Thousands want out of hurricane-ravaged Colombian island

ISLA DE LA PROVIDENCIA, Colombia – Thousands of homeless Colombians are trying to find their way out of a remote hurricane-ravaged island off the coast of Nicaragua. Eight days ago, Category 5 Hurricane Iota destroyed Providencia, a mountainous Colombian island in the Caribbean.

Virginia Webster, who is among the island’s natives who speak English-based creole, belongs to the Miskito ethnic group. She has survived hurricanes before, but this one, she said was different.

“It was like you lit a fire and it passed through the whole island because it got everything,” Webster said.

The island’s residents have lost their jobs. The small tourism industry — which was carefully built around the emerald-green nature reserves, pristine golden beaches, and UNESCO-protected coral banks — is merely a shadow of what it used to be before the coronavirus pandemic and the catastrophic Nov. 16 hurricane.

Rastafarians’ reggae parties at the paradisiac island with an English-Dutch-French-African cultural influence have come to an end. The locals’ acceptance of their losses is arriving in stages. Some of the residents appear to still be in shock as they continue to assess the damage and wait for government aid.

Laidy Betancourt said she, her husband, and their 10-year-old son lost everything. She injured her leg amid the chaos of the storm. With nearly all of the island’s infrastructure destroyed, Betancourt and dozens of others sought refuge in what is left of the Our Lady of Sorrows, a small Roman Catholic church.

Rev. Benito Huffington, the parish’s priest for more than three decades, said he and three nuns waited inside a windowless restroom. He said there were three stages: The storm started to beat the island about 8 p.m. The eye of the storm was on them about 3 a.m. The final hit was about 10 a.m. the next day. There were 33 people inside the church’s youth center when the roof collapsed.

“That was what finished everything off,” Huffington said,

While they find their way out of the island, the Betancourt family is among the dozens who have found refuge at the church. They are keeping a few belongings inside one of the 1,500 government-issued tents, and they are all sleeping on the floor. Authorities are discouraging travel during the coronavirus pandemic, but there have been some evacuation flights.

Felipe Cabezas, a well-known scuba diving instructor known as “Fepo,” owns the island’s Felipe Diving Center. The brave man who isn’t afraid to take tourists shark diving was in tears as he remembered how held tight to a plastic bathroom door. He survived in the windowless room with his wife, sister and nephew.

“The only thing we did was pray ... everything was shaking, and this was all going to fall,” Cabezas said. “One more hour of that and we would be dead.”

Providencia Mayor Norberto Gari Hooker has been asking the Colombian government in Bogotá for help since identifying Rogino Livingston, 47, as the only resident who died during the storm.

This week rescue workers were still finding dogs that had been trapped in the rubble. Colombian authorities set up a temporary hospital with limited resources on the island of some 5,000 residents. And to help them stay connected, officials are setting up WiFi zones while the networks are repaired.

Cabezas owns a working generator and he is using it to help hundreds of people to charge their mobile phones.

The Colombian government released this picture of Providencia, Colombia after Hurricane Iota on Nov. 17, 2020. (Efran Herrera / Oficina de prensa de la presidencia de Colombia via The Associated Press).

Colombian President Ivan Duque promised humanitarian aid and tasked a Colombian Navy team to assist with the Herculean task of rebuilding the island. Officials hope to complete the construction of about 1,490 homes in two years.

Hurricane Iota, the 30th named storm of this historic Atlantic hurricane season, also left death and devastation in Nicaragua and Honduras, which were still recovering from Hurricane Eta. The hurricane season ends on Nov. 30.

Local 10 News’ Andrea Torres contributed to this report from Miami.

About the Authors:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.