I can’t help but feel for the millions of residents of Florida who were displaced or evacuated during last week’s arrival of Hurricane Irma. I find it tough to imagine how life can be turned upside down so quickly and abruptly. And yet, as with every natural disaster, the true resilience of human beings comes into full force in many unexpected ways.
As I write this, I just received an e-mail that I had already been expecting. It is from the hotel I had booked in the Florida Keys for next weekend, telling me that they will unfortunately be closed for the foreseeable future. With my trip to Florida booked so closely after the trail of destruction has been left by Irma, I am taken back to my own hurricane experience of 2005.
Hurricane Emily was the earliest Category 5 hurricane to ever form in the Atlantic, and we became acquainted while I was relaxing at the Gran Bahia Principe Akumal, a large resort which graces the white sand beaches of Riviera Maya, Mexico. My vacation started like any other – a sunny arrival into Cancun airport, with postcard perfect views of turquoise blue water and endless palm trees.
I distinctly recall the intense humidity. The sun was hot and the air heavy, but the clear blue skies gave no indication of any approaching danger. Two days into our trip, while lazing by the pool with a cocktail in hand, I overheard a conversation about a hurricane which had formed south of Jamaica and was starting to churn its way through the Caribbean. Word began to spread shortly after – of course, this was before the days of iPhones and mass Wi-Fi, so news spread the traditional way – person to person. Without giving it much further thought, we continued resort living until we received a letter from hotel management the following day. It detailed that the NHA had issued a Hurricane Watch, and that the resort was preparing for a potential landfall at or near the resort. Uh-oh…
The next morning, things became real. We were instructed to eat a big breakfast, and could enjoy the day until 3pm. At this time, the resort began its preparations – hurricane shutters were being locked across all rooms, pools were being semi-drained and filled with sunbeds, and windows being taped up. Coconuts were being cut down from trees, as they could become lethal, and anything loose was tied down. My last view of the ocean was mid-afternoon as the winds were picking up and starting to rustle the palm trees, and large storm clouds were brewing on the horizon.
Back in our rooms by 6pm, our instructions were to fill the bathtub with water as there would be no running water after the storm. Our minibar had been stripped of alcohol, and instead filled with sandwiches and soft drinks. I remember the next few hours as if they were yesterday. The sound of the wind, and the noise of loose objects being bashed around outside relentlessly was something I would not forget in a hurry. The eye of the hurricane passed directly over us – a strange silent calm amidst absolute chaos. The second half of the storm hit stronger than the first, and the winds continued to increase with the noise becoming ever more deafening.
I distinctly recall the very moment I noticed a marginal reduction in the noise of the wind. A feeling of relief swept across my body, knowing that the worst was now over. Exhausted from the overnight storm, I fell almost instantly asleep, waking up a few hours to nothing but the final few gusts sporadically making themselves known. Unbolting the door, and the scene that greeted us was one of devastation and destruction. Exploring the resort was both mind blowing and scary, and one which left a lasting impression on me. Twenty-four hours later, and we were back at a broken Cancun International Airport awaiting our evacuation flight to return us to the United Kingdom.
In light of Irma, my trip to the Florida Keys is no longer going to happen this year. There is the much more important task at hand to rebuild and restore the keys, ahead of taking care of tourists. However, when the option came for me to abandon my trip completely, and with everyone around me wondering why I would still want to go, I made the decision to continue the trip in any case. At a time when tourism is undoubtedly going to take a downturn, there seems no better time to explore!
And so, Miami Beach, here I come! I will see you on Thursday, and I cannot wait. Bring it on Florida!