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Caught in the path of Irma
Student describes fuel shortages and living days without power and water as hurricane batters Florida

Sidney Cohen
Northern News Services
Friday, September 15, 2017

Danielle Ignacio-Pacunayen planned to cap off her summer with a sun-drenched vacation in Miami, where her boyfriend goes to university.

NNSL photograph

Danielle Ignacio-Pacunayen, left, was awarded a $1,500 scholarship in August by Century 21 real estate agent Karen Boudreau on behalf of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce. - photo courtesy of Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce

After storm, student off to Calgary with scholarship

Danielle Ignacio-Pacunayen was set to enter her final year of marketing at the University of Calgary this fall with a new scholarship in tow, but was held back a few days by Hurricane Irma.

She told Yellowknifer she was surprised to learn she was this year's recipient of a $1,500 scholarship from the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce.

"I wasn't expecting it at all," she said over the phone Tuesday from Tampa, Fla., where she is visiting her boyfriend.

The University of Calgary marketing major is going into her final year of a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

Ignacio-Pacunayen said she is grateful to the chamber for the award, which will supplement her tuition.

"Even having our student financial assistance, there's a lot of unexpected expenses that come up when you're away from home," she said. "This has been a godsend for me."

The scholarship is given out annually to a Yellowknife student enrolled in a post-secondary business program who plans to work in NWT after graduation.

Ignacio-Pacunayen found out she won the scholarship in mid-August, while working in Yellowknife as a summer student at the federal government's public services and procurement department.

"It was a really nice surprise," she said.

"I just can't wait to go back to school."

Ignacio-Pacunayen chose to major in marketing because it allows for creativity and is "a little more practical" than international relations, another degree she was considering.

After graduating, she would like to promote Northern tourism to the rest of Canada and internationally, either for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, or on her own.

"That would be the coolest and best thing that I could do up north, as of right now," she said.

According to chamber executive director Deneen Everett, the chamber received submissions from seven "very qualified applicants."

Ignacio-Pacunayen was chosen for her academic achievements in university, and her community involvement.

"Danielle did a really excellent job at demonstrating that she was a very qualified candidate," Everett told Yellowknifer.

As a volunteer with non-profit Enactus Calgary, Ignacio-Pacunayen works to promote business literacy. The organization's Empower program, for example, helps female immigrants navigate the bureaucracy of starting a new company in Calgary.

"It's been a really successful program, especially because Calgary's such a big place for newcomers," said Ignacio-Pacunayen.

For Everett, the scholarship program is a way for the chamber of commerce to encourage economic development in the territory.

"We really wanted to encourage young people to pursue a post-secondary education in business. There are a lot of opportunities here in the North and we wanted to put our money where our mouth is and support students who would potentially come back," she said.

Instead, she and Joseph Anid spent more than three days holed up in his parent's house in Odessa, Fla., near Tampa, with no electricity or running water.

The Yellowknife resident had just arrived in Miami when media began reporting a category 5 hurricane - one of the strongest storms ever recorded off the Atlantic Ocean - was barreling towards Florida.

"My boyfriend's family were really, really nervous about the storm," said Ignacio-Pacunayen in an interview Wednesday, before boarding a flight back to Calgary, where she goes to university.

In an attempt to avoid the hurricane's projected path, the young couple fled to the Tampa Bay area on Friday, where her boyfriend's family lives. Three days later, an updated forecast showed the storm heading on a more westerly track - which would take it right over Tampa instead.

It's a five-hour drive from Miami to Tampa, and gas stations along the way were clogged with people fleeing the storm. Drivers were agitated, yelling and honking at each other, fighting for fuel.

"A lot of gas stations where actually running out of gas," she said. "So that was pretty terrifying."

Hurricane Irma had weakened to a category 1 storm by the time it reached Tampa on Sunday. It was raining, but winds, said Ignacio-Pacunayen, were comparable to "a pretty windy day" in Yellowknife.

The storm was, however, strong enough to knock out power at the Anid house Saturday night. When Ignacio-Pacunayen spoke with Yellowknifer four days later, electricity had yet to return to the family's neighbourhood.

For four days, Ignacio-Pacunayen and the Anid family hunkered down, playing board games and eating snacks under dim candle light to pass the time.

"It was really hot, obviously, because when the power goes out, there's no air conditioning," said the University of Calgary student.

There was no water either, as the house relies on electricity to pump it from a nearby well.

"We (had) filled the bathtub so we could flush the toilet. It was not enjoyable at all," she said.

"I needed to wash my hair so I had to stick my head in a bathtub of cold, old bathwater and it was really gross ... You take a lot for granted when you have power."

Back home in Yellowknife, Ignacio-Pacunayen said her mother was panicking.

"Oh my goodness my mom was so nervous," said the 22-year-old. "When we found out about the hurricane, my mom was like, 'You need to get out, you need to book a flight now' ... I didn't really want to end my vacation early and I was kind of being stubborn about it."

Apart from losing power, Ignacio-Pacunayen and her boyfriend's family survived the storm unscathed. There were downed trees and some flooding in Odessa, but the house stood up against the storm.

Stranded in Florida, Ignacio-Pacunayen missed her first two days of school at the University of Calgary.

"Before the storm, it was kind of terrifying," she said of anticipating Irma's arrival in the U.S., which sparked a mass exodus of Floridians north. "It was definitely an interesting experience."

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