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.
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.
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.
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.
I was back in Haiti only a couple of months later. Jean Luc had secured us rooms at the Kinam Hotel in the heart of Petionville at one side of the main town square. Again I could not reach there in one day from UK so had to overnight this time at Orly Airport in Paris. Once more I got the “wood between the world’s” feel of a clean functioning Hilton hotel in the airport grounds with all the buffet, housekeeping and well stocked bars that any European traveller expects. My route was even more complicated this time as it involved another stop off – in Guadeloupe. For all my travelling up and down the Caribbean Islands over the previous 15 years, I hopped over all the French territories except St Martin. So although I only had a few hours to kill in the airport it was worth it just to say I had been.
We were now in mid August and the hurricane season had got close to its peak. As I had arrived in Orly from London City the night before an Air France official had been waiting for me at the baggage reclaim. I expected her news – the flight to Guadeloupe would leave one hour earlier in the morning. A large storm had brewed in the Atlantic was heading straight to Guadeloupe. It would be named Hurricane Isaac before it reached. I was OK about the arrangements at Orly – my hotel was a five minute drive from the terminal and I ensured I got back to the terminal early. What concerned me more was that I was due to stay in Guadeloupe for five hours before heading onwards to Port Au Prince. Would the storm have reached before I was able to take off?
Flights from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Martin, or to indeed any of France’s overseas territories, are counted as internal. That means you have the odd sensation of flying for 8 hours without having to go through all the immigration and customs rigmarole. As a transit passenger in Guadeloupe, I simply walked up a gangway from the plane, peeled off from the holidaymakers and returnees who went to grab their bags, and within a few moments was sitting in the roomy departure lounge.
There was not a lot to do but read my book and watch the airport activity. A couple of other flights left. I looked out over the runway. It was already raining heavily and frequently; the tarmac and concrete looked soggy and sad. There was some bustle over by the hangers – doors being secured, windows boarded up. As I looked up in the sky the clouds were tightly packed against each other and moving briskly in one direction. But the wind speed was not too much yet. I looked at the departures board; my flight to Port Au Prince was the last live flight showing – the others were all cancelled. It was a Saturday – a popular day for the large charter flights to come in with holiday makers. As well as another Air France flight, a CONDOR jumbo jet came in, discharged its load and sucked the departure lounge almost empty before scurrying back to France ahead of the storm.