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TALES FROM THE YUCATÁN

After the Hurricane
by Jeanine Kitchel

CASA MAYA WIKI

Tales from the Yucat¶n

FLICKR ALBUM: Lessons from Mexico


"Hotel Eden is closed," the owner of the no frills cement block structure informed me. " We're evacuating our employees. Puerto Morelos could be point zero. Again."

"But Eden made it through Hurricane Gilberto in 1988," I protested, well aware I might as well be talking to the whistling wind outside. "You know it can take a hit and you're four blocks from the beach. Wilma's surge will never come this far. We can't stay in our house on the water and we don't want to leave the area. It's always hard to get back after a storm."

"Too risky," she insisted, shaking her head. "Plus the mangroves behind us may rise a meter or two."


Where to go? It was 8 a.m. on October 21. Our house was on the ocean in Puerto Morelos south of Cancún and although we'd braved out Hurricane Emily in July, a category-4 storm, Emily had been a dry hurricane with little rain and not expected to hit Puerto Morelos.

 

Wilma, in contrast, was dropping lots of rain on the Caymans 300 miles south of us as it lumbered slowly north at 3 mph. It was not expected to reach Cancún until late that night. But if we had to go to Cancún for shelter, we'd have to leave soon to find a hotel still taking guests. In Cancún, hurricanes were serious business and evacuations were issued well in advance, especially when tourists were concerned.


DECISION TIME

"Gotta head out," I told Paul, my husband, as I rounded up the cat, my laptop, a few days' clothes, food and water, after my failed trip to Hotel Eden. "We better finish battening down the hatches and move on it." Paul had been busy for two days making all the standard preparations, of which there were many. When you live on the beach during hurricane season, "oceanfront" takes on a whole new meaning.

This storm had gone from an unmenacing category-1 to a life-threatening category-5 overnight; it would become the fastest strengthening storm on record, with top sustained winds increasing 105 mph in just 24 hours. The waves had just started to hit our beefy 12 -foot above/12-foot below ground seawall, which was 120 feet from the tide line. It was decision time.

Hurricane Wilma was the twentieth named storm of the season and the worst hurricane on record. Lower in barometric pressure at 882 than 1988's deadly Hurricane Gilberto which also hit the Yucatán Peninsula. This year, 2005, was shaping up as the year with the most hurricanes in history. We were at "W" in October, and the official season ends December 1.

Our drive to Cancún, complicated by fast, careless drivers, showed us that others were departing the coast just as we were, looking for safety within the confines of the city. After finding no vacancy at four hotels, we located a bunker style 40-room structure, Hotel Avenida Cancún, on Lopez Portillo, with one room left. We snatched it up. A teeny window in the bathroom was the only place daylight peeked in, and that was just fine. Less windows to break.

We snuck in Max, our eight year old "milagro gato" or miracle cat as the vet had named him. No cat lives in the jungle for eight years, he'd told us. But Max, our outdoor/indoor cat, did, avoiding snakes and dogs and whatever else was lying in wait for a tender morsel of fresh kitty. For the only neutered male cat in Mexico, he'd somehow managed to kick ass and survive.

WAITING FOR WILMA

We checked into the hotel around noon and watched bad Mexican telenovelas until midnight. Occasionally the satellite allowed us a glimpse of CNN International and our future, but that was spotty at best. Mostly it was Mexico TV or nothing until the electricity went out around 1 a.m.

At 3 a.m. I awoke to howling winds. The hotel clerk, a no-nonsense dark haired Mexican woman in her 30s named Nancy, had told us the hotel was double walled, a true bunker, and strong enough to take on a hurricane like Wilma. I felt secure.

Paul's second sense had kicked in before we settled on where to park the car after discovering the hotel's parking lot was full. He chose a spot on a side street where he thought we would be out of the line of fire if electric poles fell. (His intuition was trusty as ever; an electric pole crushed a car right across the street from ours during the storm).

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When we awoke on Friday, October 22, all was dark. With flashlight in hand I went down to the desk where fifteen or so other guests were gathered.

"What's happening with the hurricane?" I asked Nancy.

"No one knows," she replied. "Our satellite is out and we think the eye is coming soon."

"But it's been hours," I protested.

"It may have stalled out."

This is the worst case scenario in a hurricane and everyone's fear. We later discovered Wilma had crawled across our peninsula for over 60 hours with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. Destruction in slo-mo.

"Where is it now?

"Maybe over Cozumel? No one knows. The eye's grown to 35 miles wide; we just have to wait. Oh, and don't use the water. It's almost out."

Great. No electricity and now no water. Wish I'd showered before I'd hurried
downstairs to check on the storm.

I watched a perky woman dressed in pink shorts with matching Xcaret cap pull a stylish bag towards the boarded up front doors where two men were making space for her to slip through.

"Where's she going?"

"She thinks she's going to Playa, but she'll get stuck in the road. Once you leave here, you can't come back in. No in and out privileges," No-nonsense Nancy explained with a determined look.

I paid for another night and went back to the room to report hotel policy to Paul and to let him know the hotel restaurant was actually serving breakfast. We thought we'd better eat while we still could. Then back up to the room to brood and wait in the dark, for hours.


THE EYE

The winds continued to howl outside, then a strange calm-- the eye. But at three miles per hour it would take ten hours to pass over Cancún. Occasionally we heard crashing noises outside. We hunkered down, petted our cat who'd moved into bed with us, and continued to wait.

Occasionally I ventured out into the dark hallway to ask other guests for information. We were all equally clueless, it seemed. Was it over? What was happening? Had the eye passed? By the third day, always the same response-- ask the manager.

No- nonsense Nancy reported that everyone thought the worst had passed. She was waiting for the police to come and give a final report. Having lived in Mexico for way too long I knew the police report could be slow in coming, if at all. I walked to the boarded up front windows and peeked through the slats. Remnants of metal signs were strewn everywhere, electric poles were broken like toothpicks, trees were ripped up at their roots. Wilma had wreaked havoc.

Back up to the room for our universal decision -- let's venture out. We packed up Max and our belongings, retrieved the car, and headed out Lopez Portillo, Cancún's crossoroads-- the line of demarcation between what tourists called Cancún and what locals knew to be Cancún.

As we crawled through areas with water up to our floorboards, we began to see hoards of people moving towards Chedraui Super Market. The hurricane force winds had torn a hole in a side wall and looters were taking advantage by hauling off food, pampers, beer, soda, clothes, whatever they could.


KEEP MOVING

"Gotta move fast through here," Paul said. "Could be a bad scene." I heard later on it was; police arrived firing shots into the air, one account, or another that reported shots were fired into the crowd.

On Avenida Kabah we traveled two miles, only to be diverted by a water impasse; back to Tulum Avenue, the center of town, treacherously trying to avoid the flood waters everywhere. Anyone who has ever been to Cancún knows even a slight downpour can clog city streets for hours. Now we had 60 inches of water in a three day period to contend with.

Past once-lovely Plaza de las Americas Mall, half of Sears blown out, the VIP Theatre seriously torn apart. Hospital of the Americas behind Dorian's ... wrecked and unsalvageable. Down to Puerto Morelos slowly, so slowly, on Highway 307. I thought we'd make it until about four miles north of Puerto Morelos.

Mangroves had breached the highway and fast moving waters crossed the road at nearly three feet -- impassable. Fifty cars on either side of the highway heading both north and south were playing the waiting game.

Water comes in, then water goes out, doesn't it?


THE WAITING GAME

"How long do you think?" I asked the driver in the car ahead of us.

"They say four or five hours until it goes down."

I dragged my way back to the car and gave Paul the bad news. By then it would be nightfall. Now what?

"Should we try the hotel zone?" Paul asked. "All the tourists are gone."

"Okay, why not?"

We passed the green sign for the hotel zone lying at a forlorn angle on the side of the road. We had no clue as to what damages we'd see in one of the world's trendiest resorts. As we crept along avoiding high water spots and rubble in the road, we were shocked at the wreckage and we'd only ventured in four or five kilometers. Almost every hotel window was blown out, and large concrete columns lay on the ground blocking entrances. Walls had crumbled, street signs were mangled on the road. Trees were missing from the once lush landscape.

Three hotels simply waved us off. One kind hotel manager extended us the use of his own unit, but with no windows, no electric, no water. We politely declined.

"We may as well see how the water is doing at Crococun Road," Paul said.

Crococun Road was named for Crococun Crocodile Zoo, a common landmark between Cancún and Puerto Morelos, near where the water had breached the highway.

Once there, we could see the water was still too high for normal crossing. One entrepreneur with a car carrier was carting vehicles across the watery mile-long stretch for $100 U.S. We'd have gladly paid it, but we were on the wrong side of the road and he had a healthy backup of hopeful clients.

No other option except to sleep in the car that night with Max. Damp floorboards full of our clothes, five gallon can of gasoline, food leftovers, Electropura water bottle and Max's kitty litter box. Creature comforts.


THE GREAT DIVIDE

At 7 a.m. I awoke with the worst crick in my neck since my backpacking days. Paul was already up and talking to other disgruntled travelers. Then I saw a high-axeled van and an idea came like a lightning bolt.

"Paul," I called, immediately awake. "I'm asking him if he'll cart us across. Us and Max."

I ran to the van perched at the rolling water's edge. It was just a driver and one passenger in a large Suburban. His answer, "Of course."

"Get the cat, get the computer! We're moving," I yelled. We were out of the car in a flash and at the driver's door. He smiled and shook his head when I asked, "Can I please pay you?"

Across the great divide we went, slowly, others viewing our passage no doubt with envy.

The Suburban dropped us at Crococun Road, about two miles further south on Highway 307, the back road to our house, or where we hoped our house would still be. As we gazed down the two lane road with Max in tow, I gulped. The road was only dry for 1000 yards. Then water -- serious water -- streaming from the mangroves racing across and down the blacktop.

"Let's start walking," Paul said. "What else are we gonna do? Go back to that water-logged car with gas fumes, wet floorboards and Max's kitty litter? I don't think the water is that high."

Our decision was made. As we trudged to the water's edge a gray SUV drove past, not only ignoring our requests for help but splashing us with mangrove water in his wake. Maybe disasters didn't bring out the best in everyone?

Then came a Puerto Morelos cab carrying two tourists. The cab driver was munching on an apple as he pulled to a stop next to us at the water's edge. "Where are you going?" Paul asked.

"They," he smirked as he pointed at two tourists in back, " have reservations at Secrets." Secrets is the new all-inclusive beach resort at the end of the three kilometer road we were on.

"Are you driving there? Can we pay you to take us?" I asked.

"No. Water is too high. But it's even worse across from the Pemex. It's at least three feet high there, all the way to el centro."

"How is Puerto Morelos?"

"It's okay. Do you want a ride back to the crossroads?"

"But then what would we do? We'd be stuck there, too."

"Wait for a big rig to take you to town?" he shrugged, more interested in his apple than our future.

Since our house, Casa Maya, was a kilometer from town, who knew how bad those roads would be? Would we be stranded there, too?


CROCODILES

"Paul, let's walk."

"You'll get eaten by crocodiles," the cab driver taunted as he nibbled at the core. "They escaped from Crococun."

For a moment Paul and I stared at each other. Urban legend or reality bite?
"We have to walk," I said, thinking of the soaked floorboards, Max's kitty litter box, and the status of our house -- in that order.

"Are you ready?" Paul asked.

"But the crocodiles!" yelled the cab's passengers from the back seat of their shiny new ride. All the cabs these days were right off the showroom floor. Tourism had been kind to Puerto Morelos in the past few years.

"We have to see what's happened to our house," I yelled back as we started slogging through knee-deep mangrove water.

"Follow the yellow line," Paul instructed, with Max's cat container perched high on his shoulder.

"Okay," I said as I kicked off my plastic sandals, a dangerous move, and walked barefoot through the murky brown water.

Forty minutes later we trudged to the edge of Secret's Hotel entrance where three guards and a civilian eyed us as though we were criminals casing the joint. Cat burglars?

"Can't walk on the road," I managed to gasp, thoroughly spent from our water escapade. "Too much water. Can we cut through to the beach? We live here. Vescinas. Neighbors."

I could tell they were sizing us up. I was a mess, hadn't showered for three days, and my rolled up jeans were soaked above the knees. They could have turned me away just for lack of general hygiene. Paul, amazingly, didn't look that bad.

"I'll get a guard," the one dressed in civilian clothes shot back. Maybe it was the fashion police he was calling for? God knows I could have used them right about then.

We took baby steps with our sea legs, happy to be on dry land. At the beach, we smiled at the shy guard who let us out the gate. We were on our beach! Now, would we have a house left? Or would Wilma have claimed another for her own?

Past one neighbor's house after another. Some total disasters, some not so bad.

But in general, not good. Concrete rubble and collapsed walls everywhere. Many swimming pools had been swept away, but had saved the house foundations. That was the bottom line. If the house still had a foundation, it could be saved.

La Sirena Condos had not survived Gilberto and had been rebuilt. Now, sadly, they had not survived Wilma. Our immediate neighbors to the north had lost their swimming pool, and then we saw Casa Maya, our house, still standing, and the sea wall, that glorious structure, still stood. It had saved our house from the storm.

Both our side walls, were sheered off at midway, and the north wall had received tremendous damage. We'd heard the winds had raged Puerto Morelos for 40 hours. Our smal koi pond was the cutoff line for damages on the north, and I believe the pond's concrete foundation had been vital in saving our house.


AFTER THE STORM

Our beach stairs and gate had been swept away as had our beach palapa along with all our coconut palms. We climbed carefully through the rubble of the side wall and up to our lawn. The 3/4 inch plywood boards over the windows and doors, held down by stainless steel bolts that could handle 2000 pounds of pressure, had all remained intact. Paul had tied the front door to a palm tree, which still amazingly stood. He found a machete in the bodega, cut the rope, and we went inside.

Aside from a couple inches of water in the living room that had squeaked in through our wooden windows, the house was in good shape. We'd weathered the storm. The house was liveable.

Hats off to our sea wall, which held up admirably during the worst storm on record. And hats off to Mother Nature, who hasn't lost a battle yet.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeanine Lee Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Yucatan and the Maya. Her travel memoir Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is now available on Kindle from Amazon.com. Jeanine is a frequent contributor to Planeta with her series Tales from the Yucatán. Updates on the Planeta Wiki! Contact Jeanine via email.

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