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OTTAWA -- Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed sympathy and solidarity Monday for those Canadians trapped in the Caribbean by the devastation wrought by hurricane Irma, as well as their worried family members at home.
Freeland, her government under siege from critics who say it has been slow to help, said the federal government is doing everything in its power to bring its citizens to safety and that she personally won't rest until the job is done.
"We are working very, very hard to bring you home," Freeland told a briefing via conference call from Toronto.
"We are very aware of how frightening, how worrying this situation is, and I am not going to rest until everybody is back and safe."
Some 390 people have been brought home over the weekend, and commercial flights will be returning to Toronto with the rest of those who have registered with Global Affairs Canada -- about 150 people in St. Maarten and 90 in Turks and Caicos.
One persistent question has been why it took so long for Ottawa to deploy any aircraft to the region, where hundreds of Canadians have been pleading for help, their frustration escalating by the day.
Airports are among the facilities most affected by the hurricanes, a situation that has complicated relief and evacuation efforts, Transport Minister Mark Garneau told the briefing.
"From the beginning, the airlines have been available; the problem has been the availability of the airstrips, or permission to leave," Garneau said.
"This can lead to some misunderstandings. But there's a reason for it."
A special team from Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence is in Antigua to determine what help is needed after the region endured the one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Jose.
Of the Canadians still in the region, "I certainly understand how they are feeling stressed (about delay in evacuation), and I can understand how their relatives are feeling stressed," Garneau said.
"But quite often there is a logical explanation."
Several countries, including the U.S., the Netherlands and the U.K., have evacuated citizens with military aircraft; Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt has slammed the federal Liberals for not doing the same.
Freeland said a C-17 Globemaster aircraft will be delivering relief supplies, and will be available to bring home any additional Canadians still in the region later in the week.
Freeland's parliamentary secretary, Omar Alghabra, said additional staff have been brought in to the government's response centre in order to deal with the additional workload.
He said the centre has processed 2,140 calls and emails, and noted there have been no known Canadian fatalities.
St. Maarten, located on the Dutch side of an island divided between French and Dutch control, was devastated by the hurricane. An estimated 70 per cent of the homes were damaged or destroyed by Irma and four people have died, according to the Dutch government.