It’s a stormy morning in Zadar, Croatia. Everyone is sleeping in, most likely exhausted from a week of stress and recuperating from the jet lag. We managed to fly out of the Dominican Republic from the Punta Cana airport on Wednesday at 6:50pm, with the earliest Hurricane Irma winds expected to arrive at 8pm that night.
What follows is an account of our personal experience.
On Tuesday, the day before we were scheduled to leave, we came to realize that there was no evacuation plan for Americans in the Dominican Republic. Canada sent 10 planes to evacuate Canadian nationals from the island. Luckily, we had purchased tickets to Croatia months ago and they happened to be for Wednesday September 6th, 6:35pm. It was a stressful night, making sure everything was packed and also making sure that we were ready to stay, with enough food and water to make it through; we didn’t know if our flight would be cancelled. The airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico had already been shut down, so it seemed it was just a matter of time until they cancelled all flights leaving the Dominican Republic. With a storm that big, the effects could be felt long before the eye of the storm approached the island. It was certain, at that point, that if the storm continued its expected path, Punta Cana could be wiped off the map.
When we arrived to the neighborhood of El Cortecito in Punta Cana over a month ago, I admired the tidy apartment on the first floor with a view of the pool, but I also worried. One of the first things I told my husband was that I felt like I was in a condo in Florida. The apartment had all glass windows and 2 large sliding doors. I knew the hurricane season had started, and thought about the unsuitability of this type of construction in the Caribbean. We had conversations about it. Now I was feeling particularly concerned, because in the month we were there it only rained a handful of times, and never for very long, but the streets flooded EVERY TIME it rained.
Knowing that El Cortecito flooded added to the eerie feeling that no one around us was truly preparing for hurricane Irma. I come from Puerto Rico, an island that has vast experience with hurricanes. As soon as our expert meteorologists* tell us to prepare for a hurricane, we PREPARE. Supermarkets are swarmed, people start hauling large pieces of plywood to protect their doors and windows, and everyone begins planning how they will spend the hurricane. There is a sense of anticipation that allows us Puerto Ricans to prioritize: we need food, water, batteries, but we also need alcohol, dominoes and a radio. We must have some fun after all.
I understand that this level of preparedness is only possible because of privilege. Puerto Ricans, with a median household income of about 19,500 dollars a year, are still much better off than their neighboring islands. You can’t go buy a bunch of stuff at the supermarket if you don’t really have the money to do so. However, the level of indifference that we experienced in Punta Cana was pervasive at different socio-economical levels, from the people in the markets, all the way up to the people managing the airport. There was a sense that there was no reason to prepare, and that is what scared us the most.
In the end, the hurricane did not hit Punta Cana as it was expected and there wasn’t much damage to the region, but we didn’t know that on Tuesday. I had called the airport early on the day before our flight and they said that they had no plans on closing, that the airlines would be the ones to decide if they were cancelling their flights or not. Our international friends in the area were starting to worry. They were feeling the locals calm disinterest in the storm as well. They were talking of fleeing to the capital if things on Wednesday looked bad; that was our plan B as well. If we couldn’t leave the airport on Wednesday, we would do everything we could to make it to the capital, which wouldn’t get hit as bad, and would have the resources (food, water, safety) to house us until we could leave the island. Our plan C was to return to our apartment. We had already made arrangements to stay through the storm in case we were stuck. We were lucky that the apartment manager was very flexible and allowed us to make an open agreement to stay, if needed. On Wednesday, as we were ready to leave for the airport he told us that if we had decided to stay he was ready to give us an apartment on a higher floor, because he expected the first floor of the apartment complex we were staying in to completely flood. We asked him if he was going to do anything to prepare the apartment and he explained that there wasn’t really a point to it. It would all be under water regardless.
On Wednesday morning, I called the airport and no one was answering. Life in the town of Cortecito was pretty chill. Some people were buying water and provisions, but no one seemed particularly stressed. Gardeners were still beautifying the properties, restaurants were still open and food delivery motorcycles were still running.
The woman who was to clean our apartment upon our departure arrived before we left for the airport, and was surprised to see that I had already done most of the laundry. My intention was to wash all towels and bedding, because that’s what some AirBnB hosts expect, and also because I didn’t want to leave much of a mess; but she got to our apartment well before our check-out time. My husband was almost done cleaning the kitchen, which made her teary eyed with gratitude. She explained that she had 3 properties to clean that day, and her daughter and granddaughter were alone in their metal-roofed house. She said most people in these apartments leave a huge mess so she was thinking she would be cleaning it for hours. She also said she was anxious because she needed to find someone to help her tie her roof down. She was happy to see that I had some extra food in the cupboards that she could take home. After her workday, she wouldn’t have time to shop for food before the hurricane; I wondered if she had money to shop. I was overwhelmed with emotions. She was cleaning an apartment that might just flood the next day. She should have been going home to prepare, but I wasn’t her boss. The precariousness of the whole situation sunk in with a rawness I couldn’t explain. How many people were in her situation, stuck working on the day that they should be preparing?
Our transportation to the airport was late. My husband and I left the kids in the apartment, watching a movie, and went to see if we could find the drivers in the parking lot. We went together because we both needed some fresh air. As most of you know, it is really hard to deal with a crisis in front of your kids. I was worried sick about my family in Puerto Rico. I was concerned we would be stuck in the Dominican Republic and at the same time I was sad to leave people behind. With all of this going on, I had to stay calm and seem like I was in control. I needed to vent. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Then we heard a loud boom and saw a flash. A palm tree frond had fallen on an electrical cable in front of our building. My husband ran back to the apartment to be with the kids. The hurricane hadn’t arrived and our apartment complex was already without power. A small fire sizzled, the palm tree frond burned, and I stood in the parking lot realizing that nothing could prepare anyone in this area for Irma. Preparing was just an illusion. Leaving was the only option.
Our drivers came, they said the airport was not crowded with people. We were still nervous. When we got to the airport it was business as usual. I was a little shaky. I felt bad for the cleaning lady, bad for our drivers, bad for the people in the neighborhood we had left, bad for the owner of the apartment we stayed in. I felt like I was running off, fleeing, getting out because I had the option to leave; they were staying behind because they didn’t have that option. I thought of my international friends, stuck in the confusion of spending a hurricane -something they hadn’t experienced ever before in their lives- surrounded by people that were eerily calm. Not that I am saying it would be better to be surrounded by people who are freaking out, but at least it would be nice to feel like people are concerned.
As I sat waiting for our flight I thought of my earlier interaction at the local market. I went for 2 large bottles of water and some beer early Wednesday morning. The guys hanging out there started joking about how I was preparing for the hurricane. It was lighthearted banter, and I went along with it without much thought. As I walked home I wondered why weren’t they at home, securing their belongings, gathering provisions, making plans with their family members, figuring out where to go if they had to evacuate?
We checked into our flight and went through security. The airport was preparing for the hurricane in ways that baffled us. The airport in Punta Cana is very open. Strong winds could tear it apart easily. The employees were putting plastic bags over monitors and removing some advertisements. The wind was picking up, and in our opinion they should’ve been working on evacuating the airport. There were no signs of the airport closing anytime soon. I heard employees talk about working straight until Saturday. We were glad so many flights were able to leave, and happy our plane was allowed to take us to Europe, but at the same time we were worried about how strong the winds were. Turbulence on the flight was nerve-wrecking. I worried not only about our safety, but about the safety of those working the tarmac. I later read that the safest place for an airplane during a hurricane is in the air flying. Pilots can navigate hurricanes, like that one that flew between the bands of hurricane Irma to evacuate people from Puerto Rico . The dangerous thing is to be on the ground. How much were the employees in the Punta Cana airport risking to get us out? The guilt laid in. These people had families to take care of, they had children at home.
We landed in Brussels and everyone started clapping. This is something Puerto Ricans do when landing, so it took me off guard on a plane mostly full of Europeans. I clapped too… and that’s when I started crying. We were safe.