[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]All of us who were in Cancun during in October 2005 will never forget when wicked Wilma came to town. We have our own stories of the fury of the storm and the destruction she wreaked, examples of courage and fortitude we witnessed, of friendships forged and the resilience of the Mexican people who set about restoring their city. Cancun may have been battered but it was unbowed and we are sure that you will agree that it soon bounced back better than ever.
It’s been 10 years since Wilma. We look back at one of the most destructive storms the world has ever known.
Members and employees have shared their photos and experiences with us over the years and we have included many of them here. You’ll be able to see more Wilma posts on our blog www.royalresortsnews.com and Facebook page this month.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]
Watch our Remembering Hurricane Wilma video
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Facing the wrath of Wilma
Hurricane Wilma formed to the southwest of Jamaica on October 14. The National Hurricane Center began to track the system as it strengthened to a storm and then a hurricane. The alarm bells sounded on Tuesday, October 18 when it became the most powerful Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin with wind speeds of 160 knots and the lowest atmospheric pressure ever registered in the Western Hemisphere, 882 millibars. Fortunately this rapid strengthening took place over an area of open water far from land and it weakened slightly before it reached the coast.
As with many late season storms, Wilma’s course was erratic, but by October 20, it had taken aim for the Mexican Caribbean and was heading straight for Cancun. Given the size and ferocity of the storm, the Federal Government ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Hotel Zone. Thousands of visitors, hotel staff and local residents were moved off the island to hurricane shelters downtown.
On Friday, October 21, Wilma made landfall between Cancun and Playa del Carmen as an extremely dangerous and slow moving Category 4 storm with winds reaching 150 miles per hour. Then, as if reluctant to leave the bright lights and beaches of Cancun behind, Wilma then lingered over the city for two days, battering it with hurricane force winds that sounded like the wail of the banshee, the wild howls of a thousand wolves, jet engines and the roar of a freight train, monster waves and 45 inches of rain reported.
There was a brief period of calm on Saturday morning as the eye of the storm passed over Cancun and then the mayhem began again as the backwall of the storm pummeled the city and the winds blew from the opposite direction.
The panorama on Sunday morning after the storm had passed was one of total devastation. Streets were an obstacle course of debris, mounds of glass and concrete, fallen trees, branches and meter-deep lagoons. The power grid had been knocked out, water pipelines and pumping stations were affected, phone lines were down in most areas, thousands of homes were seriously damaged; shopping centers and businesses were completely destroyed.
In the Hotel Zone, stretches of Kukulcan Boulevard were flooded; others were covered with sand and uprooted palm trees. Resorts, shopping centers, restaurants and discos were flattened. Marinas were washed away and the underground parking lot at the Forum mall was completely submerged. The beach along 12 kilometers of shoreline had been washed away. Storm damage was calculated in billions of dollars and the impact on tourism, the state’s principal economic activity, was catastrophic.
Evacuation to hurricane shelters
As soon as it became clear that Hurricane Wilma was heading in the direction of the Mexican Caribbean, the Royal Resorts Hurricane Contingency Plan was implemented in order to ensure the safety of members, guests and staff and to prepare the resorts for the onslaught of the storm.
Preventive measures were taken to protect the installations. Beach furniture was stored, windows were boarded up and gardeners cut down coconuts and pruned branches. Any object that could be caught up by the wind and potentially become a lethal missile was removed. A skeleton crew of engineers, maintenance and security staff actually weathered the storm at the resorts, staying on site to protect the installations.
When the government order came through to evacuate the resorts, there was no choice but to move. Staff helped 2,979 members and guests board buses that would take them to 15 hurricane shelters, mostly schools and the Taxi Union building, their only luggage an overnight bag, a blanket and pillow. They were accompanied by a team of staff assigned to each shelter to look after them during the storm and make them as comfortable as possible.
Conditions in the hurricane shelters were spartan: rows of plastic chairs in classrooms and meeting rooms, with basic restroom and kitchen facilities. Most guests staked out a claim to a patch of floor and prepared to wait out the storm. The power went off in the early hours of Friday morning and no electricity meant no lights, fans or air-conditioning, no refrigerators, no computers and no water pumps, making a difficult situation even more challenging.
Staff started to collect rainwater for use in the restrooms. One guest in the Taxi Union shelter used two car batteries to power a lamp. Others, equally resourceful, rigged up screens around improvised toilets, helped staff board and tape windows, mop flooded floors and man security patrols. Firemen, nurses, doctors, scout leaders and guests with a military background offered support to the employees caring for them. People rationed food and tried to keep the installations as clean as possible. All our members and guests were very patient and understanding; they coped marvelously during their ordeal.
The Royal Sands members John and Gloria McManus were evacuated to the Taxi Union building and had this to say about the staff that went with them. “Staying with us were several employees of the Royal Resorts. They worked continuously to keep us informed of any news they heard, to arrange for the distribution of whatever food and water they could obtain, to keep the toilets functioning and as clean as possible, and to continually squeegee the water that we could never completely prevent from flowing in from the torrents of rain outside. Their efforts were so much appreciated! What dear people!”
Hours turned into days and still Wilma raged. Food supplies began to run low, no one could have imagined that our unwelcome guest would stay so long. Wind-borne debris, flooding and downed power cables made it dangerous to venture outside, nevertheless a number of courageous employees did risk life and limb, making forays to the restaurant warehouse in the Hotel Zone, a local army base for more food supplies, the Red Cross for medicines and to take a young girl with a suspected case of appendicitis to hospital.
Royal Resorts had taken food supplies to the shelters and this was supplemented by emergency rations doled out by the army and government civil defense teams, but after two days, the standard fare of tuna and crackers began to take its toll and the words “no more tuna” were heard in a swelling chorus. Executive Guest Services Manager Jesus Arguelles decided to change the menu in his shelter. “One of my colleagues, Valentín Román obtained a stove from a neighborhood store and I went in search of a gas tank and cooking utensils in the middle of the storm. I remember carrying the tank through a lagoon of floodwater when I was hit by a particularly strong gust of wind; for one moment I thought, Jesus, what on earth are you doing? But it didn’t last and I carried on.”
They made coffee and scrambled eggs with tomato, onion and ham and boiled eggs on Sunday.
Later that day, trailers loaded with supplies would arrive from the Corporate Office in Merida. Ron Graeber, a member at The Royal Islander reminisces, “A Royal Resorts van arrived bringing food, all the way from Merida. Royal Resorts employees and their families worked for 10 hours to make up bundles of food for distribution to all the shelters in which Royal Resorts people were housed. Commandeering several vehicles, they made their way, the long way around, because the road to Merida was still flooded [with four feet of water]. The food was a welcome addition and was received with much gratitude!” John McManus also remembers when the convoy arrived at the Taxi Union building. “The promised trucks arrived mid-day. We formed a human chain to unload their cargo of water, “sport drinks,” and bags of rations containing a Spam-like canned meat, canned tuna containing chunks of vegetables, crackers, cereal, milk and chocolate wafer bars, all of which were ambrosia, of course, under the circumstances.”
Jeremias Chi, an employee at The Royal Cancun who stayed with members at one of the shelters had this to say about local people in the area. “I have to mention the wonderful people in the neighborhood who helped us. They were so generous, not only did they give us food and clothing; they also lent us pans and kitchen utensils and one of them even let us use his phone. Our guests were grateful and some of them wrote down the names of the families that helped and the school because they wanted to help repair it.” Indeed, many members did have a collection for the schools they were evacuated to and the surrounding neighborhoods and some still visit the schools during their annual vacation.
By Sunday evening conditions had improved enough to return to the resorts and after a reconnaissance trip to the Hotel Zone to check on the state of the road and the resorts, about 1,000 members and guests were bussed to The Royal Sands where they spent the night sleeping on the floor in the lobby and sales room. The remainder moved back on Monday.
Staff were finally reunited with their families, they had spend four days in the shelters looking after members and guests without knowing how their loved ones or homes had fared during the storm.
Let the clean up begin
Staff returning to the resorts on Monday and Tuesday immediately picked up a brush or a bucket and got to work. Everyone lent a hand, whether it was to clean the pools and clear debris from the gardens. Others swept the corridors and sun decks, washing walls incrusted with salt and seaweed, carried water up to the villas, served food or assisted members and guests.
There was no power in the Hotel Zone or Downtown and accordingly no lights, water, computers or phone lines at the resorts. Staff used pool water for the toilets and drinking water was rationed. As the storm approached, Food and Beverage staff had left the refrigerators on their coldest settings in order to preserve frozen produce for longer. On Monday, October 24, they were ready to start serving food and cooked two hot meals a day for guests and one for employees as the clean up got underway.
Some enterprising IT employees managed to power up a generator so that members and guests could charge their mobile phones and call home. Enrique Rubio remembers, “Maintenance staff found some multi plug adaptors for us and we were able to do 20 phones at a time. We also activated electronic key cards with partially used batteries and one colleague managed to process the staff payroll on a computer in an area of the city where electricity had been restored.”
Members and guests regrouped after their ordeal, spending the days in their villas or sunbathing on the lawn. Others contacted friends and family back home and tried to make arrangements to leave Cancún. Royal Graeber remembered, “The resort staff tried every way they could to make us all comfortable, even forming a ‘bucket brigade’, lifting pool water in five-gallon buckets up seven, eight, and nine floors and filling up laundry carts so that occupants wouldn’t have to climb down all those stairs and back up again with pool water.”
The Mexican government had declared a curfew and as night fell members and guests began impromptu sing songs to keep their spirits up while they waited for news of their evacuation. Some made “send planes” and “send beer” signs from towels on the sun decks to catch the eyes of news crews aboard chopper flights along Cancun’s battered shoreline. These signs were to make headlines around the world, as did the first Welcome Party for returning guests.
The airport reopened on Wednesday, October 26 and in the days that followed, the resorts gradually emptied as members and guests were finally able to get flights out.
Welcome back to Royal Resorts
While other hotels were devastated and took months to reopen, the Royal Resorts escaped relatively lightly. A handful of units at each resort were damaged and had smashed windows, cracked floor and ceiling tiles, flooding and wet, stained furniture. Uprooted palm trees, branches and leaves littered the gardens, the tennis court lights were blown down, and there was damage to railings, decks and beach staircases. The lobbies at The Royal Caribbean and The Royal Islander were trashed when the windows blew in. All the beach palapas were washed away, along with the sand.
After analyzing the damage report, Management decided to close for one week to complete the clean up and essential repairs. The resorts reopened on November 5 (The Royal Cancun never closed) and we welcomed our first 617 members and guests back to their home away from home. Some had made extraordinary efforts to get here, catching two or three different flights and in one case flying to Mexico City and taking the bus to Mérida and then to Cancún, a journey that took 44 hours! With every week that passed more followed and the support and love that members showed for their resort home and Cancun by returning so soon helped start up the local economy reeling from the hurricane.
In the months that followed Wilma, international hotel developers and architects would visit Royal Resorts to see why the resorts had fared so well when others had not. Built to the highest standards, their secret lay in the very strong backbone of the buildings and a design based on deep pilings, columns, joists, compressed concrete and the use of reinforced retaining walls. From the outset, they had been built to withstand hurricanes and to quality standards that far exceeded those specified in local codes. The construction techniques used were more labor-intensive and therefore more costly but they ensured that the resorts came through Hurricanes Gilbert in 1988 and Wilma in 2005 with distinction.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]
Wilma Memories Slideshow
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Wilma memories, 10 years on
We asked our members what they remembered about Hurricane Wilma and received many photos and accounts. We would like to thank all those who shared their thoughts and pictures. In some cases they are extracts of longer documents. This selection also includes memories sent in the wake of the storm.
Grace Fraley, The Royal Sands
“This was a powerful hurricane that stayed on land longer than any other in history. The Royal Sands staff and security took very good care of us, went with us to the shelter, stayed every minute with us. We felt very safe and protected during this destructive event. Once back at The Royal Sands, they fed us three meals a day, cost free, provided everything we needed, i.e. water, candles etc. I can’t say enough about how the entire staff went out of their way to make us feel safe, we love them and we love our home at the Royal Sands.”
Roy Graeber, The Royal Islander
“In our classroom, affectionately referred to as a ‘prison cell’, there were 20 of us – 10 from Vacation Club International (VCI) and 10 from the Royal Islander, including 2 young children. Other classrooms held 27 and one held 31 people, so many that they had to sleep in shifts because there was not enough room for all to lie down at the same time. This shelter was to become home to 140 of us from The Royal Resorts.”
“Furniture consisted of little-people’s furniture – desk tables and small wooden chairs which were arranged into beds. Desk tables, each 18 inches by 4 feet, were lined up along the perimeter walls, with blankets folded in two for softness (hah!) and a pillow.”
“Damp, tired, and apprehensive, we quickly made friends with each other, determined to endure and survive our common experience. Several long fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling of our poured concrete ‘cell’ shone down upon us. There were no windows, just wooden louvered openings. In the driving rain, plywood sheeting was wedged between the iron bars and the louvered shutters on the front side of the room, from which the storm was then coming.
All night long the wind blew and the rain attacked in sheets, without letup.
The electricity was turned off around 11 p.m., probably throughout Cancun, as a precaution against accidental electrocution in the event of downed wires. Candles provided our light source. A small candle placed at the bottom of a 5-gallon plastic bucket on the floor provided sufficient light for the entire room.
The wind howled, blowing the largest drops of rain I have ever seen, virtually horizontally.”
“On emerging from our imprisonment after the storm’s fury had eased, we were astonished to see that the awesome power of the wind, funneled between our four barracks-like buildings, had blown down sections of the 9-foot high cement block walls surrounding the school property. We knew then that we had been blessed, for the structures in which 140 of us endured the night had not trembled, had not wavered. The poured concrete walls and roofs had withstood a most vicious beating and we were safe.”
“Off in the distance, to the west, is a church, not far away. Illuminated in the setting sun was the church steeple, atop of which was a carved-out figure revealing the outline of Jesus, with his arms outstretched in our direction, as if to say, “I have watched over you and have protected you. You are safe now.”
Richard Dahoney, The Royal Islander
“When we pulled away that Thursday night and arrived at the school we had been assigned to, little did we know that it would turn into a four-day adventure. Who knew that Wilma would like Cancun so much that it just didn’t want to leave? It blew through there with its 150+ mile-an-hour winds (which sounded like a jet engine in your ear) in the early morning hours of Friday and we thought the worst was over. WRONG!! It turned around and came back with a vengeance before racing across the Gulf of Mexico to then devastate Punta Gorda, Florida.
In the elementary school classroom that we were assigned there were the eight of us and a local family of four. Our hearts really went out to them as they were there with all their worldly possessions, which amounted to not much more than two beds, some clothing, basic food, a TV (which was on when we got there but not for long when all power went out), and – oh yes – a machete under one of their beds! We learned afterwards that their home was completely blown down. They had a very small house made of sticks and it was in between two concrete homes. Language was not a problem because two of our party were very fluent in Spanish.”
“No one complained, it was amazing how everyone began to reach out to each other…I can still picture the sense of community; taking turns being part of chain of people with buckets to unload supplies from a truck… Sunday was when the local community reached out to us. One of the local residents invited us to his home to call our family. One of our Spanish-speaking family members became friends with one of the shelter organizers who took some of our group to his home to shower, and a couple of other locals allowed us to use outside showers at their homes. Oh my, the creature comforts that we all take for granted!”
John McManus, The Royal Sands
“Shortly after breakfast in the Taxi Union, a fellow called for attention and announced that today was his son’s seventh birthday. We all sang “Happy Birthday” and clapped loudly for him. The families with children were especially pitiful. Several times during our stay, in the middle of the excruciatingly long nights, a cry of “Mommy, I want to go home!” would pierce the night. It broke our hearts.”
I.I. guest from Wales
“Jeremías was a real star to our family, he only wanted what was best for us, but I found out that he did not know how his family was doing. He was such a hero to us Brits, giving up his time with his family to look after us.
If anyone deserved compassion it was the Mexican people. On Friday afternoon, a small group of local people brought us coffee and homemade soup for the children. There was not much but they did not have much themselves. Looking outside the gates of the school, we could see that the area we were in was a very poor one. Little concrete shacks posed as houses, roads that were not fully made up, but the locals and our hosts were the most humble and kind people I have ever met.
After the storm had passed and we drove back towards the Hotel Zone, I was lost for words, I cried as I saw the devastation and destruction. Electricity cables down, building collapsed, palm trees lying on the ground, twisted metal, wrecked cars, and places where we had been a couple of days before that had just disappeared… I’ll never forget the mixture of disbelief, amazement and the expression on some of the faces of the hundreds of workmen around us – an eagerness to clear the mess up and get back to normal.
Cancún locals did not seem like the sort of people who would let a little Category 5 hurricane ruin their lives.
They worked hard to clear the debris as soon as the storm had passed and continued to do so every day that we were there. In fact, even a couple of days after the hurricane you would not think that it was the same place. The Mexican people who work in Cancún are a credit to their country.
The Royal Resorts staff should be highly commended for their concern and sympathy for us poor holidaymakers. They only thought of us, and because of that we will certainly return to the Royal Resorts in Cancún, and we have told all our friends of the 5-star service we received in such difficult and disastrous circumstances.”
Barbara Miller, The Royal Cancun
Wilma & the Dance
Wilma came to Mexico
but didn’t have a chance.
She tried and tried for three long days
and never learned to dance.
She was clumsy, she was slow,
but persistent and intense.
But the Royal Resorts all said no,
We will not allow this event.
But damage she did do but
Not so much to break the spirit of the Mexicans,
They are still dancing, eh maybe not so fast.
But dancing still and they always will.
Cancún is here to last.
They kicked Wilma’s …!
Juan Carlos Aguilar, Head of Maintenance at The Royal Sands
Juan Carlos stayed at The Royal Sands during the storm and had this to say, “What I remember most about the ordeal was the companionship. Colleagues became friends; it felt as though we were fighting side by side in battle.
The resorts are very well built but I think that the preventive measures we took before the storm also helped reduce the amount of damage.”
Betty López, Telephone Manager, Royal Resorts
Betty López was one of the last people to leave the resort on that fateful Thursday, after having spent the afternoon informing members and guests about the evacuation and fielding calls from concerned relatives back home. Instead of going home she went to help out at one of the shelters and rallied spirits with her unquenchable good humor and kindness. She remembers the teamwork, “I think that the ties between staff and management are very strong, as strong as the resorts themselves. People worked tirelessly to look after the guests. I think that we can face anything together. I sincerely hope that we never have to go through a hurricane again, but if we do, I will be there to help out.”
Planning for future contingencies
As a result of Hurricane Wilma, the Royal Resorts Hurricane Contingency Plan was upgraded. In the years that followed, Lexan hurricane protection screens were installed to protect windows in the lobbies and other key areas. Emergency generators were purchased for the resorts to guarantee the supply of electricity to key areas such as water pumps, refrigerators in the restaurant kitchens, lighting in the Front Desk area, the switchboard and computer systems in the event that the city power grid is knocked out. At the beginning of the hurricane season, emergency food and medical supplies and sleeping mats are purchased.
City Hall and the Civil Defense Agency have designated the Royal Resorts as hurricane shelters for storms of up to category 3. The certification is renewed every year after rigorous inspections.
While management policy will always be to stay at the resorts, the resorts have been assigned several schools and colleges in downtown Cancún that would be used as hurricane shelters to accommodate members and guests in the event of a mandatory evacuation order issued by the Mexican government. They are inspected every year to ensure that they are in good condition if they are ever needed.
Hurricane Brigades of Royal Resorts staff are also formed each year and trained to assist members and guests in the event of a storm.
Wilma Who Anniversary Event
Week 41 members who were with us in 2005 were invited to a special Hurricane Wilma 10th Anniversary Event at Hacienda Sisal on October 15 at 6:30 p.m. This gave people a chance to catch up with the friends they made 10 years ago.
The event included dinner, a signature cocktail named Wicked Wilma, margaritas and fruit punch, a commemorative t-shirt or hat, a raffle, quizzes and Wilma themed contests. Many staff who had looked after members in the shelters also attended.
This was a fantastic way for members to meet up with the employees who looked after them in the shelters and the friends they made during Wilma.
Watch our Hurricane Wilma 10th Anniversary Party video
See the pictures from Wilma 10th Anniversary Party