Smith: 'I survived Hurricane Wilma'

Published 5:35 pm Monday, November 14, 2005

By By Adam Prestridge
Atmore resident Nick Smith has experienced his fair share of hurricanes.
Up until a few weeks ago, the largest hurricane he had experienced was Hurricane Ivan as he hunkered down in the hallway of his Highland Avenue home.
Smith, who works as a travel agent, was on a business trip to attend the Travel Mart in Cancun, Mexico from October18-26 when Hurricane Wilma devastated the South American tourist attraction.
After attending a reception for Starwood Preferred Guests and dinner at Aricefes Restaurant, the Westin's premier eatery, Smith returned to his hotel room and saw a quick blurb on CNN about Wilma's possible track toward the Yucatan. Just in case, he checked with the front desk to find out the procedures in case the storm strengthens and was informed that the Westin was strong enough to withstand the storm.
Wilma strengthened throughout the night from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5. The storm set several records including being the strongest ever recorded with winds of 193 mph, the most names in any season and the most hurricanes in any season.
After a morning of sightseeing on Oct. 19, Smith attended the first event of the Travel Mart, the reception at Pat O'Brien's, where he learned that the rest of the Travel Mart had been cancelled.
"We were on our own to get out of town or hunker down for the ride," Smith said.
Smith later called American Airlines and was told that there were no available flights out of Cancun. After returning to the hotel, he learned that Wilma was going to pass through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba and would deliver strong winds and rain to Cancun from a bulletin slipped under his room door. He received another bulletin under his door the next morning that was "more alarming" warning that Wilma strength had increased and it was moving closer to Cancun.
"Hotel guests were advised to stay in contact with the hotel at all times, and to be prepared for a possible evacuation," Smith said. "We were told to put our valuable objects in the safety deposit box, place our luggage in the bathtub and have a small carry-on type bag with just our most essential belongings ready to take with us."
Then it was sit and wait for Wilma's landfall.
"The waiting game is difficult," Smith said. "The tension I felt among all the guests is hard to describe. Knowing I was in harms way and not having a way out felt somewhat challenging."
By 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, the waves were getting higher and the surf was pounding in Cancun. The staff of the hotel began placing towels and sandbags at the base of glass shutters and windows.
At 6 p.m., the Mexican government issued a mandatory evacuation of the hotel zone. Hotel employees then went room to room telling Smith and the other guests to grab our most important belongs, close the "blackout shutters" to the windows and meet them at the ballroom. Once in the ballroom, Smith and the other guests were each handed a plastic bag with a pillow, sheet and blanket inside.
The hotel guests were shipped by the busload to an old school where they sought shelter in a classroom about 22 x 30 feet in size. All power was lost about 11:30 p.m.
The next day, Wilma hit with full force. It made landfall as a Category 4 with winds of more than 165 mph. Smith said trees came crashing down, sheets of rolled up roof blew off buildings and the winds shook the entire shelter.
"It was the slowest moving, largest in size and most intense in terms of wind velocity that I've ever been in," Smith said. "I've been through 20 to 25 hurricanes. A lot of people were actually coming to me asking me what I thought about Wilma. I told them what would happen if the eye passed over us and tried to tell them to be concerned, but not to be worried. At times the whole building would shake and the wind would blow the rain through the edges of the window frames."
The winds associated with Wilma continued to blow in excess of 100 mph for nearly 30 hours. At times the storm moved as slow as 2 mph, which allowed it to cause more damage.
Since arriving at the school, none of the evacuees have been able to shower, and finding functioning bathroom facilities was a challenge. Smith was able to wash his face with an extra pillowcase and saved a portion of his bottled water to use for brushing his teeth.
On Saturday morning, Oct. 22, the hotel's general manager, Carlos Gonzales, attempted to drive the 15-mile stretch back to the hotel, and returned to the evacuees with "war stories" about how damaged the city was with blocked roads from fallen trees and power poles. On Sunday, Smith and the other hotel guests were given the opportunity to venture off the school grounds to see some storm damage. He said snakes were hiding in the piles of debris and bats hung from the tree limbs.
The hotel guests later learned that the main thoroughfare to the airport was impassable and that the airport was under water. And if the health hazards posed weren't enough of a threat, they also learned that a wall of a jail near the school had collapsed during the storm and 1,000 inmates had escaped.
Mexico's president Vincente Fox and Gov. Santos of the Mexican State of Quintana Roo visited the storm-ravaged areas on Sunday as well. Smith was one of two chosen to bring a greeting from his American "guests", to welcome him and to thank him for coming to show his concern. The officials revisited the area on Monday.
Monday morning, Smith woke up in time to catch the bus to the hotel where he and other guests, along with hotel staff, spent the day sweeping, mopping and assessing the damage at the Westin. The guests were allowed to return to the hotel for the evening, but weren't allowed to stay in their previous rooms, were restricted to certain floors, and were required to wear shoes at all times. Power remained out and Smith said a lady named Karen and her husband from Israel kept the hotel guests up-to-date on the latest news via cell phone text messages from her parents back home.
Once Smith was allowed back in his room, he took not one, but two showers.
"I quickly took advantage of the first running water I'd experienced in five days," he said.
Smith was encouraged by Greg, an FBI agent in Cancun training Mexican police, to travel to Merida, normally a four-hour trip inland, to take advantage of charter flights arranged by the American Consulate for U.S. citizens back to Dallas. Greg said even though Smith had a 1:10 p.m. flight to catch that the first planes to land were going to be carrying supplies and there were already thousands of people awaiting flights.
After making the right contacts, Smith and the others on his bus were quickly shuffled onto a plane for Dallas. The flight proved eventful as well when on takeoff the captain neglected to close the fresh air intake for the air conditioning system, which sucked exhaust fumes into the passenger cabin filling it with smoke and alarming the passengers, who thought the plane was on fire. The problem was corrected and the smoke cleared out within 20 minutes.
"There's never a dull moment," Smith said.
Smith arrived in Dallas at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, and managed to get a room at the Hyatt Regency. He took a 12:30 p.m. flight back to Mobile on Wednesday and was home sweet home later that evening.

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