According to Wikipedia, Hurricane Wilma was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and the second-most intense tropical cyclone recorded in the Western Hemisphere, after Hurricane Patricia in 2015.
We were there.
It was October of 2005. Steve and I had been dating long-distance for nine months. At the end of that September, I packed up my life after 8 years in Chicago and moved back to Michigan to be closer to him and see if this thing was going to stick. Things were indeed getting more serious and we had plans to take our first big vacation together. It was a destination wedding in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
We extended the stay by flying in a few days early and enjoyed walking the beautiful beaches and basking in the sunshine, umbrella drinks in hand – just the two of us! The couple to be wed arrived a few days prior to the big day along with some heavy winds. There was a tropical storm brewing out over the ocean and the media was in a frenzy because it was headed straight for Florida. We watched the television reports with concern for friends and family members living there.
As the storm approached the coast, it escalated to a hurricane which they named Wilma. But instead of hitting Florida, at the last minute, the storm veered south saving the Sunshine State and instead, making landfall in Playa del Carmen.
In that aforementioned “last minute,” panic ensued at the resort where we were staying. It was too dangerous to leave so we had to take cover, but how? And, where? We were two midwesterners familiar with fire drills and tornado drills but not at all versed in hurricane drills.
We made our way to the resort lobby where the staff instructed all guests residing on the ground level to evacuate to a room on the second level. They were pairing off strangers to accommodate this necessity and in some cases, said strangers didn’t even speak the same language. Fortunately, the couple to be wed was with us in the lobby and we were paired off with them.
We were instructed to move all personal items into the designated second-floor room and then take the following action: Fill the tub with water in the event that we lose power and need access to clean water. Remove the box spring from beneath the one and only king-sized mattress in the room and place it up against the door wall. Then, close the drapes over the boxspring and push the dresser in front of the drapes. Lock the door and await further instruction.
Hours later, there was a knock at the door. It was the resort staff stopping at each room to deliver food; it was an all-inclusive resort after all. The “meal” consisted of a pimento loaf sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a container of coulda-been-colder Vitamin D whole milk and a piece of colder-than-the-milk fried chicken; all packed in a brown bag. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it seemed in that moment that if the storm didn’t kill us, the rations might.
And so we settled in. When night fell, the four of us retreated to bed – the only bed in the room – we laid there like four matchsticks. We were terrified yet grateful to not be laying beside strangers. We listened to the incessant wind howl – it was like a fleet of jet airliners were parked on our balcony. The shoulda-been bride was the last to fall asleep that night and hence the only one who witnessed the power go out as the ceiling fan slowed to a stop. It was Friday, October 21, 2005, and it was supposed to be her wedding night.
After days of being barricaded, the storm let up enough for us to venture outside. The destruction was devastating. The damage to the resort was severe, to say the least. Trees were ripped from the ground or in some cases snapped in half and the paint had been stripped from the exterior walls in spots. We learned that the airport was shut down indefinitely and there was no news on when we might be able to go home. We needed to make contact with our families to let them know we were alive and wouldn’t be returning on our flight later that day.
Since we didn’t have cell phones that worked outside of the U.S., we set out into town to use a payphone. The lines to use public phones were wrapped around the village. We found a store owner who had a working line and convinced him to let us use his phone. Thank God for Steve’s near-native Spanish skills!
Next, we found a pharmacy. Since we’d reached the end of our initially planned stay, we’d need to find medication to last the trip. Turns out, in Mexico, everything we needed was available over the counter – as if this story couldn’t get more frightening, eh?
When we returned to the hotel we found a bus off-loading passengers. They had been evacuated from a nearby luxury resort and spent the last few days sleeping on the floor of a local school gym. Apparently, it was as horrible as it sounded – hundreds of people packed in like sardines; they said the smell was atrocious. Blessings, counted!
We got word that the airport was to reopen on Tuesday. A charter bus would arrive to transport guests from the resort to the airport. And so we planned accordingly and packed up our things; eager to return home. At the time indicated, we made our way to the lobby only to find that the bus had already filled and there wouldn’t be another bus until the next night. On Wednesday, we tried again to no avail. All told, we’d spend an additional week beyond our intended stay.
The evening we finally got a spot on the bus, we were taken to a McDonald’s parking lot where we were instructed to get off the bus and wait for airline employees to arrive. It was 2am. We waited for hours, sleeping on our luggage on the concrete in the drive-thru until three airline employees arrived at daybreak and set up a small table. They hand-wrote airline tickets and then instructed passengers to board a second bus that would allegedly transport them to the airport.
While we waited for our turn, a nearby elderly woman passed out, likely from dehydration. Luckily, The Red Cross was there and administered aid. Steve, being a physician, offered his assistance. He was asked to hold the fluids which were in a glass bottle. Was it 1947? I felt full of pride and admiration for him as he stood there like a human IV pole. Meanwhile, I inched closer and closer to my spot on the second bus wondering if I’d leave without him if push came to shove. Thankfully, we didn’t have to find out – we both made it!
When we finally got back to Michigan, Steve’s brother asked him: after an experience like that, you really get to know a person, so are you two breaking up or getting married? We were engaged six months later, on April Fools Day (no joke), and married six months after that. Ours was NOT a destination wedding.
In the midst of this Coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to worry about the unknowns. Remembering other times in our lives when we’ve overcome hardship helps provide perspective and reminds us to hold on to hope that this too shall pass!
Have you ever endured a major natural disaster? How about any other unusual vacations with your beloved? Did you have a defining moment when you knew your spouse was the one?