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.
Last passengers loading
The palm trees starting to sway
The now boarded up terminal
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sandbags at the ready
Containers of food, generators set up
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.