Copyright © 2006 -- All Rights Reserved
In late October of 2005, as the hurricane season was winding down, we kept one eye on Tropical Storm Wilma as she wandered aimlessly in the open sea. We assumed that sooner or later she would decide to head off, as they all do, to some other place. We monitored with growing concern, as Wilma began to strengthen and head more in our direction. Then, with true alarm, we watched her intensify explosively, in just 24 hours, from a tropical storm to a Category Five hurricane. The most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin was taking aim on Cozumel. We realized that a mega-hurricane would be on our doorstep within the next 48 hours.
The laid-back Caribbean attitude that is Cozumel suddenly evaporated as everyone flew into hurricane preparation mode. This being an island, everyone knows what to do to get ready, but sometimes we still procrastinate a little, thinking that maybe the storm will turn or weaken. But not this time - everyone began preparations to meet Wilma, and quickly. The windows were boarded up (and with a few extra nails for this one!), supplies stockpiled, water tanks and every sort of empty container filled with drinking water. The dive shop at Aqua Safari became command central for both staff and clients, as we helped those who could get flights out, and those who temporarily stranded to find supplies and safe refuge. All the contents of the dive shop were removed and secured, and the dive boats tied in place with heavy chains. Long lines formed for drinking water, plywood and groceries, but here the folks are patient and eventually the lines cleared out as everyone got what they needed.
It's a good thing that there is a lot to do before a hurricane. Because when preparations are completed, the pacing to and fro begins in earnest, with worried looks and a constant obsession with the weather forecast. We still held hope for some slim chance that we might still get out of this unscathed…but that was not to be.
Fortunately here in Cozumel the buildings and houses are constructed to withstand hurricanes. They are built with reinforced concrete and block (Florida, are you listening?) - so there is not the problem of evacuating the entire citizenry. Public refuges were provided for those few whose homes were not safe enough. A curfew was enacted at 5:00 pm on Thursday (October 20, 2005), everyone to be off the streets and into a safe place. A "dry law" was also put into place. If you didn't stock up with alcohol by 10:00 am that morning, you were out of luck. Yes, a bottle of booze can come in very handy during a hurricane! For safety, the power grid was shut down too; so downed electric cables lying in the street would not be a hazard in the aftermath.
Wilma roared in right on schedule, and she howled and pounded us for 65 hours! We were allowed only a brief respite when the eye passed directly over the island. The monster then stormed off to terrorize Cancun leaving Cozumel battered and temporarily out of contact with the rest of the world. We found ourselves without electricity, communication, or running water; and no way off the island. Venturing outside, I saw that the power lines and poles were a tangled spider web lying in the flooded streets, and the normally magnificent greenery bare and broken. The waterfront structures, restaurants and shops essential to most everyone's income, were severely damaged.
That night, looking out over the normally vibrant city now pitch-black and silent, one would think that Cozumeleños would have despaired - but they did not. Once it was discovered that everyone was safe, they breathed a collective sigh of relief, and immediately began planning for our recovery.
The moment it was over, with black skies and seas still churning, the Cozumeleños hit the streets. Mostly on foot, as the streets were blocked with power poles and debris, they checked on friends and relatives the old-fashioned way. The conversation on every corner was the same - "Did you see so and so? Are they okay? Did their home survive?" We were like tourists in our own town, wandering around gawking at everything, snapping photos and staring in amazement at the visions of ruin before us.
But there was no aimless waiting around for help here. The next day a chorus of saws, hammers, brooms and chainsaws could already be heard. The government was out in force too, assessing the damage, distributing supplies and gearing up for the big cleanup. Food packages were delivered door-to-door, one for each citizen, full of the essentials of life in Mexico - rice, tortilla flour, beans, sugar, coffee, and even cookies for the kids.
The island was quickly a flurry of activity - demolishing, cleaning, building, fixing, and painting. Pier reconstruction was a hot activity. Most businesses used their own staff to perform repairs, thereby keeping their employees working despite the lack of tourism. Waiters and busboys became painters, divemasters and scuba instructors poured concrete, boat captains and their first mates moonlighted as landscapers. These men and women took great pride in their work, knowing that they themselves were helping to get their regular jobs rolling again, as soon as possible.
The waterfront was swarming with marines who guarded against looting, while helping to clear away the mountains of debris. The garbage men worked 24 hours a day. Electric workers arrived from all over Mexico, and could be seen half a dozen in a row atop new power poles, stringing cables and wires. Those at the Municipal Water Company worked day and night to re-establish the city's running water supply. Teams of volunteer scuba divers took the plunge to assess the damage and remove debris from the reefs.
Cozumelenos helped themselves, and each other. Only three weeks after Wilma's wrath, all was ready to receive the first cruise ship passengers and scuba divers. The first guests to arrive were greeted with great fanfare and true Mexican hospitality - welcoming speeches, Mariachi music, dancing, and of course a Mexican Fiesta! Most of these first guests remarked that it looked like nothing had even happened to our beloved island.
New Christmas decorations went up on schedule all along the waterfront, around the town square, and on the ferry dock. A huge Christmas tree adorned the park with twinkling lights and basketball-size ornaments. Despite Wilma's best efforts, Cozumel was again bright and happy; a sight for sore eyes.
Today, the downtown waterfront looks perfectly normal, with shops and restaurants beckoning those strolling in the square. The curbs are lined with horse-drawn carriages, palms waving in the breeze, and smiling tourists everywhere. Most importantly to scuba enthusiasts, our fleet of snorkel and dive boats is again at the ready to serve you.
Cruise ships are arriving, up to six per day, and creating a majestic nautical scene as they anchor offshore all in a row. While the cruise ship piers are being repaired, their guests are safely tendered to shore using ferryboats.
Almost all the island hotels are back to business as usual. The few remaining to open are the big chain resorts farther south in the southern hotel zone. But even most of those are giving March dates for their grand re-openings, rebuilt better than ever.
Today, from the street in front of the dive shop, I watched as the new, even bigger flagpole went up with the help of a huge crane. The giant Mexican flag once again proudly flutters over Cozumel's downtown waterfront.
Here at Aqua Safari, and Safari Inn, we re-opened our doors to guests and divers way back on November 11, 2005, less than a month after Wilma. The first divers in the water, in mid-November, reported the reefs to be rather ragged-looking and somewhat drab in color, especially the shallower ones. Fish surveys done by volunteer divers from REEF showed many fish species reduced in numbers, especially the sand-dwellers, and some injured fish. Fortunately, now the reefs have begun to recover, and the color is back. Visibility has returned to its usual spectacular 100+ foot average, and the reefs are again swarming with marine life. There is, in addition to the mature animals, a multitude of baby and juvenile fishes. Perhaps this resurgence of life is nature's response to the storm.
There are baby angelfish, boxfish, drums, groupers and even sharks. The Cherubfish, gorgeous little cobalt-blue angelfish whose numbers were way down after the storm, have returned in droves, but as juveniles. We lost a lot of sponges to Wilma. But now, beside the many that did survived, we are beginning to notice many baby sponges bringing their color back to the reef.
Some new and unusual sightings have been reported. A Caribbean stingray, a rare species usually found on the coast, was spotted on Paradise reef. Blown across the channel by Wilma? And Cobias, large fish that look rather like a shark, but with a fish tail, have recently been regular sightings on the reef. They can scare the daylights out of unsuspecting divers, because of their shark-like appearance and their habit of circling before suddenly approaching head-on. But in fact Cobias are neat to see, and not to be feared at all.
Gallery photos are copyrighted. All rights reserved.
Cozumel Photos courtesy of Bonnie Pelnar. Taken February 2006.
* Do not copy these images without prior explicit written permission. *
Cozumel would not be Cozumel without Carnaval. This is a tradition that Cozumeleños hold dear, and you would never hear talk like in New Orleans of whether Carnaval should be held. A bad hurricane? Well that's even more reason to have Carnaval! Plans were underway back in November even as we were still digging out from the storm. And now it's here! There are parties, parades, costumes, live music and dancing in the streets. There is so much going on here, everyone is invited, and everybody goes! Visitors, residents, babies, grandparents, even pets go to Carnaval, all dressed in beads, masks and of course their best dancing shoes. February 28th is Fat Tuesday, the grand finale of our celebration. This is the last hurrah before Lent begins in this very-Catholic place, and we will all be there to celebrate it.
I hope I don't ever have to experience another hurricane like Wilma. But if I do, Cozumel is where I want to be. For this little Mexican island in the sun is a place where everybody works together, where the government has a disaster plan that really works, and where everyday people are ready, willing and able to dig in to quickly and efficiently get their own island back in shape. I'm proud to call Cozumel my home. It's a place where only three months later, the mega-storm that was Wilma is consigned to nothing but striking photos on the walls of the Island Museum…and to memories of nature's unfathomable force, our human-powered resurrection, and a sense of community that I shall never forget.
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