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Remembering Hurricane Wilma, Five Years Ago

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The block quote below is Wikipedia's description of Hurricane Wilma:

Hurricane Wilma was the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. Wilma was the twenty-second storm, thirteenth hurricane, sixth major hurricane, and fourth Category 5 hurricane of the record-breaking 2005 season.

Wilma made several landfalls, with the most destructive effects felt in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, Cuba, and Florida. At least 62 deaths were reported, and damage is estimated at over $29.1 billion ($20.6 billion in the US; 2005 US dollars, ranking Wilma among the top 5 costliest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic and the fourth costliest storm in U.S. history.

This week, on October 21, it is exactly five years since Wilma struck the resort of Cancún with its full fury.

We were there.

This is my story:

Hurricane Wilma was to become one of the most fearsome hurricanes in recorded history.
2010-10-18-NasaWilmacompressed.jpg
But early on a beautiful October morning exactly five years ago, as my family, along with thousands of other tourists, were enjoying the sun on the beaches of Cancún, Wilma was merely a tropical storm wobbling aimlessly in the warm Atlantic waters about 250 miles South-East of Cancún. If and when Wilma developed into a Category 1 hurricane, there would be plenty of time to evaluate the situation and to safely leave Cancún.

The next day, a little over twenty-four hours later, the unbelievable had happened. Wilma had exploded overnight into a massive and vicious Category 5 hurricane. At one stage, Wilma was the most intense hurricane with the lowest atmospheric pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic. And, this monster was moving towards the Yucatán Peninsula. We attempted to arrange for flights out for my family, a family that included my precious six-year old grandson. With flight cancellations, thousands of tourists clamoring for seats, and eventually the airport closing, this turned out to be a futile effort. In the meantime, the resorts started making ominous preparations for the storm.

The next evening, as the winds and the surf forebodingly picked up, we were told to evacuate the resort. Each person was advised to take a blanket, pillow, bottled water, medicines, important documents, etc. As our bus drove away from the roiling ocean towards the center of Cancún, under torrential rains and in total darkness -- most power had already failed -- I looked around at the frightened evacuees. I was filled with sheer anguish and despair, especially for the babies and young children, including our own grandson, who now were facing certain and horrible danger. And for the first time, perhaps in too long of a time, I started to think of God and said a little prayer.

Our shelter turned out to be a small Sunday school annex in a church in a poor section of Cancún. Our family of seven was assigned a very small room, which we immediately started to make as safe as possible, as Wilma's hurricane force winds were already beginning to strike.

As we found out later, Wilma struck Cancún with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour and gusts of nearly 200 miles per hour. It would stall and "hover" over and around Cancún for an incredible fifty hours, before heading for Florida. During those hours, the winds whipped up to a deafening and almost surreal crescendo; the hurricane-driven rain poured in through every crack and pore; and our cinderblock shelter creaked and shuddered. We could only hold on to each other, hope, and, yes, pray. For some of us, again, the first prayer in a long, long time.

As the head of the family, I felt an almost intolerable responsibility and guilt for having placed my family in such peril. The anguish and despair became even more unbearable every time I glanced in the candle-lit room at the huddled form of our little grandson. My wife and our older children at least had enjoyed a reasonably lengthy life and were mature enough to make their own decisions. Our grandson, on the other hand, was so young and depended entirely on us for his welfare and safety. It was then that I prayed as I have never prayed before and placed my total hope and trust in God.

Eventually, our prayers were answered and the interminable nightmare was over. Two full days after it had all begun, and as daylight broke, the dazed survivors started pouring out of the shelter onto the church's courtyard, giving thanks, hugging each other, and surveying the damage. The devastation was appalling: destroyed or heavily damaged buildings, downed power lines, flooded streets, uprooted trees, etc.

Depressing as that sight was, we saw even more heartbreaking scenes as we ventured out onto some of the side streets. As it all too often is the case with such natural disasters, it was the poorest that had suffered the greatest losses. Most of the humble "palapa" style structures had been heavily damaged or destroyed. Some of these "palapas" had been home to some of the local Mexican people who had also sought refuge in our shelter, and who had cooked for us and had taken care of us during the hurricane. Yet, oblivious of their own tragedy and losses, these truly God-fearing people displayed incredible resilience, selflessness and compassion by continuing to care for and worry about the distressed "gringos."

Finally, almost a week after it had all begun, the buses arrived to take us back to the relative comfort of our hotels. As the buses departed, filled with smelly, tired, ragged but happy evacuees, we waved goodbye to our Mexican friends. They had lined up outside the shelter, with smiles on their faces and true affection in their hearts.

We realized that while we would soon be heading back to our comfortable homes and our comfortable life styles, they would remain behind facing the nearly impossible task of literally picking up the pieces of their destroyed homes and their destroyed lives. It was then, when many of us who still had not shed a tear, did so, realizing how close we had come to lose our lives, and realizing how much these humble people we were leaving behind had been a factor in us still being alive and well.

After a few more days filled with frustration, we finally flew home. I will never forget the brush with death we had. But neither will I forget the power of prayer...

Coda: We are here again in Cancún, five years later -- enjoying the reclaimed beaches, enjoying the people, but keeping a wary eye on the weather.

Image, Courtesy NASA: Wilma just offshore Cancun on October 20, 2005