Blown Away – Acting Suspiciously At Atlanta

And then it was more than a bit bumpy as the plane shuddered into the cross winds but as soon as we were aloft the pilot almost immediately turned the aircraft into the wind, we bounced against the clouds for a couple of minutes but then … it was an ordinary flight.  About to and a half hours flying over Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico before coming down to land at the hubbub of Atlanta’s enormous airport.  I always like coming into the big American airports where you can glance around and see another plane landing and maybe a couple taking off all at different angles.  But Atlanta is a nightmare to get around ; it does not matter which terminal block you come into you are all funnelled down to one huge immigration centre.  I had a couple of hours before the overnight to London, but still wanted to get through all the airport hassle, and wanted to ensure when I got to the BA check in desk that I was actually booked on this flight back home that night.  That was OK but this strange trip (four days in Cayman islands in total) had one final fling at me.  Because I was a late booking  I was seen as a problem for the Department of Homeland Security.  Apparently I was profiled along with terrorists who make late arrangements to try and hide their paper (or these days e-paper) trail.  A sticker was put on my boarding pass which in theory meant I was to be taken aside at the airport security gates for a fuller search.  But the queues of travellers at the security check were long and the officials wanted to process us quickly, so despite me flashing the boarding pass with the special sticker at them they waived me through.  I went and sat down at the gate way down the end of the terminal; already a crowd had formed and boarding was due to start in a few moments.  But I was then called to the desk; apparently Homeland Security had picked up that I had not been properly checked.  I asked if I needed to go all the way back to the gate (a long way in Atlanta), but they said no; a couple of staff were coming down and I would be taken to a “quiet area” to be discreetly searched.

Imagine the reaction of the other passengers when they saw me being escorted to one side of the gate by two enormous guys in full dark blue body armour; their guns slung round their waists.  The quiet area turned out to be at the top of the ramp to the plane.  Yes it was quiet when we arrived but as they brusquely (but not unkindly) dealt with me, boarding started and a steady trail of passengers filed by me and saw my hands against the wall being frisked, my shoes off, then hands on head, pockets emptied, one leg up, then the other.

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Out of danger?  We land at Atlanta

Of course nothing was found and after all the curt statements by the staff while they frisked one of the guys said “Have a nice flight, sir” and I was allowed to join the queue and board.  I did get a few nervous looks from the people seated around me that night as we headed north over the eastern seaboard and back over the Atlantic to London.

Blown Away – The last one to leave

The traffic was less than usual for Cayman’s capital, Georgetown, which was a relief.  Our route was only a few kilometres as the airport was just behind the main urban area.  I paid the taxi driver, hauled my case out of the trunk, and headed to the check in desks.  As I almost ran inside I noticed that a couple of workmen were boarding up the large panes of glass next to me.  There was no queue at check in, so I placed the suitcase on the scales and was checked in easily – no seat preference available; I was to have the last empty seat on the plane.  As I stuffed my passport and boarding pass into my shirt pocket, I noticed the check in staff close the check in, shut down the computers, turn off the lights and make their way ready to go home.

Passport Control and Security at Cayman was equally as quick and once through I noted again that the machines were being shut down behind me and the staff packing up.  The airport behind me was as quiet as anything, the small departure lounge in front of me jam packed with people.  I found a couple of conference delegates; all from the Deep South of USA which is why they were happy to head to Atlanta.  We chatted; I bought some rum, and we boarded the plane.  I was right at the back so not only was I the last person to check in at the airport, and the last through security, but almost the last to go up the steps and get into the plane.  Every other plane had been cleared from the apron, the small ones may have been stashed away in some hangar, but even Cayman Airways had parked their planes in Miami, not at home.  This was literally the last plane out before the hurricane struck.

I could just see out of my window across my fellow traveller, and saw more boards being put up on the glass of the departure lounge.  I saw some palm trees next to me bending about 45 degrees in the wind, the clouds above were a lot thicker than they had been.

As the stewards prepared the cabin, the captain chatted to us in his southern drawl and easy going language, warning us that the initial ascent might be “just a little bit bumpy”.  We taxied to the end of the runway and I caught a last glimpse of the wind flapping at the trees.

Blown Away – One sensible route

There were one or two others, already booked out on the handful of flights left to leave that morning.  As I was heading back I wanted to speak to reception.  They were still being quite forceful about getting rid of me – they did not want the responsibility of looking after me. The desk to assist with flight changes was still functioning and I talked to this guy for a while.  I would have been happy to go as long as I could carry on immediately.  Trouble was the BA option from Cayman would not leave at the earliest for four more days anyway.  If I took any of the other planes leaving, I could still end up being stranded in the wrong place for days on end waiting for a seat back to the UK.  To add to the complication,  I was due back on another job in Mauritius in less than a week’s time.

In the end there was a chance – Delta were flying out in the next couple of hours with a route that  would get me to Atlanta with a couple of hours to make the connection to the BA flight.  But he could only help me to book the Delta flight.  I had to go online and look at changing the BA flight.  If there was a problem on either leg, I would end up with an expensive mistake.  As it was I had to shell out over 400 pounds to get on the Delta flight, on top of what had already been quite an expensive flight to Cayman.  But it would get me home.  The deal was done; but I had to get to the airport immediately as they were already checking people in.  I asked the hotel to prepare my bill then ran to my room, piled my belongings in the case and rushed back.  While I was paying off the bill, someone was grabbing me a taxi, and then I was away.

Blown Away – An anxious night

A couple of groups were left in the hotel from the conference.  One were the Jamaicans.  The hurricane was heading towards their shores already and no flights were going into Kingston or Montego Bay.  The others were those whose connections were not easy.  These included a couple of good friends and colleagues, Craig Batstone and Renee Babb from Barbados.  On their last night in town they joined me at a meal further along the strip and we watched the sky carefully.  I’d heard about the way that clouds start to elongate as the storm approaches and all start to move in a very regular direction.  You know how clouds at different levels can often be at different speeds and heading sometimes in vastly different directions – here they were striped across the sky all heading south westwards, and at a fair speed.  Even down on the ground now, you could feel the hot wind, and dust was starting to swirl up in courtyards and from the beach and building site sand all around us.

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Time for a drink with Renee

I went to bed that night resolved to sit the storm out.  A letter had been put through by the staff saying that I could stay in the hotel, but the hotel would not be insured if anything happened to me.  The main dining rooms had been closed and we were to take a breakfast in one of the conference rooms.  It was sensible idea; it had no windows and was in the centre of the complex, so if you were going to have a congregation of people, it was likely to be the safest location.

There was not much of a congregation that morning.  There were the Jamaicans who had had a worrying night contacting their friends and relatives back home where the storm had already hit.  It had not been hurricane force, but the rain had flooded many of the rivers, the valleys and the coastal areas.  Basically where most people lived.

Blown Away – A novel garage

One car was too valuable to be left to chance.  I never found out who the owner one and why it was connected to the hotel, but it was a huge Rolls Royce in pristine condition, every piece of paintwork and chrome gleaming in the sunlight.  At present it was parked under the coconut trees outside in the car park.  A team of twenty people were standing in the lobby and were working out two things.  First how to prepare the lobby to have the Rolls Royce inside, second how to negotiate this huge car through the double doors to take up its exclusive garage location.

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The Rolls awaits its space

The lobby was certainly a big enough space, but in the centre was a large round table.  It happened to be made of solid marble, but fortunately could be split into the base and the top.  It took seven men to lift the base and turn it onto its side and roll it gently till it rested against a wall.  They were so ginger with it; I think both the table and the wall paint were seen as very valuable too.  Then the base which was even more problematic ; being smaller but just as heavy, it took a lot of shuffling for these guys to get it across the floor – and now the duty manager was worried about what damage could be done to the floor.  Once in the corner, they had to gently lever the table top back into the horizontal position and place (not slide) it back onto the base.  There was a lot of relief when stage one of the operation was complete.

Now for the even more tricky part – the room could take the vehicle, but could they get it through the doors.  I do not remember seeing anyone measuring the vehicle or the doors; but I had arrived some way into the whole process.

I know this it is not a regular operation to drive a Rolls Royce into a hotel lobby, but I think the driver chosen was either not very skilled, or the sheer responsibility of not putting a mark on the car made her a nervous driver.  I think part of the problem was that she had obviously been given this responsibility to get the car under cover, and no way would she contemplate passing it on to other people around given the chance that it could seriously screw up.

As ever in such a situation there were about 20 backseat drivers who caused her even more angst.  She wound down the windows and could hear about ten people shouting advice about how to line up.  She took about three attempts in the open air to get the car aligned perpendicular with the door and could stand a decent chance of getting through the gap without either jamming or scraping a panel.  Even now she was tempted to turn the steering wheel which took her off line again , and she had to reverse and start again.  At one point someone pointed out to her that it would be a good idea if she brought the wing mirrors in to give herself a few more centimetres’ grace.

Eventually it took a central guide standing like ground staff at an airport, and two other guys either side monitoring the potential conflict of Rolls and hotel.  Inch by inch this vast beautiful beast, headlights full on; eased into the lobby.  Even with the wing mirrors in there was barely light between car and door.

There was a lot of congratulations, and the paparazzi, including myself, got their shots of this one off occasion.

I often wonder how easy the reverse operation was after the storm.

Blown Away – Preparing for the storm

I wandered around the hotel doing some work,  chatting to people, and wandering the grounds seeing the preparations for the storm.  Orange sandbags were appearing at many entrances.  On the smaller doors they were piled either side about five high.  For the large doors they were stacked high on palettes.  Next to the main lobby a couple of containers had appeared, and several large generators had been placed around the compound.  Staff were removing the awnings round the pool, stacking away chairs and umbrellas, boarding up the kiosks for towels and putting huge plywood boards across the pool bar; the contents already having been removed.  A guy with a long pole was going round harvesting the coconuts from the palm trees.  I’d never thought of that as a hurricane hazard but better to do it before the storm than to have these huge bombs let loose during the wind.  The sun loungers were being stacked on to a trailer and tractored off.  The beach was almost deserted of people.  I walked along the sand then back along the main road and saw similar activities going on not only at the other resorts, but also at all the strip malls and business and the few condominiums in the area.

When I returned to the hotel lobby a most curious operation was going on.  The hotel had a huge car park underground, and many of the vehicles were being taken out of here and left in a car lot.  This might have seemed counterintuitive but I think they were more concerned for the flooding than the damage by wind and projectiles.

Blown Away – Curtailed Proceedings

The hotel had a different view and were not keen on having onlookers.  They wanted as much as possible to close the hotel down.  They set up a desk near reception to help people rebook their flights, they slipped messages under your door a few times every day giving you advice on what to do and saying they had no obligation for your safety if you chose to stay at the hotel.  I tried to ignore these as the best option to me seemed to sit tight, and if I was stranded in Cayman after the hurricane, maybe I could help out with any relief effort.

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The Conference gets under way

It was a shame the conference had to be curtailed.  The local organising committee had put a huge amount of effort to showcase Cayman and provide a long list of social events, including a trip on a boat and dinner in a historic location on the island.  A massive fireworks display had to be cancelled – we did manage to have one social event which was moved into the hotel grounds.  Even this was a bit of a chance taken – the wind was already a bit fresh.

I was due to moderate one of the conference sessions.  More or less the only people there in this large room were the ones delivering talks; including myself who was subbing for my friend Vijay who had decided not to travel from Guyana in case he got stranded in Miami for days on end.

The conference was emptying, as were all the hotels, and looking out over the beach you could watch the Cayman Airways planes working overtime shuttling back and forth between Grand Cayman and Miami.  Every time I met a reception staff I was gently asked whether I had arranged my own evacuation.