Almost 2,000 Thomas Cook holidaymakers evacuated from coastal resorts in Cuba ahead of Hurricane Irma pummelling the island could start to be flown home later today.
Those stuck in Florida due to the record-strength hurricane hitting the state over the weekend face waiting until at least tomorrow when Orlando airport us due to re-open.
Thomas Cook reported “extensive damage” in the Cayos in Cuba, with “minimal damage” to Holguin. UK holidymakers due to travel to Cayo Coco or Cayo Guilllermo are being offered free cancellations or amendments on departures up to and including September 30.
Cuban authorities carried out a full evacuation of the low-lying Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria on Thursday.
“As a result, we moved all 1,930 of our customers staying in these areas were transported to the Varadero peninsula on the mainland, as directed by the Cuban authorities,” Thomas Cook said.
“Many customers who have been relocated into Varadero will be in lower-rated hotels compared with their booked hotels in Cayo Coco, and therefore the quality and cleanliness may not be the same standard that they expect on a Thomas Cook holiday.
“The sheer volume of holidaymakers who are now in Varadero means that hotel rooms are in short supply. Because of the risk of flooding, rooms on lower floors or closer to the beach cannot accommodate guests, further reducing the number of hotel rooms available.
“Fortunately we have found rooms for all of our customers so that none will be forced to stay in the island’s hurricane shelters, where many thousands of Cubans will be staying as the hurricane passes over their homes.
“Our special assistance team is on the ground in Varadero with our customers, along with our resort staff, providing as much information and reassurance as possible. However, during lockdown they too are confined to hotel rooms and therefore unable to meet with customers individually or give any briefings.
“In addition, our customer teams in the UK are working hard to answer questions from customers and we have set up a special friends and family line to provide further information for those worried about their loved ones.
Thomas Cook added last night: “Hurricane Irma has passed over Cuba and made landfall in the lower Florida Keys. Florida remains under a state of emergency and both Miami and the Florida Keys have undergone a mandatory evacuation.
“The forecast track shows Irma is expected to move near or over the west coast of the Florida peninsula before moving inland over northern Florida and south-western Georgia on Monday afternoon.
“A damage assessment is currently underway in Varadero, and the airport is currently closed until Tuesday at the earliest and Havana airport until late on Monday at the earliest.
“Once we have confirmation on the status of the airport we will begin our evacuation plan, which will commence with three flights with delayed departures due to the storms that should have departed Varadero on Friday the 8th, and Cayo Coco on Saturday the 9th and Sunday the 10th.
“All customers in Varadero will be evacuated over the coming days and we ask again for your patience and understanding while the plan is confirmed.
“Orlando airport remains closed. We are reviewing our flying programme back from Orlando and will advise customers of our plans to bring them home once Orlando airport has re-opened on Tuesday.
“We have a large special assistance team on the ground in Cuba and Orlando, and another 40 members are flying to Cuba over the next 24 hours to provide further support.”
“We are offering free amendments and cancellations to all customers due to travel to Holguin, Cuba and Orlando, Miami and Florida Keys up to and including Friday 15 September.”
Thomas Cook is offering free cancellations and amendments on departures up to and including today for the Dominican Republic.
“We understand that this is a worrying time, both for our customers in resort and friends and family back home watching the news,” the company said. “Communication is difficult and internet and phone access may be cut off completely as the hurricane damages local infrastructure.
An additional 21 special assistance team members are flying to Cuba to offer further support.
Thomas Cook had been criticised by some for not evacuating tourists, and continuing to bring holidaymakers to Cuba’s resorts as late as Thursday.
Thomson has cancelled four flights due to take off for Cuba this week while a service due to depart from Cayo Santa Maria to Manchester tomorrow will now operate from Varadero where many holidaymakers have been transferred to.
The operator delayed outbound flights to Orlando Sanford airport after its closure on Saturday. A Sunday departure from Bristol was put back by 48nhours and a flight due to leave from Glasgow today has been put back until tomorrow.
Thomson flights to Sanford are due to operate as normal on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a Glasgow departure from Orlando put back from today until tomorrow. Flights from Sanford to Manchester and Gatwick are due to operate as planned on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We continue to keep a really close eye on Hurricane Irma’s next movements across Florida. We’re also supporting our customers on holiday there and providing information and advice in line with the guidance from local authorities,” Thomson said in an update early this morning.
“Our guests in Cuba are a key focus for us as we assess Hurricane Irma’s impact. For the time being everyone, including our team of reps supporting guests, is being kept for their own safety inside hotels and the full extent of damage to the areas affected is still to be confirmed.
“Thankfully initial reports indicate that none of our customers or staff have been injured, however, we understand what a frightening experience it will have been for them.
“We are offering support to anyone affected from our independent expert the Centre for Crisis Psychology.
“As a result of the storm, communication channels have been impacted, but we are doing all that we can to keep in regular contact and to update our customers on next steps.
“We have planned flights to operate for all customers who have been impacted by the hurricane to return them safely to the UK once the airports have reopened, which early indications suggest won’t be before Tuesday 12th September.”
In updated travel advice for Cuba today, the Foreign and Commonwwealth Office said: “Many areas, particularly the northern coast, are without electricity and are damaged and/or flooded.
“Many roads are closed are due to flooding and storm damage or debris. The electricity was switched off in Havana as a precaution before the storm and has remained off. Some areas have problems with water supply.
“Airports will remain closed until safe. There are no reports of any casualties or injuries to British nationals in Cuba.
“Those evacuated to Varadero are accommodated locally until they can depart. British nationals in Cuba should follow the advice of their tour operators who are guided by local authorities, and where possible stay in touch with their airline. Independent travelers should follow advice of their hotel or casa particular.”
On the US, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office warned this morning: “The situation could deteriorate significantly. Our ability to provide assistance may be extremely limited. You should ensure you have your own contingency plans in place and consider your travel plans very carefully, staying in contact with your airline and/or tour operator as appropriate.”
The FCO added: “Hurricane Irma is travelling over Florida, and is expected to affect coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina from the morning of Monday 11 September 2017, and parts of North Carolina from Monday afternoon.
“The authorities in Puerto Rico, Florida, the US Virgin Islands, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared a state of emergency; mandatory evacuations are in place in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
“You should continue to follow the advice of the local authorities and any evacuation orders.”
British Airways flights have been cancelled today from Heathrow to Miami and Gatwick to Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale in Florida as Hurricane Irma wreaks havoc across the state.
“Hurricane Irma has caused severe damage to parts of the Caribbean and Florida. Several airports have been affected and some remain completely closed.” the airline said.
“We are in regular contact with all our airport partners about the impact on our customers travelling to and from the affected regions, and we are doing our very best to support our customers in every way we can.
“Yesterday we flew an additional aircraft out to Bermuda, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will be positioning it in to Florida, to help bring as many customers home as possible.
“We also have aircraft ready in the Caribbean when airports re-open, to help get customers to airports with connecting flights to London.
“As the storm continues to make its way across the region, and the relief effort begins, flights will continue to be affected over the coming days. We are constantly reviewing the situation.”
Meanwhile the airline is making arrangements to have relief aircraft ready to fly passengers from Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos back to London as soon as it is safe to do so.
Flights to Nassau and Grand Cayman are due to resume as normal.
The next flight to St. Kitts is on Wednesday but BA is continuing to review the situation.
Flights to Antigua, Bermuda, Barbados and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic are operating as normal.
Virgin Atlantic warned that flights to and from Florida and the Caribbean remain severely disputed.
“The unpredictable nature of the path of the hurricane may require us to make further changes or cancellations to our flights,” the airline warned.
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