Storm WatchStorm Watch

Hurricane Gallery

"At 7 a.m., the windows and door
of Room 49 explode"

Times photo by RICARDO FERRO

The captain of this Cuban fishing ship put down two anchor chains and said they held until the winds reached 125 mph. The ship landed against the Villa de Pescadore hotel in Cancun.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published Sept. 18, 1988

CANCUN, Mexico -- The huge old tree in front of the Hotel Bonampak is the first to go, falling with a muffled boom just after midnight Tuesday.

An hour later, the lights flicker on and off, then die for good.

At 2 a.m., a 55-gallon tank on the roof sails away, taking with it the last drops of fresh water.

At 7 a.m., the windows and door of Room 49 explode, a 175-mile-an-hour wind hurling glass into the hall like shrapnel.

Covering Hurricane Gilbert as it hit Mexico's Caribbean coast sounded like a fine idea back in sunny St. Petersburg. It seems sheer stupidity as photographer Ricardo Ferro and I hunker down in a roach-ridden hotel for what undoubtedly will be the longest 24 hours of our lives.

We barely beat Gilbert into Cancun, arriving on a Mexicana Airlines flight from Tampa late Tuesday afternoon. Most of the passengers are continuing on to Mexico City; the only ones disembarking are us, a California woman who hadn't heard a word about Gilbert and two Pasco County men on a long-planned trip to photograph the Yucatan Peninsula's underwater caves. But the airport is jammed -- not with people fleeing, but with vacationers pouring in from Los Angeles and Puerto Vallarta.

It is hard to believe that any responsible tour operator would deposit people in the midst of a hurricane, but apparently that's the case.

"They didn't tell us a THING," a middle-aged visitor says, clutching my arm and asking what she and her friend should do. I advise her to forget her beachfront hotel and find someplace downtown.

Just six weeks before, I too had vacationed in Cancun, and thought at the time it would a horrible place to be caught in a hurricane.

Stuck on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, hundreds of miles from Mexico's major population centers, Cancun can be reached, for all practical purposes, only by air. Most of its big tourist hotels sit on a narrow strip of land bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and a huge lagoon on the other. If anything, it seems even more vulnerable than Pinellas County's heavily developed barrier islands.

As the airport van crosses a bridge near Club Med we catch a sobering sight - the Gulf's aquamarine waters whipped into waves as high as a two-story building. It will be hours before Gilbert makes landfall, and the seas already look as if they could carry the place away.

Three wide-eyed Los Angeles teachers get out at a beachfront resort but are immediately herded onto a bus bound for one of the downtown hotels. Clearly, people are beginning to get worried, but there is no sign of an organized evacuation. No police directing traffic. No public works crews setting up barricades. No Red Cross trucks bringing in emergency supplies. Hundreds of laborers mill about hotel construction sites waiting -- as we later learn -- for rides that never materialize.

In some cases their employers have simply left them to ride out the storm as best they can.

The first two downtown hotels we try are already full. We check into the Bonampak but immediately leave for the offices of Las Novedades, Cancun's newspaper, from which we plan to dictate a story and send a photograph back to St. Petersburg. Theoretically, Ric can transmit photos from anywhere in the world via telephone, but, alas, his transmitting equipment and the Las Novedades' phone system seem incompatible. He fiddles around with various wires, cursing softly, while I talk to our photo editor Steve Small back in St. Petersburg.

I wish I hadn't. Although it is unbearably hot and humid, I feel a chill as Steve tells me the hurricane is now the worst storm of the century. The pressure at its eye is a full eight millibars lower than that recorded in the devastating hurricane of 1935. I don't feel any better when the telephone -- our only link with the outside world -- suddenly goes dead as I am dictating my story.

A Las Novedades staffer drives us to the Bonampak, where the clerk hands us a bottle of purified water and two skimpy towels. There is no elevator so we lug our gear up the broad staircase, which literally seems a stairway to heaven. It leads to a fifth floor still under construction, and we can see the clouds scuttling by overhead. Already the stairs are slick with rain, and I wonder aloud if we want to stay here. But Ric points to the thick, half completed concrete roof with steel rods jutting out.

"This place is built like a fortress," he says.

We have two rooms, but I inform Ric I have no intention of going through this storm alone. We head for his room and I claim the bed farthest from the big picture window. The place, to but it bluntly, is a dump. There are no switchplate covers, and the cord from the air conditioner hangs precariously close to a pool of water forming at the base of the leaky rusted water pipe in the corner.

It is now after 9 p.m. local time (11 p.m. Tampa Bay time) and neither of us has had anything to eat or drink for hours. The hotel has no restaurant and the little snack counter in the lobby is locked up.

Ric disappears and returns half an hour later with a plastic grocery bag.

"Everything is closed and the things that are open, the shelves are bare," he says. "This was all I could find." Our hurricane rations consist of two not-quite-fresh chicken and avocado sandwiches, two Cokes, three bottles of carbonated water, a jar of barbecue flavored peanuts, two packs of crackers, two packs of cookies and a little can of what seems to be the Mexican version of Spam.

Times photo by

A child, sits inside an overturned table near Cancun, Mexico.

There's a knock on the door and we meet our neighbor, a tall woman named Charlotte Whitcomb. A native of St. Petersburg, of all places, she lives at the Bonampak and sells time-share units on the beach. She is afraid Gilbert will blow down one of the time-share projects that owes her a lot of money.

We move over to the window, and Whitcomb points out -- to my dismay -- that we are only a half mile from the lagoon. Rain is beginning to fall and heavy gusts are lashing the beautiful old tree across the street.

"Watch that tree cuz that tree's gonna go," she says. "The topsoil is very shallow here."

Far off, beyond the darkness of the lagoon, the lights of the Sheraton and other beachfront hotels glow an eerie orange. Further away still, we can make out the lights on Isla Mujeres, an island just a half mile wide and a few feet above sea level. We have heard that most of its 10,000 residents are still there. One shudders to think what terror awaits them.

Whitcomb gives us some brandy, leaves, and returns a few minutes later with a hotel employee who tapes up our window. Ric tunes in a Cuban radio station which reports, in solemn tones, that 80 mph winds are buffeting Cuba's west coast. The hurricane is headed straight for Cancun, and its eye is expected to pass at 5 a.m. local time (7 a.m. Tampa Bay time), six interminable hours from now.

I fall asleep quickly but wake up around midnight. The sound of howling wind and pelting rain can be heard even above the roar of the ancient air conditioner. We hear a thud.

"There's goes the tree," Ric says.

I am suddenly wide awake, staring at the ceiling as the minutes creep by. Never has time moved so slowly or the wind blown so hard. The lights in the hall go out and I hear a scream from somewhere in the hotel. The power comes back on but a few minutes later the air conditioner shudders to a stop and all is black. We have lost electricity for good. I wonder what it is like out on the beaches and on Isla Mujeres.

The wind continues to build. My ears pop, so great is the change in pressure. The pipes in the corner rattle wildly as enormous gusts buffet the water tank on the roof above. Glass shatters somewhere beneath us and chunks of flying debris slam into the side of the hotel.

The heavy wooden door to our room is shaking so badly I have the uncanny sensation that Gilbert himself is trying to get in.

An unbelievably strong gust rocks the entire hotel and Ric leaps from bed, shouting something in Spanish. Incredibly, our window has held, but we are not taking any chances. We shove the mattress of my bed onto the floor and prop the box springs against Ric's bed, to protect us from flying glass should the window go. There's a whoosh from above and the water pipe suddenly stops rattling.

"There goes the tank," Ric says. We have no more running water.

Ric reaches for the radio but cannot pick up a single station. We are cut off from the world.

It is impossible to sleep. The minutes drag into hours, and still the wind seems to grow stronger. The noise is like standing directly behind a jet on takeoff. Wind is now roaring through shattered windows and down the hallways, making it difficult to open the door. A gloomy dawn finally breaks, and we can see that every tree in front of the hotel is down. We decide to move to my room, which is on the other side of the hotel away from the direct force of the hurricane. The view there is more comforting -- the room faces downtown Cancun, and we can see that buildings like ours are still standing.

Ric goes downstairs and returns with chilling news. He has been talking to the captain of one of the ferries to Isla Mujeres. The captain says the docks on the island undoubtedly have washed away and he predicts there will be major loss of life. He also tells Ric the storm is powerful enough to produce a 36-foot storm surge. When the guests gathered in the lobby hear that, they quickly move upstairs.

A 36-foot storm surge. It is a terrifying to think that a wall of water a mile wide and four stories high might be headed our way. But it is certainly possible -- Hurricane Camille produced a surge almost as big that killed dozens in Mississippi in 1969. And this is an even stronger storm.

The winds continue unabated. The walls tremble and the beds are literally dancing around the tile floor. Suddenly we hear a tremendous crash. The window in the room directly across from ours has blown out, and the force of air rushing in blasts the door from its hinges. Glass is flying everywhere.

We worry that our door will go next. It is making odd sounds, first a ripping noise, then a sound as though it is being opened and quickly jerked shut. I stare at it in fascination, wondering what horrors lie beyond.

For breakfast we have a Coke and some crackers. Rick manages to go back to sleep, but I take a book and settle down on the bathroom floor, afraid the window and door will blow out at any minute. Glass continues to shatter elsewhere and big pipes on the roof bang together with a sound like malevolent wind chimes.

Shortly after noon, the winds seem to die down a bit and we venture outside the room. The hallways are a mess, littered with broken glass, soggy newspapers and leaves ripped from the potted plants. People have begun to gather on the landings, and rumor has it that we are in the calm eye of the storm with hours of violent weather still ahead. But the sky remains cloudy and I am of the theory -- correct as it turns out -- that the center of the storm has passed south of us and already moved on.

At 4:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. Tampa Bay time), Ric heads outside and I follow a few minutes later. I see him far down the street and run after him, a still-strong wind propelling me along. I feel as though I am wearing seven-league boots and catch up with him in no time.

We flag down a police car and climb in with three Cancun policemen.

There have been reports of looting in the hotel zone and they are going to check them out. The highway to the beaches is flooded in most places. Trees are uprooted. Power poles are down. Seaweed-draped chairs, beds, dressers and pool furniture are strewn everywhere. A Cuban fishing ship rests against the side of a motel and the bow of the luxury yacht Outrageous pokes into a ground floor room. Ric shoots a couple of rolls of film, and we hitch a ride back to town with some hotel employees who have gone to their beachfront resort to get food for guests evacuated during the storm. They give us a Coke and a can of peaches.

It is past 6 p.m. Cancun time (8 p.m. Tampa Bay time), and we head for Las Novedades in hopes of filing a a story and sending photographs for Thursday's paper. Darkness has fallen and the streets of downtown Cancun are badly flooded. We slog through thigh-deep water to the newspaper office, where we find a few employees eating bean soup by candlelight, surrounded by twisted metal and broken glass. The hurricane has destroyed the paper's telephone room.

Indeed, there is not a working phone in Cancun, someone tells us.

There will be no story or photos for tomorrow, and we wonder what the Times and our families will think when they fail to hear from us.

Dejected, we slosh back to the hotel. I am starving for something substantial, so Rick opens the little can of strange, runny red meat. I dig in, trying to suppress the thought that it looks like what we used to feed the dog. Rick can't even look at the stuff, let alone eat it, and opens the can of peaches. They are delicious. We eat half and save the rest for breakfast.

There is no running water, so we wash up in the now murky swimming pool. Why don't those hurricane planning guides ever list wet-and-wipes, I wonder. After a surprisingly good night's sleep, we set out early in hopes of finding a phone at the U.S. Consulate. But someone tells us 500 people are already there, so we head instead for the beaches.

Times photo by

American tourists retrieve their belongings from Club Med along the Cancun waterfront. The tourists had more than a 2-mile hike to transportation.

Hundreds of tourists, most of whom have spent the night in crowded public shelters, are trudging back toward their luxury hotels. Many have the dazed look of refugees. They are hungry. They are thirsty.

They are angry. Mexican army troops have appeared, but no one seems to have thought to bring food or water tanks. The sun is back out in full tropical force.

Ric and I become separated, much to my dismay. He speaks fluent Spanish; my vocabulary consists of "gracias" and "buenos dias."

Without him, I'm afraid, I will never get out of here. The prospect of spending another day without a bath, without a drink of water, without a bite of real food is almost unbearable. Then I notice members of an NBC crew interviewing tourists. I shamble over to them and discover they are from Miami. Like me, they have been here since before Gilbert hit and like me, they are worrying about how to get their reports out before they are too old to be news. I tip them off to the beached Cuban ship, which makes great footage, and out of gratitude, or compassion, they let me come along with them.

The Cancun airport is in shambles and the city's satellite uplink -- which the TV crew normally would use to transmit its story -- is out of operation. We pile into the crew's rented VW van and head for Merida, a city of 500,000 six hours away that we hope still has power and phone service. The going is slow at first - a few stretches of highway are blocked by fallen power poles and we have to wait an hour at a gas station to fuel up. But at last we are zooming along, cheered by the fact that the damage appears far less serious the farther we get from Cancun.

We finally arrive in Merida only to discover that absolutely nothing is working here either. No lights. No phones. Nada. Nothing. We all feel like crying. We head for the airport where hundreds of people are standing in line for flights that don't even leave until the following day. Next, we try the flight service office where, to my utter amazement, a man hands me a business card from Susan Benesch, another Times reporter. It seems the paper has hired a Lear jet to fetch Ric and me, but it has already left for Cancun.

Then NBC producer Terry Brito, who speaks Spanish, pulls off a near-miracle. She discovers that what may be the only working telephone in the entire Yucatan is but 50 feet away from us, in the airport's control room. She calls NBC in New York,which then patches the call through to St. Petersburg so I can dictate a story. The control room staff is deeply solicitous, bringing me coffee and cigarettes while I monopolize their only phone for an hour. I try to keep my voice low while reading quotes from tourists critical of their Mexican hosts; these people have gone out of their way to help us.

More good news. A Lear jet chartered by NBC has just landed to take the film crew back to Miami. There is an extra seat on the plane and I can have it!

I learn the next day that Ric's luck has been equally amazing.

Because there had been no communications with the airport in Cancun, the jet chartered by the Times landed first at Merida. It was finally cleared to leave hours later after the pilot agreed to give a ride to two Mexican technicians who were going to inspect the control tower in Cancun. Ric, who had been hoping to find some plane, any plane to carry his film out, saw the blue jet in the air and told the cab driver to head for the airport.

"The pilot was outside the terminal and I said, 'Listen, how much would you charge to take the film back to the states?' He said where and I said St. Petersburg. And he said to me, 'This plane came to pick up a photographer from St. Pete.' I'm about to drop into the floor. I said, 'I'm the photographer.' " On board our respective jets, Ric and I have the same thoughts. We feel sorry for the thousands of stranded tourists, and even sorrier for the thousands of Mexicans who have lost what little they had.

But it sure is good to be going home.

Times photo by

Hurricane Gilbert is gone with the wind, but not so the 125-foot Cuban ship that was blown aground Sept. 14, 1988 at Cancun, Mexico. Three months later the Portachernera was still there, despite efforts to bulldose sand and float it back to the sea.

© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.