Wilma…our first hurricane
Posted by Tony & Cheri on October 20, 2005
Tony was in the shower with his head covered in shampoo when Cheri opened the bathroom door. “We have big trouble,” she said. Of course that was a daily occurrence. Since moving to Playa del Carmen Mexico and taking over the hotel, every day seemed to bring some new problem: the plumbing stopping up, the water going dry, another worker not showing up. What was it this time? “Wilma has been upgraded to a category 5, and she’s headed right at us,” Cheri said.
We had been watching Hurricane Wilma develop for several days. “No worries,” the locals told us. After all no major hurricane had hit Playa del Carmen in many years. “No worries,” the weather experts all said. Wilma was an anomaly. The smallest hurricane in history, the storm catcher air planes had to nose dive into her to get any reading because she was too small to fly through. She would, everyone agreed, spin north into the cold waters of the Atlantic and disappear. A hurricane in late October? Don’t make us laugh.
No one was laughing now. Wilma’s snail like pace allowed her to draw heat from the unusually warm Caribbean. She got big and she got angry. Almost overnight it seemed she went from the smallest to the strongest hurricane in history. And she would reach Mexico’s coast in less than 24 hours.
We knew we needed to get ready…the question was how? The last few days we had been asking our manager (whom we inherited from the previous owners) what we should be doing to prepare. He assured us all was well. He would just go to the store and buy some plywood for the windows if it looked like we would get any part of the storm. He would take care of it. “Don’t worry,” he had said. We went to find him and get further reassurance that he had everything in hand.He was in the office gathering his personal things. “Dennis,” we asked, “where are you going?” “Home,” he said. He told us he needed to prepare his house. Didn’t we know there was a hurricane coming?
Hey, we said, what about the hotel? What about the plywood? What about “taking care” of everything? “Good luck,” he wished us as he headed out the door.
We told each other not to panic. We could handle this. After all we had survived the big San Francisco earthquake of ’89. We could do this. We could. We hoped. We sat in front of the computer and checked the latest weather website predictions. Wilma was a monster. If she came ashore there would be death and destruction. But then again she might miss us altogether. She might head north through the straits between Mexico and Cuba. She might go south moving ashore down by the northern border of Belize. She might even blow herself out and be downgraded to a tropical storm. See? No need to panic yet.
Except nobody told the locals. The streets were full of frightened people heading home, or to shelters or to inland safety. We went down the street to see what Alex and Karent, the owners of Quinta Pasión Restaurant, were thinking. We found them out front looking worried. Alex explained that the landlord had failed to bring the plywood needed to board up the building, including their restaurant. He said that he knew where to buy some but he had no way to get there. I offered our van, the Big Bastard, saying we could both get some wood. Off we went to a lumber yard. People, carts and cars were lined up. It was a mob scene. The wood was three times normal price and there was a limit of how much you could buy (which enlarged upon appropriate payment to the yard manager). We nervously waited our turn and loaded up the van.
Back at the hotel we began covering the windows. The hotel was almost empty. The two Mexican girls who were living there for a month went home to their parents in Cancun. An older couple we knew who lived in Paamul, a local trailer park, came by. They didn’t want to leave the area but didn’t want to ride out the storm in a trailer. They figured they would be ok in a concrete building like our hotel. We took them in. The only other guests were a young couple, Carlos and Marisol, who Cheri had worked with in San Francisco. They had just arrived for a friend’s wedding, which of course was now canceled. We told them the situation and they responded by jumping in to do whatever work needed to be done. They became instantaneous and permanent members of our family.
It took most of the day to board up the windows, move the furniture from the bottom floor and fill the rooms we were living in with food and water. We finally finished around dusk. We were ready. Now we just had to wait. The weather was warm but there was no rain yet. With Carlos and Marisol we decided to walk around and check things out.
The streets were empty of locals. Stores and restaurants were all boarded up. The only folks out were tourists trapped in town when they failed to leave before the airport shut down earlier in the day. There was an almost festive feeling as people sipped beers and strolled Fifth Ave. We wandered down to the beach where large waves were beginning to crash on the shore. We looked out to sea. Somewhere, past the darkening horizon, Wilma was churning with 200 mile per hour winds and whipping the water into a fury.
We headed to the hotel while Carlos and Marisol continued their walk. Back home we decided to check Wilma’s progress one more time before we disconnected the computer and took it upstairs. We went to the Weather Underground, our favorite tropical internet experts. They had finally determined where Wilma would make landfall. The center of the storm would pass over Cozumel and hit the shoreline directly opposite the island.
If you walk out our front gate at the hotel and look down the street you will see in the distance the island of Cozumel. In other words, Wilma was coming right at us.
The internet was also broadcasting warnings that Wilma’s strength combined with the slow movement of the hurricane would be devastating and could destroy concrete buildings on or near the shoreline…just like the one we were sitting in. All over the internet were bulletins telling people to move inland. This hurricane was a killer. We looked at each other. “Time to go,” we agreed.
When Carlos and Marisol (whom we were now referring to as “the kids”) returned to the hotel we asked them to join us in the office. Carlos later said we were so serious it looked like it was going to be a “we found some pot in your sock drawer” type conversation. Instead we told them the latest news and suggested we all go inland as soon as possible for our own safety. It was 9:30 at night. We agreed to be on the road before midnight.
We began to hurry about and gather our things. We stopped by and told our friends from Paamul our plan. They decided to wait until morning and head south rather than inland with us. We wished them well.
As we began to fill the van with clothes, food, water, important documents and of course the computers, Wilma’s fingers reached out and began to lightly drum on the land. First it was the wind, starting slowly and then building speed and strength. Next came the rain, drizzling at first and then turning to a downpour. By 11 o’clock we were engulfed in a major storm.
We were in our room packing when we heard the first “crack” and “boom.” We rushed outside to the balcony that overlooked our central garden of trees and flowers. One of the giant banana trees was on the ground. As we stood there dumbstruck another crashed to the ground. “Crack.” “Boom.” The slaughter continued as if invisible lumberjacks were moving through our garden. We knew we needed to go now.
We carried the pets (our three cats and English bulldog) through the rain to the van. The kids piled in the back seat. We locked the hotel gate and took a look back inside. We had lived here less than two months. Would we ever live here again, we wondered.
We drove through the empty flooding streets of Playa del Carmen and pulled out onto Highway 307 heading north towards Cancun and the toll road going inland to Merida, more than 300 kilometers away. The highway was deserted. It seemed we were the only ones foolish enough to go out tonight, and with good reason. The wind drove the downpour at us from all angles it seemed. Sometimes it came sideways, sometimes down, and sometimes straight at us. No matter where it came from it blinded us in a watery wall. No matter how hard the wipers swept back and forth we could only see for seconds at a time and then no more than a few car lengths in front of us. The trees on the side of the road (those that had not been broken off or uprooted and carried into our path) bent in half under the wind’s pressure. We tried the radio and got a Cancun station which told us that Wilma was getting very near to shore…as if we didn’t know.
We switched off the radio as it turned to static and drove on. We were creeping along making no more than 15 or 20 miles per hour as the van rocked and swayed, hydroplaning down the road. We quietly and briefly talked about what we should do if the van started to tip over. Then we all sat for a long time in silent worry. It got to be too much for Tony .To change the mood he reached down and turned on the CD player. In a moment the van filled with the music of fun times in a tropical paradise.
“Wasted away again in Margaritaville…looking for my lost shaker of salt…”
We don’t remember who started to giggle first at the absurdity, but in a moment we were all laughing hard enough to fill our eyes with tears. Had any poor soul stood on the side of the road that night as we passed he would have heard above the moaning of the wind the hysterical laughter of four weary people and a familiar voice singing that it was his “own damned fault.”
…TO BE CONTINUED…