As we have done for the past 20 years, we are once again enjoying the beautiful beaches, the beautiful weather and the beautiful people of Cancún, Mexico.
Sixteen years ago to the day, we were doing the same when “the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin” hit the Yucatán Peninsula
So much has been said and written about the monstrous category 5 hurricane named Wilma that devastated the province of Quintana Roo, that I will spare the reader the “technical” details except for the following excerpts:
Wilma contributed to eight deaths in Mexico – seven in Quintana Roo and one in Yucatán. Hurricane Wilma directly inflicted about $4.8 billion worth of damage, mostly in Quintana Roo. It was the state’s costliest natural disaster… Wilma destroyed 9,463 houses and caused damage to 19,517 others. In Cancún alone, the hurricane left 300,000 people homeless.
Today, I remember and dedicate this piece to many of those 300,000 noble Mexican people who lost everything during the disaster and yet helped thousands of foreigners, including my family and me, make it through the night – an endless, horrific night that lasted an incredible 50 hours.
Hours during which the winds whipped up to a deafening 150 mph crescendo, hours during which the hurricane-driven rain poured in through every crack and pore of our creaking and shuddering cinderblock shelter, and hours during which we held on to each other and prayed. For some of us, the first prayer in a long, long time.
As years pass, our memories begin to fade. With the help of contemporaneous notes and subsequent writings the following recalls our feelings and emotions of 16 years ago.
“As we were finally able to step outside our shelter, we were appalled by the devastation that Wilma had wrought: Destroyed or heavily damaged buildings, downed power lines, flooded streets, a ghostly landscape of totally defoliated and uprooted trees.
However, depressing as those sights were, we saw even more heartbreaking scenes as we ventured out onto some of the side streets.
As it is sadly all too often the case with such natural disasters, the poorest had once again suffered the greatest losses.
Most of the humble “palapa-style” structures had been heavily damaged or destroyed. Some of these structures had been home to some of the local Mexican people who had themselves sought refuge in our shelter, who had cooked for us and had taken care of us during the hurricane. Yet, oblivious to 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.”
In a letter to the editor at the New York Times, in response to a Times’ piece commiserating with the “plight of many of the tens of thousands who got caught in the storm and its chaotic aftermath — and who were stranded in underequipped shelters with little food or water…” I noted:
.…one of the aspects of the disaster that has received very little attention is the gallant, selfless and compassionate manner in which the local people treated and cared for the foreign evacuees in the shelters. In our shelter, Mexican men and women — refugees themselves — took care of us, cooked for us, and literally helped us survive.
My family and I will eventually forget the frustrations and inconveniences we experienced with hotels and airline agencies, but we will never forget the altruistic conduct of the Mexican people in Cancún.
We will never forget how, nearly a week after it had all begun, when the buses arrived to take the smelly, tired, ragged but happy evacuees back to the relative comfort of our hotels, we waved to our Mexican friends who had lined up outside the shelter to say goodbye, with smiles on their faces, tears in their eyes, and true affection in their hearts.
We realized that while we would soon be heading back to our comfortable homes and lifestyles, they would remain behind facing the nearly impossible task of picking up the pieces of their destroyed homes and lives. It was then, when many of us who still had not shed a tear, did so, realizing how close we had come to losing our lives, and realizing how much these humble people we were leaving behind had been a factor in us surviving Wilma.
And pick-up the pieces they did. Today, the sunrises, the beaches and the people on the Yucatán Peninsula are as beautiful as they were 16 years ago.
Muchísimas gracias queridos amigos.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.