Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hurricane Odile- From Paradise to Armageddon in 12 hours

I'm writing from the safety of my family's home in Mexico City after fleeing Cabo on a rescue plane yesterday morning. Words will never be enough to portray what I saw and experienced in Cabo during and after Hurricane Odile, but I want to write the most detailed account so people can get a sense of what the situation was really like as of Wednesday, Sept 17- as most media outlets are filtering things likely to protect tourism in the long run, as well as not to worry friends and relatives of those in Cabo during the storm. The easiest way to do this is as a "timeline"...

Sunday morning (Sept 14)- Woke up and went to the grocery store as we all had word that the hurricane was coming, but Mega (the grocer) wasn't packed nor frantic, so nothing seemed too worrisome. I bought two jugs of water, and some coconut water as I had plenty of rice, energy bars, and snacks to hold me down a few days (even weeks- thanks Powerbar!!) if the electricity went out. I returned home and just chilled the remainder of the day as all my training for Cozumel 70.3 had pretty much wrapped up and I was enjoying this OFF day and looking forward to a cozy but interesting night in, and my upcoming Wednesday flight to Cozumel for the race!

Sunday afternoon- I got messages from friends saying to duct tape all glass doors and windows and fill bathtubs (don't have one) with water in case it needed to be used to wash dishes or other things after the storm. Having never experienced a hurricane before I started thinking this was kind of crazy but it did raise my level of concern so I had my neighbor help me tape my windows. I also put up my bike box and some dining room chairs against my glass balcony doors to protect them further.

Sunday evening- the skies and the ocean were beginning to look quite eerie and the wind was starting to howl. I continued using internet and face timing with family and friends until about 8pm when lights would flicker and eventually the wifi went out. At that point, as the wind was making very scary loud noises, and the doors and windows were rattling I had the impulse to change out of my pijamas into workout clothes and tennis shoes in case...well in case I didn't even know- it just felt like what I should do. Also, in a rather amusing but what felt like necessary way, I packed a backpack with some essentials- wallet, jeans, a jacket, power bars, emergen-c packets, car keys.

9PM approx- a glass balcony door from my bedroom (I have a studio so it's continuous but the bedroom is a bit separated by two steps and an archway)- blew out and I heard some glass splatter across. Adrenaline rushed through me, I grabbed my backpack, literally put on my bike helmet and sunglasses to protect me from flying-anything, and rushed to my bathroom and shut both doors (one leads to my tiny hallway the other to the bedroom). I still had phone signal and called my mom scared out of my mind. At this point I had only a flashlight and didn't know how long the batteries would last so I spent various minutes in the dark with doors rattling and the wind making atrocious noises and things breaking everywhere outside of the bathroom. Eventually the ceiling began to raise (where the vent is), and shake badly, my balcony doors had broken too and if the bathroom doors gave I was completely exposed in the 4th floor to the 125mph winds and anything flying around. **Note: I later learned that it actually helped when things broke because it leveled out the pressure in the apartment. If I could do it again I'd have left the entire balcony doors open to the screen only and maybe nothing would've broken- happened to many people I later spoke too (not even a coffee cup had moved because they opened windows on purpose!).

Early on I had to open the bathroom and retrieve my passport and the jug of water I had forgotten as water had already stopped running so in that hot bathroom I couldn't be without water till morning. It was the scariest few minutes of my life trying to retrieve those two things.

This continued for about 2.5 hours. At roughly 11PM the eye came over us and I heard my neighbor yell for me. I thought their place was in better condition but I was wrong! Their front door had blown out as well as their glass pane/windows in their bedroom and their bathroom ceiling. So they took cover with me (he and his gf and their two dogs) in my tiny bathroom where we remained until about 7am. We'd occasionally sneak out to pee in the dark as the winds calmed down for periods at a time.

7am-10am Monday Sept 15- We walked out to a ghost town- it looked apocalyptic. All of the beautiful palm trees were skimmed, the skies were a gray I'd never seen before, there was some flooding, the pools and the ocean were a disgusting brown, the palapas were all collapsed. Only about 6-8 people were renting in the Casa del Mar Apartments, and the resorts which it belongs to- Zoetry and Las Ventanas had been evacuated. I immediately shifted to robotic mode- it was instinctual- and started to clean up and gather my things. My apartment was clearly uninhabitable and at that point I just had to figure out where to sleep that night and how to get my things out of the apartment asap. I ran into one property management guy and he was walking around with a notepad assessing the damage to report it to the office at a later time in weeks I assume. I told him I was evacuating and made sure they were going to take care of the damages with the owner from then on. A couple that was renting an apartment two floors down for a few days had been the smart ones that opened their balcony and so other than flooding their place was not damaged. They offered me a bed or couch if I needed for that night and also helped me with some clean up (limited to sweeping some glass and using all towels to limit the flooding). They had little water or food to hold them through the next few days and I am mortified thinking they're still there as their flight was for the next day (Tuesday) but they had no rental car, there were no taxis functioning and like I said the whole complex was empty. So once I left and it was dangerous and also wasted gas to go back once more, I don't know how they fared.

10am- I drove down to Cabo to my great aunt's house to check on her and see if I could move in with them for now. I didn't take that couple's offer cuz I had to get all my luggage out and it was survival time so being around those that had food, water, and other resources, and some plans was imperative. The roads were okay but you had to meander through telephone poles that were splayed across the highway, rocks, fallen signs, often drive on the wrong lane, etc. My great aunt and her husband were find and their community had some neighbors that had really taken Odile seriously and stocked up well. They had found a pipe that was providing water thanks to gravity and so after a long day of packing my things and bringing over 4 luggages with all my clothes and stuff, I was able to shower with buckets. It was the best shower of my life.

4pm-8pm I returned to my old apartment to grab my bike box, wheels, helmets, bike trainer and kept that in my trunk with the plan to store it at another friend's house that was very secure, in their garage. My great aunt's neighbors cooked some fish on the grill, they even had wine and she made a salad- we were using all the food that was going to spoil and actually had a lovely dinner enjoying the fact that we were alive and safe for now. It was a much better Monday than the majority of the people. I also had 3 bars of phone service on their rooftop so I called my mom and dad and brother and a couple other people.

Monday night- candles lit, I said goodnight to my family and went to sleep- shocked.

Tuesday morning Sept 16- Woke up actually thinking I was still in paradise in my apartment- then it hit me. I rushed up to the roof to try and call my family again but service was now completely gone. I went with another guy from that complex to try and get signal on one of the highway ramps in town but we quickly realized it was gone everywhere. I asked him to take me to Brent's house - my friend that I train with at Diamante all the time and whose house I wanted to store my bike and prob other luggage with for the long term. He and his wife and baby (4mths old) and his mother in law were about to drive out to Diamante as that exclusive property had large generators and they could care for the baby better and eat. I asked if I could follow them in my car and I was very very fortunate to spend the whole day in Diamante.

The contrast between the people of San Lucas we saw on the drive over lining for a bit of gas in barrels, and packed outside all the grocery stores and other shops looting and fighting over everything, to a buffet, and cold drinks, and even some people playing on the putting green in Diamante was heart wrenching. People in all of the hotels/tourist developments were not being told of the chaos in town both in San Lucas and San Jose so as not to set them in panic. The dark reality was hard to keep to myself but I was also shamefully enjoying an almost normal day in Diamante as people were walking and standing in the heat for hours just to get basics for their family.

A friend that's a pro golfer at Diamante let me store my bike, wheels, trainer, pump, helmet and shoes in the clubhouse and I couldn't be more grateful. It is by far the most secure place in Cabo due to it's distance from town and incredible security.

Tuesday 3pm approx - we left Diamante through back roads to avoid the chaos in town but still ended up seeing the disaster in San Lucas where the Walmart Plaza, Costco, etc are all located along Hwy 1. Cars were parked all along the mudded highway and people were walking out with everything- abusing their chance to get free food and water and stealing electronics and anything they could get their hands on. Police, even military squads couldn't and didn't do much of anything. I was really worried driving as a single young girl, in a nice car, through this free for all mayhem. We sped quickly back to Cabo del Sol (residential grounds and also resort grounds of the Sheraton and Fiesta Americana).

There I rushed to another friend's house, Paco- he's from Mexico and we were working together with TriCabo for all the exciting races and events. I learned his wife and kids had fled on a plane that morning- which didn't surprise me but I was beating myself for not having come to him sooner. Luckily, for me, he was still there with his two housekeepers. I found one and she waked with me to the Sheraton where he was meeting with the head guy of the resort and he explained he stayed to help with the situation at hand; also to secure his house. The Sheraton had a generator going and the people were enjoying 3 buffet meals a day and enough water/drinks. Though they weren't very comfortable sleeping in a big convention room with nothing but a couple fans.

All these tourists had their names written down by hotel staff and told there were no commercial flights for a few days, and eventually they would get bussed over and put on planes. I knew there were already at least federal planes coming in and even though the airport was destroyed it seemed stupid to not try and at least see what was really going on for myself the next day- especially with a car of my own and enough gas for 2-3 trips- another advantage I had over tourists as they didn't have rentals and again, no taxis were available. They were completely reliant on what hotel staff told them.

5pm Paco offered me to stay with him at one of his villas- the other had been absolutely obliterated- front door blown out, plasma tv from the living room blown out, marble slabs broken in half, ceilings ripped. My great aunt has two cats and I'm deathly allergic, and as I said it was survival mode and Paco frankly lived in a much more secure community and is very well connected so he was my best shot and making it through the next week if need be or at least getting to the airport soon. I took him up on the offer and went to my great aunt's to collect my 4 suitcases full of clothes, shoes, jewelry, purses, everything.

6-6:30pm they had a tiny generator that was going to pump water for a half hour. I showered with a bucket from the little water that came through the bath. Filled my car with my stuff and drove to Paco's. A neighbor of his in another villa had experience with hurricanes having lived in Cancun- he's the manager of Esperanza a luxury resort in San Lucas, and he was the only one that did a phenomenal job of forcing his guests on buses to San Diego Sunday morning. Some resisted not understanding the state of emergency but his initiative won them their safety. His wife had made soup from pots on a grill, and we had another great dinner, and then it was off to bed.

It was also a ghost town there- only a few people in the villas and it looked out of a horror movie. I asked Paco to sleep in the same room as I, and frankly we were both scared during the night. I still tried to open the faucet to brush my teeth only to be reminded I had to use the water bottles. We grabbed buckets of pool water to flush the toilet- just surreal stuff. You learn to appreciate basic necessities.

We were told 8pm no one was allowed out of Cabo del Sol as cars would be parked outside to prevent people from coming in along with armed security.

Wednesday morning Sept 17- 6am went with flashlight to the underground parking to get my car and move some belongings around in suitcases to make sure of what I was going take on the plane. Paco's driver had agreed to meet me at 8am to take me to the airport to try and see if I could get on a plane. If not, at least we would see what the situation was. Again, I feel incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed a breakfast at the Sheraton buffet- limited- but still, coffee, eggs, has browns, and fruit. I asked a staff member if the guests were being taken to the airport at any point that day and he said "no, there are no commercial flights today, we'll just have a meeting at 9am to tell people how things will work to evacuate". I grinned in disbelief- what BS.

As we were driving to the airport at 8:30 am 50+ cars were lined in one gas station waiting to get rationed gas. The radio was repeating that it was obsolete to make the trek to the airport because there were no commercial flights today. OMG. BS!! I was looking at planes in the sky on the toll road drive over!

We get to the airport and there was a line of 300 people maybe? I told the driver to take me to the front, got out of the car, and cut my way to the very front of the line. No apologies whatsoever. Once I knew there were actual flights leaving, I was going to be on one of those flights no matter what it took. I only had a small suitcase and a backpack with me. Fortunately I spotted two families I knew and grabbed the hands of the children and when they opened the actual way over to the military trucks and walkway to the runway (the airport was in shambles, you got on at the runway), I yelled "women and children" and we found our way to the very front group. We got on one of the military trucks and got off at the point where it was a line for Mazatlan and a line for Guadalajara. They were going to make 3 trips to these mainland airports and from there people could connect to their homes internationally or in Mexico. I got on the Guadalajara plane, and from there to Mexico City where I finally landed at 4:30pm.

Looking forward....

I am still in disbelief- I loved Cabo and cannot believe it went from paradise to now being enforced by Marshall Law and looking like a bomb exploded.

I pray for those still there without running water and power. In that heat, sickness/infections are almost inevitable and the frustration of unshowered hungry thirsty people leads to incredible danger.

Some friends and even my great aunt and her husband, understandably wanted/had to stay. They own property there, they have pets, family, etc. I was in a sense a tourist renting a furnished place and only with 4months of ties to Cabo. It won my heart over immediately but I could leave and at my age with no pets, children, or in a relationship I can go anywhere.

The only thing I feel I can do to help Cabo is to provide information and pictures and pressure others to donate for reconstruction and to aid those stuck in Baja Sur.

I know it will be rebuilt and it is a place so dear to nationals, and internationals, that they want to see it thrive in all its beauty again.

At this point I will be in Mexico City for a few days before going to Texas to my mom and stepdad's a few weeks- need to see them, my brother, my dog, and have a sense of normalcy for a while. Also, I have little clothes and stuff with me so need to be with them and regroup.

I'm open to finding a job in Mexico City in the marketing/Ad industry that I love, but I am slo heavily considering a job abroad - not going to spill the beans now but I had an incredible phone call yesterday with an opportunity to live/work in a country I've been dying to visit since I can remember.

The point is, things, even horrible things, happen to all of us and we grow and learn from all of the experiences. You have to see it as a blessing even in disguise and make the most of it. If I learned one thing it's that the only things that matter are safety, health, and family. I would not have even flinched at just leaving with the clothes on my back and my passport and phone.