Friday, October 15, 2010

Hurricane Virgin

The new hurricane that fizzled, Paula, brought back memories of my October/November trip to Isla in 2009. My biggest fear about traveling to Isla Mujeres by myself, especially in the fall, had always been what I would do if a hurricane hit the island. I'd be all by myself, where would I go, etc ..., etc.... That scenario had run through my head ever since Wilma hit the island. I was scheduled to land in Cancun on Sunday, October 23, 2005 to spend a month on Isla, and I really felt I dodged a bullet on that one since an elderly friend of mine arrived a few days before Wilma hit on October 21 and ended up stranded in Cancun for over a week.

I've always loved late October on Isla because of all the Day of the Dead holidays, so thoughts of Wilma didn't deter me from vacationing on Isla in October for long. But I did begin booking my trips just a little bit later in October, usually arriving at the end of the month. I know November is still hurricane season, but usually the water seems to have cooled too much by then to fuel a large storm.

Our October 2009 trip was fantastic. We spent a week in 709 at Ixchel I. The weather was fairly normal with some afternoon and overnight downpours, but mostly sunny days. The only tell-tale sign of anything to come might have been the fact that the humidity was so high, my camera lens kept shutting down. Literally, the lens would retract and the camera would turn off.

After a week living like rock stars in Donna and Mark's Ixchel 709, we moved to an oceanfront room at the newly remodeled Rocamar on the seawall. Craig stayed a few more days before he had to return to work on Sunday.

I continued my daily routine of morning seaglass hunts and afternoons spent on Playa Norte. A few days after Craig had left, I signed onto the internet to check my email. When AOL came up, one of the headlines said something about a hurricane. Since it was now November, I figured the story was a puff piece about the 2009 hurricane season, which had been predicted to be a whopper but really wasn't. I decided I'd better check NOAA just to be safe. And there it was! A tropical storm down in the Honduras area. I figured it would probably stall over land, fizzle, and never continue on its path which showed it hitting Isla sometime the next Tuesday afternoon. I also rationalized that I'd be long gone from the island since my flight was scheduled for Sunday noon. I shoved the worry to the back of my mind and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.

The next evening, I think a Thursday, I just happened to run into Wayne on Hidalgo at Fayne's and he was deciding whether or not to board up. I wondered what he was thinking since the storm was still stalled over Honduras. When I got back to the room and checked online -- OMG! The storm was now back over water and the timeline had bumped up to the tropical storm intensifying and passing through on Monday at noon. Oops. That gave me a moment of worry because I knew that the port sometimes closes 24 hours in advance and that would be timing my trip to Cancun for my Sunday flight a little close.

That's when the obsessive worrying started. Should I be leaving Isla a day in advance and spending the night in Cancun? Should I be trying to get an early flight to get the hell out of there? I immediately decided to double my Lexapro because I suffer from not only clinical depression, but panic attacks. In fact, I'd already had a panic attack on Sunday morning when Craig was leaving and been too ill to accompany him to the ferry. So this situation definitely qualified as what a friend of mine calls a double Prozac day! I decided to put on my Teflon armor and man up for the big blow!

Friday morning I was a woman with a plan. First things first! I set out on my morning walk and headed straight to the ATM. I figured if the ATM's ran out of bucks on big holiday weekends, the approach of a storm might create a run on the HSBC! Not to worry. I was the only person in line at the ATM at 6:30 a.m.! LOL! No problem getting that emergency fund set up. Then I was off to the supermercado for water and food. Since I had no kitchen at the Rocamar, Bimbo products seemed ideal. Two bags of powdered sugar donuts didn't seem too excessive! I also bought other assorted snacks with a shelf life of 10 years. Screw the fruit. God knows, I might pick up a microbe and I certainly didn't need a case of Montezuma's Revenge during a hurricane! I did throw in a couple of big bottles of water for good measure.

Once I'd lugged all that back to the Rocamar, I headed to Cafe Cito for breakfast, dodging the huge puddles on Juarez because the deluge had started the day before. The big tipoff that a storm was approaching was the on and off squalls and the flooded streets.

I don't think I've ever been as wet as I was those three days before Ida came through. After eating breakfast with a friend on Saturday morning, I started searching for a poncho. Price gouging was already rampant and they wanted $15 and $20 for cheap $3 ponchos, so my friend suggested I try the novelty/gift store catty-cornered from Mirtitas. The biggest thing they had was a see-through pink raincoat in what was at best a small adult size. I couldn't snap it shut, but it was 45 pesos. SOLD! I wish I had a picture of me in it because I'm sure it was a sight to behold. Big American woman walking down the street in a pink child's raincoat!

By Saturday morning, the timetable had once again sped up and the storm was now supposed to pass on Sunday around noon -- the exact time my USAirways flight home would leave Cancun! Holy crap! I could either leave Isla on the Saturday afternoon ferry before the port shut down and find a place to stay in Cancun, or just wager that USAir would not be bringing any of their planes into Cancun during a hurricane and stay put on the island. I gave it about two seconds thought and chose the latter. I didn't really expect the hurricane to be a big deal because that was the consensus on the island, but I also didn't expect that any airline would risk their expensive equipment by sitting planes on a runway in a hurricane zone. And somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought of all those people who got stuck in hotel ballrooms and grade schools flooded with sewage during Wilma. If things did get bad, at least I'd be on Isla among friends and not all by myself stranded in Cancun.

I called Craig on Saturday to tell him what was going on and he seemed perplexed. Number one -- he expected me to be a raving maniac because I'm not a person who copes well with uncertainty or adversity. He was a little concerned about my lackadaisical attitude. Later, he said I acted like it was just no big deal. What he didn't realize at the time was that I had my double Lexapro Teflon shield firmly in place..

The view from my room on Friday. Angry sea and outer bands starting to roll in!

At breakfast Saturday morning, I began making alternate plans for moving to someplace other than the Rocamar in advance of the storm. Carmita had warned me that a few years earlier, one of the big storms had picked up tiles from the malecon and shattered glass windows and doors at the Rocamar. I was also aware of the fact that the area by the Rocamar was where the seawall failed during Hurricane Wilma, so it probably seemed wise to move.

Cesar at the Elements offered to take me in, and Donna also found me a room at Ixchel. In addition, several other friends on the island offered me refuge, but I figured I'd get up Sunday morning and make that decision before the storm came through. Being a hurricane virgin, I thought I'd have time before the Big Blow came through at the designated time -- Sunday noon. What the hell was I thinking! It never dawned on me to just ask the front desk to move me to one of the Lima's other properties. Duhhh! It also never dawned on me to check in with the front desk on Saturday for advice and to see what they had planned. Important note to self: Next time, ask and you shall receive!

Saturday afternoon view from my front balcony. The wind has arrived!

Saturday at dusk.

Saturday afternoon, I took my laptop to Sancocho's since the wireless signal in my room had gone away. I ran into two friends on Hidalgo who had just decided to embrace the rain and have fun. They were out shopping. We chatted about the approaching storm and wished each other good luck. I had a late lunch/early dinner at Sancocho's with a friend who was heading to the last ferry, then sat checking the weather sites for updates and getting reassurance from Isla friends. Sancocho's was a gathering place for a lot of the familiar faces, so I sat and chatted into the evening. I waited for the squall to let up, but finally just gave up and ran down Hidalgo with my little pink raincoat flapping in the wind getting totally drenched. By that time, it was blowing a gale at the Rocamar and the rain was beating on the sliding doors.

I'd been in the room about 15 minutes when someone knocked at the door. Mrs. McHugh! Mrs. McHugh. I opened the door and the night clerk said, Mrs. McHugh! You are still here!

Uh oh. Si, I am still here.

Where is your husband? You are solamente?

Double uh oh.

I asked him if there were other people in the hotel. He said, They have all left. You are the only guest.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph! What have I done?!!!

And he said with a slight look of doubt on his face, You are safe. You will be safe.

Holy crap! After he left, it suddenly dawned on me that I needed candles and matches. So I ran down the steps to the lobby desk. He was back behind in the office, but came out to see what I needed. I asked for candles and matches, but his English didn't extend that far. It finally dawned on me to say la luz and to pantomime striking a match and lighting a candle. He reached below in the drawers and produced an entire box of votive candles and a box of matches.

Back in the room, it struck me that I should get as much water in the room as I could. But really, what was I thinking? If the storm REALLY got bad, that room would take on a LOT of water! It just wouldn't be potable! HA!

At about 11:00 p.m., I heard a screaming/wailing sound coming from the malecon below. I stepped out in the driving wind and rain onto the balcony to check it out. A guy, either drunk, drugged, or deranged, was facing into the storm yelling as loudly as he could. Just him and me! I stepped back in and locked the door. I also pulled the thin drapes across the windows because I'd always heard to keep those closed in case the glass imploded. Great, just great. I can do this? A little later, I went outside to the water cooler to get one more pitcher of water for the room. Wailing Man was now in the courtyard of the hotel hiding behind a pillar. Still screaming. I hoped he was harmless and firmly locked the door.

Long story short. I slept very little that night because I've never heard anything like the rain and wind that pelted those glass doors. The entire building would reverberate each time a big wave crashed against the seawall. I'd feel the thud and shake, then hear the splat of the seawater plopping up onto my balcony.

After hours of peeking out the drapes and even stepping onto the balcony in Geraldo fashion to check that the seawall was still intact and the waves hadn't topped it, I finally just decided to go to sleep. I'll admit it. I heard a little voice in my head and it was my aunt chuckling and saying, Beck, what the heck have you done now! That chuckle was reassuring and I remembered her wise words from years past -- just sleep on it and it'll be better in the morning.

I left shorts and a top on in case someone showed up at my door to get me, but I was done worrying. I was in an information blackout with no way to find out if the hurricane had intensified and/or where it was headed. Looking out my window at the boiling sea, I knew if I ended up there, I was gone. But I seriously doubted I'd end up there, and the other good sign was that the city hadn't turned off electricity or water as far as I could tell, so I just fell asleep.

I awoke pre-dawn and opened the drapes slightly so I could see the sea from the bed.

No need watching for a morning sunrise, but the sea and sky melded together into a beautiful deep blue.

A little later, I stepped onto the balcony to snap a few shots of the frothy boil hitting the seawall to the south.

The rain and wind were still intense, but the Rocamar was still intact and my sliding doors were holding back the water. I little bit of water in the door track, probably from when I'd opened and shut it, but nothing in the room. Those new doors on the rooms are tight! Friends at Ixchel later told me they'd spent 24 hours with a squeegee trying to keep the water out of their condo, and they were a lot farther back from the water!

I plopped back into bed and fell sound asleep, only to be suddenly awakened by a pounding at my door. I'm not sure how long the maid was pounding, but when I finally opened the door she was frantically gesturing to me to try and overcome her lack of English and my lack of Spanish. She finally gave up and ran to get the desk clerk. He was up the stairs quickly and also trying to communicate to me. I finally got the jest that he wanted me to pack my bags. Crap. They're kicking me out? On the street? Uh oh. No, no . . . I finally realized they were going to move me to a different place. And believe you me, that was just FINE with me!

I frantically threw everything as fast as I could into my duffel bag and backpack. I think I was probably packed and ready in five minutes. I opened the door and the maid and desk clerk grabbed my bags. When I got down to the open air lobby, the desk clerk handed me the phone and it was Maria from Media Luna and Secreto telling me a man would be there in a pickup truck to get me in a few minutes to bring me to Hotel Media Luna.

Soon a white pickup truck sloshed up the sand street (it was torn up at the time during the street construction) to pick up me and my bags. I got into the cab and my first words to the man in the white pickup were Hablas Ingles? Yes, his English was perfect. The hurricane was a Category 2, but it had turned and Isla was now on the favorable side of the storm. He reassured me that I had seen the worst of the wind and rain last night, and as the eye passed by out in the channel, it would actually be much better.

He flipped a U-turn and navigated the high water in the streets down Juarez and over to Media Luna. I can't say enough about the hospitality of the Lima family. I was checked into the hotel, gratis, and a maid was waiting for me with a tray of breakfast food. Still a little too hyped up to eat, I stepped out onto the patio of my room to look at the waves at that location. A woman from the room next door popped over immediately and asked me if I thought we were safe there at the hotel. She was worried sick.

I suppressed a laugh and looked at the distance from the sea with a swimming pool in front as opposed to my location at the Rocamar and told her that yes, I was certain we were safe. And the danger had passed

And in case you've ever wondered what happens on Isla after a storm goes through, it's life as usual with a bit of a party atmosphere thrown in. People were out and about shortly after the hurricane had passed. I headed to Sancocho's for a late lunch and they were open for business with revelers buying drinks and food and watching Sunday football. Fishermen were down at the docks helping to pull pangas back into the water. People were out on the streets. I even saw the Elote Woman peddling her bike down Medina. And a lot of people were drunk! I think the party started the night before and spilled over into Sunday. Friends told me they'd been at Fayne's till long after midnight listening to music and dancing.

I left Sancocho's, took a stroll down Medina, and saw the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.

Soooo . . . that's my hurricane story and I'm stickin' to it. For most people on the island, Hurricane Ida was a total non-event. Captain Tony posted photos of a calm bay on the internet, and people at the post-hurricane party at Sancocho's acted blaise and boasted that it was nothing. But to this old girl in her location at the Rocamar solamente, Ida was an event to cross off the Bucket List. Been there. Done that. Probably won't do it again!

This old gal is now off the Lexapro, but honey, I've got some big ole' sleepin' pills that I'm hoardin' in the event of another Big Blow!


Jane said...

Great post Beck!

Moongrl722 said...

Great read, Beck!! The pics were amazing -- what waves!! That sounds like an adventure to me, too. It all depends on what you're used to.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, Mary, Joseph -- I am still laughing and it was a scarry few days for you. Sorry you had to go thru it solo but a great read!!!!!

Carol from Michigan

Vee said...

What a great post, Becky! And thanks for mentioning the panic attacks and anxiety. I had a (former) friend who wrote me off as being a nut for having them. You were so very brave in confronting your fears, as Craig observed. This was a great story, and that's coming from someone who lives in hurricane country!

Catz said...

I'll travel with you anytime Beck in any type of weather. A brave soul with meds, water and sugary donuts - who could as for more!!

It is thrilling to hear what really happens to Isla during a hurricane!!

jeanie said...

Beck, I was so worried about you during that time. I was so very relieved to hear an update from you at Media Luna. I have thought about that last night at Rocamar and you were alone. You always mention the nice man in the white truck who moved you. You must have been very frightened to hold a man in such honor who drove you...a block. jeje I understand. BTW When the nice man in the white truck was taking you a safer hotel...were you wearing the smelly sandals?

Jane said...

LOL Jeanie! I'd forgotten about those smelly sandals.

Life's a Beach! said...

Yes, the sandals! I figured this post had turned into War and Peace, so the stinky sandals were cut. HA! Reading back over this, I can't believe I was dumb enough to not realize I needed to move on Saturday in advance of the hurricane. And Jeanie, the nice man I think was one of the main guys at Secreto. God forbid what he thinks of me and my smelly sandals! (I HOPE he realized it was the sandals!!!!)

Welcome Carol!!!

Jeanne in NC said...

What a great read! And your photos of it are beautiful. Between Texas and North Carolina I've lived in hurricane country all my life and have been through more than a few. You handled it well! I bet it was both a little scary and exciting at the same time.