Blown Away – Weighing up the options

We realised the jinx of the Caribbean GIS conferences had hit again.  The first had been disrupted by 9/11, the Barbados and Bahamas conferences by hurricanes in the region stopping delegates attending and this one was now due to be directly hit by a hurricane on its third day.  Delegates had already not bothered to travel to Cayman, more were arranging an early exit.

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Nice Room

My colleague, Edsel and I were sharing a room.  He had arrived in only on the Sunday night, and by Tuesday he was twitchy about getting out again.  A lot of the US delegates had already gone home and others were looking in to options.  It was a good job we had taken a day to hire a car and head around the island to sightsee, taking in the Turtle Farm then driving way out to the windswept east of the island, dropping in on the botanic gardens and seeing the blue iguanas, and wrapping around the lagoon for a burger lunch at Rum Point.  We looked out over the lagoon and saw several boats playing around on the sandbank known as “Sting Ray City”.  More of that another time.

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I looked at a bunch of scenarios.  First the hurricane was not forecast to be that strong – a category 2 at worst.  But Cayman had experienced the full force of hurricane Ivan the year before and was not prepared to take any chances.  Tourists in particular were being evacuated as fast as possible.  At some times planes from Cayman Airways were departing for Miami every hour.  I felt it would be easier to ride the storm out in the hotel.

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No sign of the storm yet

Second, my options for leaving did not put me in a good position.  BA had given up flying into Cayman for a few days – there were only about 3 flights a week anyway, and by the time the storm had gone through and the airport was reopened I would be OK to take my scheduled flight back home.  Looking at the Miami option I would still not be able to get a flight home till after the time the airport in Cayman was bound to reopen.

Third, I had a sneaking wish to go through a hurricane.  When in Dominica, a forecast hurricane was downgraded to tropical storm as it reached landfall.  In two years in BVI I had only experienced the tropical depressions and all their rain but they had only turned into nasty hurricanes when they reached the USA.  So I was still to see the full effect.

Blown Away – Curse of the Conference

I headed off on a Saturday, taking the BA flight via Bahamas (where the previous conference had been).  I got from the airport to the Ritz Carlton – quite the most stupendous hotel the conference had been in so far – on the famous Seven Mile Beach in west Grand Cayman.  The Chief Executive of URISA, a most wonderful and generous lady called Wendy Nelson, lived in Ann Arbor in Michigan  – where summer occurred for three days in August and most of the rest of the year was frost, snow and ice.  She travelled the lower 48 year on year and although she loved her job, the two year conference in the Caribbean was her highlight and she ensured she took time off when she travelled down to relax after all her hard work.  So she never liked to have any budget hotels for URISA; it was a resort or nothing.  But even by Caribbean standards the Ritz Carlton was special.  OK most of the delegates like me were in the “garden” suites – that meant facing the swamp on the inside of the estate, but we had access over the road bridge to the ocean side, its pools and gardens and the stretch of white sandy beaches.  And the Caribbean Sea of course, which was as hot as it ever gets.  To lie one of the loungers and be handed a flannel that has just come from the freezer was completely a flagrant waste of energy, a total luxury, a dreadful  excess and totally lovely to feel that cold against your hot sweaty cheeks.

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Hot and Steamy at the Ritz Carlton

I met Wendy and her divine colleague, Pat, on the beach that first day and sat having a nice easy catch up with a couple of cocktails.  Indeed the first day of the conference went well.  But people were looking at the weather reports.  Hurricane Gustav was developing out in the eastern Caribbean Sea and the track was heading straight for us.  That year the conditions were ripe for strong storm development.  Just putting a toe in the water at seven mile beach was enough to tell you how much energy was stored up in that sea.