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Front Page » December 6, 2005 » Local News » Huntington family tells of Hurricane Wilma trauma
Published 4,095 days ago

Huntington family tells of Hurricane Wilma trauma

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Local family spends dream vacation with Hurricane Wilma

Linda, Ashlin and Larry Daley on their Mexico vacation.

The vacation of a lifetime for a Huntington family had many elements of a dream come true, but it also had elements of a dreadful nightmare� a nightmare from which they wondered if they would ever awake.

Larry Daley, his wife Linda and their 12 year old daughter Ashlin began planning their Yucatan Peninsula vacation last February, and everything was in place by the time the final hours before departure from the Salt Lake International Airport were at hand last month. "I had watched the Weather Channel, and Hurricane Wilma was nothing more than a tropical depression at the time we left," Linda recalls. "We really didn't know much more than that, and we weren't worried about the weather."

Of greater concern to the family was Ashlin missing several days of school. Ashlin, a seventh grader at Canyon View Junior High School, had gotten most of her homework together and had it with her to take on the trip. "We were so concerned, that we really debated whether or not to take Ashlin with us," Linda said. Among the homework assignments collected for the trip, Ashlin brought her seventh grade English novel, The Giver. "Mrs. Livingston had told us not to read ahead," Ashlin said of the instructions from her teacher, "but I only wanted to keep up."

The Frontier flight out of Salt Lake on Saturday, Oct. 15, lifted off without a problem, and nearly four and a half hours later the jet touched down in Cancun, Mexico. This was to be the vacation of a lifetime�eight days of bliss, and the first time the Daleys had vacationed out of the country. In Cancun they hooked up with family members and checked into a beach-front time-share condo with all the amenities.

Recalling what it was like to see Cancun and the Caribbean Sea for the first time, Ashlin said, "Wow! The ocean was so pretty, turquoise and clear, and the sand on the beach so white and soft." The family didn't take long to take advantage of the tropical wonders of the Peninsula either. On their first full day in Cancun, Monday, Oct. 17, the Daleys visited X-caret, an ecological park and preserve with a Mayan motif, jungle environment, exotic birds and an underground river flowing to the ocean. When Ashlin recalls the positive side of the trip, she remembers this day and her time swimming with the dolphins�touching, petting, holding and even feeding these gentle mammals from the sea.

Tuesday was more of the same with scuba-diving lessons and then scuba diving along the coral reef in 30 feet of fish-filled waters. "Scuba diving was way fun," Ashlin said. This was one thing that she had definitely planned to do on her vacation, having done research on this hobby before leaving the deserts of Emery County.

By Wednesday, Oct. 19, the weather was starting to change with skies darkening and the wind picking up, but the family continued with a rigorous itinerary and embarked on a jungle tour. Although the ocean waters were rough, the Daleys took a speed boat ride, visited mangroves, nearby lagoons and spent more time in and around the ocean. As the day's activities came to a close late Wednesday, they gathered sea shells, but the weather continued to deteriorate and that evening the beach was closed.

"By then, we knew there was a hurricane coming," Larry said, "but it was really hard to know exactly what was going on because most of the discussion was in Spanish, and hotel officials weren't really communicating with their guests. We were told the hotel would be the safest place for us, but by then everything was very surreal. Finally, we were told to ride out the storm in the hotel."

At that point, there was little else the Daleys and hundreds of other tourists visiting the Peninsula could do. The local airport was closed that evening. Still, there were high hopes that the bad weather would blow over, and the family could enjoy their trip to some area ruins on Thursday. However, those plans had to be canceled, and by that evening, the Daleys were confined to their hotel room. "We bought a few food items at a convenience store, got cleaned up and began watching TV," Larry said of their final hours in the hotel as the full force of Hurricane Wilma approached.

That evening, about 8:30 p.m., guests of the hotel were told to get pillows, sheets and water and report to the lobby in preparation for government-ordered evacuation. "We were able to grab a few personal items but not our luggage," Larry said. Using vans, the guests were evacuated to a down town shelter and told to expect to spend the next 12 hours there. Larry described the shelter as an old taxi union hall, government owned, and about the size of a small gymnasium with a suspended ceiling and windows about 15 feet up from the floor that circled the upper dome. The floor was cement, and what little furniture the building had was damaged and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the Daleys joined hundreds of others in this shelter not knowing what to expect as the storm raged toward them.

Thursday brought no relief, however. Outside, the trees were being whipped by the wind, debris was being tossed about, and it was raining in torrents. Windows in the shelter started to break from the wind gusts and flying objects as the guests huddled on the floor of the old building. By midnight, the power went out, leaving everyone in the dark, and water was starting to flood the building. "This was a really scary time," Ashlin said. Ironically, the full force of Hurricane Wilma had yet to hit Cancun, and still more and more people were being brought to this shelter until the number peaked at nearly 500.

Hurricane damage in Cancun, Mexico.

"Fortunately, we had a couple of pen lights with us," Larry said, "and that really helped, and we had one blanket, a sheet and our pillows." Later, some lighting was secured by jury-rigging a taxi battery to a taxi headlight, and the family was given an additional blanket. As uncomfortable as they may have been, there were many worse off. Among those in the shelter were a number of elderly and some with medical conditions who were without their medication. One man went into insulin shock. There were babies crying, and plenty of people complaining. Fortunately, among the guests were a husband and wife who had medical training but only one small first aid kit. It was a long night.

The situation deteriorated Friday as water continued to seep into the building. The hotel had sent several maintenance workers to the site to attempt to make the guests as comfortable as possible and to clear out water. "Those guys worked nonstop," Linda said, but they could make little headway against the forces of nature. After having had little to eat for several hours, those in the shelter finally received their choice of a thin slice of cantaloupe, apple or banana. "Surprisingly, we weren't all that hungry," Larry said. "With everything that was going on, we didn't think much about food." Reports began coming in that the full force of the hurricane would hit Friday afternoon, but it wasn't until about 2 a.m. Saturday that Wilma's category 4-5 winds hit the Peninsula.

"Early Saturday night was the worst time for us," Larry said. "The wind was up to 140-150 miles per hour, and the windows were breaking and water was coming through the roof. We had to protect ourselves with our pillows and blankets." For Ashlin, who found herself in a room full of strangers, none of whom were her age, the time spent had been anxious but also boring. She slept a lot and didn't say much. On Saturday night, however, it was obvious that she was ready to sprint to the safety of the nearby restroom, an area deemed to be more secure than the open hall they were in. For Linda, however, things were really getting bad. A bleeding ulcer had her in a great deal of pain and in tears because she feared she would be separated from her husband, a former marine. "They were going to take me and Ashlin to another facility because I was sick," she said, "but I argued that that being away from my husband would be worse than the bleeding ulcer."

The eye of Wilma moved over Cancun about noon on Saturday. "Things got calm," Larry said. "We were able to go outside where there was a light wind and rain showers." But with the calm within the storm came another distasteful experience. "That's when the looters started to come out," he said. "They came in pick-up trucks and would go to the shops, smash in the windows and grab whatever they could. From our shelter we saw them strip a convenience store and a drug store."

After about eight hours of calm, the intensity of Wilma picked up again in Cancun, and about 3 p.m. the winds whipped at 100 miles per hour. All hotel guests were ordered back into the hot, humid shelter. Once inside, the doors were secured from the outside and another intense night lay ahead. "It wasn't as bad as the leading edge of the hurricane," Larry said, pointing out that this slow-moving storm was now in its final stages at least for that area. By Sunday morning, the doors to the shelter were opened, and the guests could again see first hand the damage wrought by the hurricane. "You could still see some standing buildings, but the trees, power lines and signs were all down," Linda said. The immediate task at hand was to begin cleaning the roads of debris so that provisions and help could get to them. The guests got organized and began the clean-up. However, it wasn't until the next day, Sunday, Oct. 23, that provisions arrived in the form of refried beans, cheese, crackers and water. Later, more provisions arrived and included individual sacks that contained cereal, boxed milk, orange drink, chocolate wafers, a can of tuna, Spam and a package of crackers. Although Ashlin wouldn't eat the refried beans earlier, she had no problem eating what came in the sack. However, the family saved their can of Mexican Spam as a memento of their experience with Wilma.

With the hurricane now over the Gulf of Mexico, things began to look better for those in Cancun. The guests continued to help clear the roads and unload provisions, and while all this was going on, Mexican military troops stood vigil with their weapons in hand to fend off the looters who continued to circle the shelter. When the provisions were unloaded, the soldiers left, so those in the shelter organized their own guard duty shifts which they maintained throughout Sunday night.

After four days in the shelter, the time finally came on Monday for the guests to return to their hotel. It was 3 p.m. when the Daleys' turn came to get on a bus and make the precarious trip through the damage back to the hotel. "It was on the way back that we really saw the extent of the damage," Larry said. "We saw many of the places we had first visited when we arrived now destroyed or heavily damaged." Ashlin said it was all very sad. "There were people, mostly women and children, standing in long lines everywhere� moms with their babies� trying to get help."

The hotel had held up against the storm although many of the rooms were flooded, even the Daleys' fifth floor room. "Most of the water in the room was ocean water blown in by the hurricane," Larry explained. "We got some towels and cleaned up the room the best we could." Their belongings were okay although damp, but the hotel was still without power and running water. That night the hotel provided a small meal which they all enjoyed. "They really did the best they could with what they had," Linda said. In the morning, their meal consisted of eggs and yogurt as their lives began to take on some familiarity.

It was that night that the family huddled together on the hotel bed and read The Giver. Linda held a candle on her chest as they united in doing Ashlin's English homework for Mrs. Livingston. "I thought I would get into trouble for reading ahead," Ashlin said, "but we finished the entire book." Because the family had no idea what the next day would bring, how they would get home or how their needs would be met, the simple act of reading that seventh grade novel momentarily brought clarity into their lives.

Only by coincidence did Larry find out how tourists were getting flights back to the States. He had heard another man in the hotel lobby making arrangements for his flight out of Cancun, and so he asked what was going on. From the ensuing conversation, Larry learned that Frontier had set up an office downtown to assist travelers and book flights. Going back to the downtown area of Cancun was something the family wasn't looking forward to because of the damage and the looting that was going on there. Although Frontier flights began leaving Thursday, it wasn't until Friday that the Daleys had secured a flight back. Fortunately, the hotel had gotten the water back on, and they were able to take cold showers and clean up for the trip. They arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. flight. "There were people and luggage everywhere at the airport," Linda said, "but we were just glad to be there."

The original itinerary for the Daleys had them back in Utah on Saturday, Oct. 22. Ashlin would have missed just three days of school. As it turned out, they got back home on Saturday, Oct. 29, a week later than planned. She missed eight days of school, but she was certainly caught up with her reading in Mrs. Livingston's English class. Saturday morning she was able to get with her friends at a birthday party in Huntington and share her many experiences.

"We were so impressed with Ashlin throughout all this," Linda said. "She never complained, even when she had insect bites all over her and itched like crazy. She was a little trooper." And of people in general, the Daleys agreed that they saw the very best in people as well as the worst. "There were so many people willing to help and do whatever they could to make the most of a difficult situation, but there were also a lot who wouldn't help and who just wanted to complain."

While this was a bonding experience unlike most vacations, it isn't anything that this family would like to experience again any time soon. Still, the family has some very fond memories of it all. For Ashlin, the best of times was scuba diving and swimming with the dolphins while the worst of times was the Friday night the family spent in the shelter.

A couple of unusual twists also surfaced from this adventure. While in the shelter, the Daleys met a family from St. George who turned out to be their distant relatives. Also, on the way home, exhausted and overcome by the tragedies of the previous week, those on the plane were able to offer up a group cheer when they discovered they were being served drinks with ice in them. Ice, along with a number of other things people generally take for granted, was something they hadn't enjoyed for some time.

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