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.
I was not born before the “What were you doing when Kennedy died” day so have no memories of that. I was crystal clear on my memory for 9/11. I had been working with the St Vincent and Virgin Islands Governments on coastal resources for a year or two. I had secured funding to attend a conference in Jamaica and was going to present a paper with the BVI government on the work. We did the paper, I organised my travel. The BVI government then stopped the travel of my counterpart and I was left to present the paper myself.
The Conference was the first Urban and Regional Information Systems Association or URISA conference in the region. Basically they were the professional organisation for GIS people in the USA. I knew some of the delegates from working in Barbados, my old friend Vijay whom I once trained in NRI was there from Guyana, along with a bunch of people from the US, Canada and throughout the islands plus a few Europeans and the odd South American.
The location was the Wyndham Rose Hall hotel just east of Montego Bay. Heading from the airport along the coastal highway it was like being in the US itself – and apart from the Rose Hall Plantation House on the hill above the conference centre, there was a smattering of resort hotels along the run.
The first couple of days of the conference went according to plan. We had the boss of the largest GIS software company giving the plenary session, we’d had a few good events and the silly things conferences did like have luncheon meetings and meet and greet sessions had gone off without too much embarrassment.
I’d been in Barbados a month or two beforehand attending a meeting for some climate change work and knew the Bajian who convened the meeting, and the two Canadian consultants who had designed the training programme. All three were at the conference and this Tuesday morning I found myself with one of the Canadians and we had a great hour or so over the melon and frazzled bacon putting the world to rights about what GIS could do for life in general.
I returned to my room in a good mood. The conference was going well; I was telling everyone how I was to become West Indian in the next couple of months as I took up my new posting in BVI, and I went into my room to run through my presentation for the afternoon session. Absent mindedly I turned on the TV and settled at my laptop.