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April 5, 2012 - Ron Deuter
That’s how long it has taken my wife and I to attempt a re-do of our honeymoon as we prepare to head for Las Vegas for spring break.
Back in October of 2005, the morning following our wedding, we departed for a swanky all-inclusive resort on the Mexican Riviera for a week-long trip.
If you remember your weather history, 2005 was the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history. While nobody will forget Katrina slamming New Orleans at the end of August that year, the biggest storm of them all formed in the Caribbean Sea near Jamaica in the middle of October. Hurricane Wilma.
Look it up on wikipedia.
Hurricane Wilma went from disturbance to tropical depression to Category 5 monster in a matter of just a couple days. In fact, the point from which it was first officially a hurricane till it mushroomed into the biggest Category 5 storm ever occurred in a span of less than 24 hours.
Needless to say, we didn’t feel a need to fear until it was too late to get out.
The weather outlook on day two of our trip was the possibility of a minor tropical disturbance to move south to north, barely brushing the coast before it turned east toward Cuba and Florida.
The next morning we were being told the storm would hit as minor hurricane and we might have to evacuate to an inland shelter for a night as it clipped the coast before turning east.
Just hours later we were told we were evacuating. Either we could leave altogether or pack a bag for one night. There still didn’t seem to be too much concern though, just caution.
What’s one night, we figured. A story for the grandkids.
Was it ever.
That third day was when the storm intensified into a Category 5, even though we really didn’t know it at the time.
We were shipped by bus to an inland school, where we were assigned a classroom with about 20 other couples. We were handed clear plastic garbage bags to use as raincoats and provided mats off the hotel’s beach chairs to use a sleeping pads.
Again, what’s one night?
Well, one night ended up being the most horrifying and mentally testing five days our lives.
Wilma did not brush the Yucatan Peninsula as a small storm. It slammed into the area as a massive Category 4 with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. Then it decided to slow to a crawl, basically spinning in the same spot for four days and dumping more than three feet of rain. One report at the time estimated 64 inches of rain in our immediate location.
The first night was the worst. The storm hit late at night. We quickly lost power and basically just huddled together in the darkness all night while the rain fell and the winds howled. It was the scariest night of our lives.
First off, the classroom was not inside a big school building. This particular school had individual classrooms spread out on a campus. Our little ‘shelter’ was made of brick but only a third of the way up. The rest was open windows, only covered by thin wood shutters.
It was only raining for less than 30 minutes by the time the water started getting in. Within hours our floor was submerged six inches deep. So much for the bed mats.
Far worse than the water, however, was the wind. If you don’t know what 150 mph winds sound like, imagine a set of three train tracks. You’re sitting on the middle track while freight trains scream by on the outside tracks, 150 mph for 14 straight hours. Add in the constant and terrifying sound of massive objects crashing, metal twisting and trees cracking, and you sort of get the idea.
We all feared that our classroom would be flattened, yet we had no where else to go.
After the first 14 hours, we got a break as the eye hovered. Not having much of any communication with the outside world, we didn’t know that it was the eye at the time. Some thought the storm was over, as we were originally told we’d be there just one night. We were served a sandwiches and provided some water. But with no working toilets anywhere, people tried not to eat or drink too much.
This was during the day time, and the sun actually came out for a bit. But by late in the afternoon, as clouds gathered again we got news from officials at the shelter that we were only halfway through.
Another 14-16 hours of huddling in a flooded room with no bathroom, no change of clothes, no nothing. Just fear, sleep depravation, and a growing stench from 20 couples with no shower and everything soaked.
While the storm finally passed on day four, we had no where we could go. And no indication of when we’d be able to leave.
Cancun was demolished, roads washed away, the airport runway flooded and our hotel ruined.
By Day 5 they had no choice but to remove us from the shelter. We were out of food and water. People were getting sick with rashes and such and panic was at a fever pitch. With little to no information from the outside, the rumors that were circulating were insane. Everything from us being quarantined by the government when we returned to the states - to murderous prisoners being on the loose in Cancun since the prison flooded and the guards had to let everyone go - to armed gangs of locals attacking shelters with Americans for wallets, jewelry, etc.
Modesty was gone too. People were trying to shower from the water running off roofs. And relieving yourself outside was the only option. Good luck finding something to wipe with.
And as the storm left, the heat and humidity returned. Oh the smell. We’ll never forget the smell. It got the point that you simply couldn’t go back in the classroom, the stench was so overpowering. Even outside in the open, you couldn't shake the stench.
By the end of day five they bused us back to the hotel. We snaked through Cancun, debris, glass, sand everywhere, locals in lines for water, billboards twisted beyond recognition. Water everywhere. The standing water on highway south out of cancun along the coast nearly reached the top of the bus wheels.
They took us back to our hotel. The water stain on the hotel walls from the storm surge could be seen nearly three stories high. Everything was soaked and saturated. Bugs, insects and various dead and alive sea critters were everywhere, We saw crabs, frogs, etc walking around trying to head back toward the sea.
I remember a tarantula landing on my shoulder as I stood outside trying to get a cell phone signal. The thing was the size of a baseball sliced in half. I never ripped a shirt off as fast in my life. Never did see where it ended up and constantly had that creepy feeling that it was still crawling on me somewhere.
We ended up at the hotel for another five days before we could find a flight back to anywhere. We were able to shower (cold) and had food, but the place looked like a bomb had gone off.
Finding a flight meant venturing back into Cancun on a daily basis (easier said than done with dwindling cash for cabs and no working ATMs). We’d wait in line for hours hoping to make one of the few flights out that day. We were among some 25-30,000 Americans trying to do the same thing. As it was, the flight we ended up getting was the last one of that day, and the final two seats on that flight. The guys behind us in line literally had to head back to their hotel and stay another night.
I couldn’t imagine.
No flights could leave at night those first few days with no power or working radar.
Even through taking a seat on the plane, riding out onto the runway, taking off and all the stuff that comes with flying, we didn’t feel like we had escaped. Felt like something was going to go wrong and we’d end up back in hell. By the silence on the plane, I'm guessing many felt the same way.
Finally a few hours later, the captain came on the speaker and informed everyone that we had crossed into Texas airspace, meaning that if we had to land for any reason before our destination, it would be on U.S. soil.
I never heard an applause so loud on an airplane. Thank god there are no hurricanes in Las Vegas.
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Our 'shelter' during Hurricane Wilma. We used the plastic garbage bags they handed out to try to seal the windows, but it proved pointless.