature of the spine. It’s been two years since she had spinal surgery and she has to be (monitored). I had to send her to San Andres because she can’t do anything for herself and we don’t have a doctor, we don’t have a hospital. My daughter can’t be here,” Angela Contreras told EFE.
The Contreras home collapsed when the Category 5 hurricane passed over Colombia’s only island province, and Angela, her husband and daughter managed to take refuge in the bathroom, the safest spot in the house because it has a concrete roof.
“I sent my daughter to San Andres with another relative who’s taking care of her for me while we try to rebuild the house. The people who have young children have to try and evacuate them to the other nearby island so the kids can have everything like medicine and food, and also mental support because the truth is that they’ve been psychologically affected” by the storm, Angela said.
The islanders who began the exodus to San Andres and other parts of Colombia packed up the few belongings they could rescue from the ruins of their homes in suitcases.
Jenny Garcia came to El Embrujo airport to say goodbye to her daughter, but she is remaining on Providencia to try and rebuild “at least a room” in which she can spend the night without getting wet when it rains.
“I’m moving my daughter in with her other sisters who are on San Andres because it’s up to me to handle everything about the house because if you leave there’s nobody to take care of what’s yours. My house collapsed. I lost everything, absolutely everything. Nothing was left,” she told EFE.
The islanders wait in lines outside the small airport where they await the arrival of the airplanes that are coming in from San Andres loaded with humanitarian aid and then are flying back filled with refugees or people who are ill.
The people who remain on the island don’t have many options. They can either spend the night under tents distributed by the government, stay with a neighbor whose home was less damaged than theirs or sleep with only the sky for their roof.
Sleeping under a tent is a luxury that not many have right now. Some of them were set up inside the Our Lady of Sorrows church in the center of the island, which although its roof was torn off, was not knocked down by the storm.
More than 100 people were being housed in a communal room in the parish but they had to be relocated to other spots to avoid becoming super-spreader sites for the coronavirus, and that was how the church became transformed into a shelter.
“The church has become a shelter and we have families housed there. They brought us some tents and we managed to set up about 10 here in the church to socially distance from others,” Father Benito Huffington, who with the help of local residents built the church 25 years ago, told EFE.
The priest said he believed that the complete reconstruction of the church, which can seat some 500 worshippers, could take several years because the government’s priority is to help get the homes reestablished, along with electricity and communications services, in the wake of the storm.
“I’ve been working with this community, with the islanders, for 31 years, and this disaster came to us and laid everybody low because the destruction is complete. It’s not partial. Ninety-nine percent of the houses are collapsed and roofless, so that nobody can help anyone,” Huffington said.
Those who were able to find refuge in the church go to the ruins of their homes during the day to continue cleaning up after the disaster and return at night to sleep at the church, some of them with their babies in their arms.
The priest said he understands the needs of the community because he himself saw how the hurricane took off the church’s roof and knocked down part of his own home, a tragedy that he said “spared no-one.”
“I was with three nuns and when the whole roof came off, we took shelter in a bathroom from 11:00 pm until 1:00 pm the next day. The hurricane passed and now we have to live in the bathrooms because there’s no place for us to sleep, the (rain) comes and we get wet. The only (protected) places are the bathrooms and we sleep there every night,” he said.