A massive hurricane, The Mexican Army, a shelter, and Digg.com.
“People are starting to get sick. Some of the elderly people are becoming ill. There is water but they are telling us to conserve it,” said American Doug Ruby
The shelter was packed with dazed tourists from all parts of the globe. We were securing our place in the school, taking our mats and possessions and finding a flop area in the classroom. Outside the police had taken to the streets, and people were nailing up plywood over the windows, slowly blocking out the light. My wife and I had found a slightly elevated area and staked it out for ourselves. Nervous people from the middle of America chatted with us about the power and veracity of a hurricane, what was it going to be like? How long would it last? I told them what I knew about my experience growing up and living in Florida. Usually it lasts about 12 hours, the whole thing. It gets really bad towards the middle, closer to the eye. The next day it’s usually sunny and we go out side to clean up all the damage. I have been through many a hurricane so I tried my best to feign boredom about the situation, giving them no reason to be upset. Little did I know that this hurricane would be the fastest forming, largest storm Mexico had ever seen. It would be relentless, hovering directly over us and pounding for 3 days. Cancun would become a war-zone, and we would be right in the middle.
We were staying in a 5 star hotel right on the beach, The Riu Palace Las Americanas. The first two nights were the picture perfect honeymoon. When we checked in, I took the Bellhop aside, gave him a twenty and told him we were just married. I didn’t realize that most everyone in the hotel was “just married” until I watched two other guys do the same thing right after me. It was funny, and gave me a sense of fellowship. The gathering areas in the hotels were huge. You could meet couples and talk to them, we made some friendships pretty fast. The first day or so went quick so we rarely watched the news or television. We had caught glimpses of the hurricane forming, but its exact path was unknown. The hotel tried to be forthright and provide the guest with information as to the path, but every story was different, the path became unpredictable. Overnight the force of the storm grew from a two, to a five, and began it’s path towards us. It was big, really big. I began to have second thoughts about being this far away from home and trapped in another country. I remembered vividly from the air our approach to Cancun, the really distinct topology of the land. A huge never ending jungle, one road, then a city carved out of the edge of the ocean. There would be no way out.
The Airports closed at noon that day, a few hours later the buses arrived. We had thought that they were going to take us to another hotel further inland. This was my hope anyway. The information we were getting was less then accurate. When they took us into downtown Cancun, I knew immediately that we were being taken to a shelter. My heart sank. I remembered images from the news and television about people being trapped in government shelters. I had served a tour in the military, I could be uncomfortable for a while, but I did not want my wife in a government shelter. It was bad news. We were two miles inland, in a government shelter ,during one of the fastest forming and most powerful storms in history.
I was disappointed by my helplessness on my current and future situation. Something snapped in my brain and when we arrived I came up with a plan. We would wait long enough for the storm to do its thing, then we would jump ship and find our own way home. Letting the officials run the show, that time was over. It was time to take control, and make the best of a bad situation. I watched as the staff from the hotel piled into the school kitchen. They brought food and water for us. I began to realize that initially this wasn’t a bad place to be. When your in a storm, the best thing to have is supplies. We had plenty of that, a bunch of propane for cooking, and crates of bottled water and juice. As luck would have it we had been positioned right by the kitchen so I was taking stock of what was going on. We also had one bathroom per floor, but that wouldn’t last as the water stopped working. I knew that we could be here for a few days, until it got bad. I had no idea how bad it was going to get.
The first day the storm was slowed down by a front coming the opposite direction. It dragged on, and the wind began to pick up the next evening. By the time it was dark we were being pounded. We were getting regular information from the hotel staff that spoke english, they left before the storm began. Only the kitchen staff was left, and they spoke no english. The wind was making a noise like a 747 about 300 feet, you had to yell to talk to the person beside you. The bathrooms were on the opposite ends of the hall, the hall was open to the outside. To go to the bathroom we would cling to the wall as winds in excess of 150mph whipped various pieces of Cancun in our direction. I looked out the door of our classroom at the entrance to the gymnasium. The sides of the gym were glass, they had shattered. The flourescent lighting fixtures on the celling were dropping and smashing, the gym was filling up with water. This water was running down the stairs into the hallway and beginning to flood our floor. We gathered the troops, and began to find makeshift water pushers to force the water down the stair well and away from the sleeping area. These shifts lasted for a few hours at a time, and gave us something to do while we watched the absolute destruction. The school, made of concrete, began to disintegrate. I watched as cement light posts snapped in two and huge walls surrounding the school came down. Shattering glass was heard all night long. Then finally silence.
I thought that was it, the sky outside was red and a little strange, small black clouds floated by. We looked around, it was a mess. We all began talking of leaving, and assumed the bus would be around to pick us up, we had made it. I asked one of the hotel crew in broken spanish if they new what was going on. I was a little confused as to what he was saying, until he pointed to his eye. I was dumbfounded. It wasn’t over, we were sitting in the eye! I guess I was the expert, being the person in our room that had been through more hurricanes then I could count. I told them that we were in the same position at this point. This storm was something new, something bigger then any I had ever been through, and it had made it to land faster then anything I had seen. Why was it moving so slowly? It was that same front that stalled it right before it hit land. It was holding the storm directly on top of us. We were in the eye, and the storm had not dissipated in the least. That night, the winds started again, then the rain, and the school crumbled a little more. We began our shifts of pushing water, and watching the rain move horizontally across what little we could see of the outside. I began to question how long our boards on those windows were going to hold up, we were hearing screams from floors below as their boards blew off into the night. It was chaos. The water was out so the bathrooms were overflowing. The steady diet of fruit and bread had wreaked havoc on the western digestive system. I had escorted my wife to the bathroom, we watched a women crying as she left holding hands with a hollow eyed little girl. The little girl looked at me and said, “It’s horrible, horrible” , in almost a whisper. I nodded.
The next day the rain stopped. It was day four in the shelter. The food and water had began to run out, rationing was in effect. The range of meals had dwindled to bread and fruit alone.I caught the eye of another guy across the room from us. He had helped us outside to divert the water. I went over and introduced myself and we began to talk. He was a webmaster from the mid-west and we discussed our favorite sites, I mentioned slash-dot. He asked if I had ever been on Digg.com, I replied that I had not, so he explained the concept and what it was all about. We were both beat and hadn’t showered in three days. Still, Digg made an impression on me, it was the first I had heard about it. I would log in when I got the chance, I probably needed to think about food at the moment. It was time to bust out of our shelter and find some other place to go.
The day the storm ended the looting began. Massive looting, stores comparable to Sams club, and huge grocery stores gutted. The army was in the streets but they did little to stop the looters, it was panic everywhere. We made our way out of the school and began to walk around the town, checking out what had happened. Cancun was flooded, the whole city. Every sign was down, every light post blown over. The storm had ripped through the area, everything was decimated. A guy approached me on the street with a tape recorder, he was from AP newswire, and wanted to ask me some questions. I gave him the story and probably was a little nervous at the time. I was part of a startup called Advsec Advanced Security, and was developing security implementations for IP cameras. Somehow, they got security programmer as my profession. Is there such a thing?. The part about “people getting sick”, was sensational, thats why it spread across major newspapers. I had some sort of infection on my leg, it looked like a thousand pimples, and it was spreading. Other people had told us of the seniors in the shelter that were getting even more of these opportunistic infections. Infants in the shelter were not fairing well either, no more diapers or formula. Almost everyone had diarrhea, so everyone was dehydrated. Now they were beginning to ration water, it was not good.. I asked the reporter how he got in, he explained he had come before the storm. He was covering a story to the west, and drove here in a rented 4×4. I asked if he knew a way to leave, he looked at me and shook his head. The only road leading out of Cancun was washed away, nothing could get through. No one could get out. The stores with the food, they were empty. There would be no more food. I looked at my wife and said “We are leaving, let’s go pack”. “Where will we go?”, she asked me perplexed. This was a foreign country with some pretty bad places. You could get hurt in Mexico. That’s probably why they wanted to keep all the tourists together in one place. They were not wanting us to leave their control and get hurt, bad publicity. I didn’t know where, but I knew that there were people out there in that city that were smart. I knew that those people were prepared long in advance, they probably had generators and a place to shower. I also knew that I had cash. So we packed our bags, waited for the guards to walk away, and we jumped through a hole in the concrete fence and out into the city.
We walked for a bit into the heart of the city, diverted by some good local people who let us know not to go to certain areas. If they were bad before the storm, we did not want to see them now. I was a reserved person, but that mentality will get you no where fast, so I became aggressive. I approached people on the street and began talking. Everyone was in the same mindset we were, looking for some symbol of normalcy. We sat down on the sidewalk with our feet in the flooded street looking at the map. I was trying to find a decent neighborhood, some place where I could walk down the street and hear a generator. I would simply knock, tell my plight, and offer some money. An inside to this city would help us greatly, I merely thought it, and he showed up. His name was Oscar, he walked up to us and asked if we needed someplace to go in perfect english. Yes, I said. Then asked if they had electricity, he said they did. I asked if they had running water, oh yes they had that to. Food, what about food? “Yes”, Oscar said, they had plenty of food. I sized him up, looked him in the eye, and decided to trust him. We followed Oscar into the neighborhoods of Cancun.
Oscar was a “host of the city”. His job was to bring travelers to the the business he frequented, they would give him things for free in return. He lived at the hostel he took us to the Kancun Hostel. It wasn’t pretty, but we had found the oasis. They had a kitchen, and in the kitchen was 5,000 cans or more of soup. On the roof was a cistern to collect water, and on the ground purring was the generator. They rented us an entire floor of the hostel for $5 bucks a night. It had no glass in the windows, no bed linings, no pillows. We used some old chair cushions. We met a Slovakian couple, the man was a pilot for the Russian air force, and they traveled the world. They had also brought several bottles of really good vodka. Civilization.
In the days that followed we learned that everyone was trapped just like us. The airport fuel supply had been contaminated with sea water. I had made a plea to the US consulate, but they told me there was a US senator trapped right along with us, and he couldn’t get out either, we had little hope. My brother began to do what he could to rent an aircraft with the fuel capacity to make it from Florida then back without fueling. It was going to cost $12000. It was worth it if we could find a bunch of people willing to chip in. We kept it in mind, but it was moot as there was currently no place to land. We went back and forth to the Airports, only to be turned away at the gate by the military. We found the Delta office in the square downtown, and got up at 4:30 am for days wrangling through the red-tape trying to get our tickets. Our tickets of course were on line, printed at the gate, hard to do without a computer. Lucky for us some phones were working, the Mexican government was smart enough to run a lot of their phone lines underground. We skipped across the city finding those phones, and making arrangements with our family in the states to solve these bureaucratic problems. After cementing the paperwork, we would go and stand in line, hopping we could leave.
In the meantime, we tried to enjoy the city. We ate at outdoor stands that were running just a day after the storm. We bought groceries and other necessities, and stood in line for government supplies. We showered regularly, played card games, and learned about life in real Mexico. A couple that worked in the city met us in line waiting for food and invited us to eat with them in their home. We played UNO, they were awesome. That’s one thing I will not forget about the experience, the people of Mexico were most hospitable people, they tried to help us at every avenue. At night the city would go dark, and the army would patrol with huge spotlights shinning the on the roofs of the buildings. I noticed that people were placing broken glass into fresh concrete on their sills to prevent burglars from climbing on their roof and doing god only knows what in the cover of darkness. The center of our hostel was an open area, we had a huge metal door that was locked at night. I slept with one eye open and a board I had found in the street..
We went back to our shelter to check on our friends there after a few days. We were clean, and well fed, they were not. They looked pretty bad, and still had no word on anything about their situation. We felt bad telling them about our new digs, but at the same time you wanted to tell somebody about how lucky you were. It sucked. We left after a family kept asking us to take them with us. I won’t forget how that felt anytime soon. Thinking about how important your water is for 15 minutes twice a day, rushing from whatever you were doing to get that shower. Then thinking about somebody else taking some of what is yours, your food and shelter, then guarding it. I still feel pretty rotten about it to this day. The people in the shelter did have some good news, they left before us. They came and loaded them all into a bus, drove them to the airport, and off they went. I am glad they did, they went through enough. I learned much more then I could ever convey in a short essay, too many strange experiences. I can tell you that if you are involved in a situation like this, take control of your own destiny, nobody gives a crap about you when the world is in chaos. 8 days in a shelter is not good.
A year later and I write my story about where and when I was when I first learned of Digg.com, from a webmaster somewhere in middle America, in a shelter in Cancun Mexico. If you reading this now buddy, I can’t remember your name, but I remember you. Thanks for telling me about Digg, even with all I went through, I never forgot it. A year later and I post my story. It’s almost like it was meant to happen.