Lessons learned by Hurricane Patricia

September 3, 2017
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I did have another editorial for this week’s enthralling chapter of My Marvelous Mexican Midlife Crisis (I really need an acronym!), but then a little event called Patricia blew into Mexico.  I am a prairie/mountain girl, so preparing for a hurricane was definitely something new for me and worthy of a word or two.  This is how I spent my time waiting for the biggest hurricane to ever hit the planet.

I first found out about the hurricane on Thursday afternoon at work.  If I haven’t already mentioned it I am an English teacher at a Vallartense private school.  The SEP (aka The Board of Education in Jalisco) announced that all schools would be closing due to the threat of a hurricane.  Initially, my brain only registered that I would get a day off, (yayyyy), but then the reason clicked into place (oh, hurricane, baaaad).

I tried to play it cool.  After school I asked my boss, “Sooooo, this is my first hurricane.  Do you have any suggestions?”  She told me to get some water, some food and stay home.   She knew that I didn’t live anywhere near the beach and she said the biggest dangers to me were falling branches or trees.  Driving or walking about were NOT recommended activities.  “Okay”, I thought, “I can handle this.”

After work, I headed to the shopping centre and picked up water, candles and two extra flashlights, along with a few extra groceries.  I went home ready to hole up for the next day or maybe two.  (How many days did you need to hole up for a hurricane?)

Thursday evening my husband found a web page with the addresses and phone numbers of all the hurricane shelters in the Puerto Vallarta area.  I made it my homework to write down the addresses and phone numbers of the three that appeared to be near to my home.  Then I set about trying to find them exactly on Google maps.  Have you ever tried to find the address of something that is not a major hotel or retailer on Google maps in Mexico?  Challenging is a euphemism.  Each one produced 3 possible locations, but none seemed to perfectly match the address I had copied from the government website.  I eliminated some, but was still unsure about exactly where I was supposed to go.  I didn’t really like the feeling that was starting in my stomach.  “Oh well’, I thought, “I can ask a neighbor tomorrow.  No problem.”

Friday morning arrived and we noticed the news and internet buzzing about the hurricane off the Pacific coast of Mexico.  We started making Facebook posts and phoning family to reassure them that we were okay.

As we made our communications to our family and friends I was feeling quite confident, and then I got…informed.  Knowledge is power, but it can also freak the living begeebers out of you.  The storm had grown.  It was now the biggest one in recorded history.  Who knew that Mother Nature was an over achiever?  I distinctly remember one English speaking meteorologist/weatherman who was literally bouncing on his feet with excitement talking about just how BIG this hurricane was, comparing it to Katrina and others.  I recalled the devastation that I had seen in the media coverage of Katrina and I started to get worried.  The meteorologist continued to extol the virtues of this massive storm while the knot in my stomach grew.  I wished he would just shut up.  If I could have, I would have reached through the video feed on my computer and slapped him upside the head.

The morning ticked away and reports filled with statistics and predictions of destruction continued on the net and television.  I started to wonder.  Did I get enough water?  Yes, I let the media get to me.  The doubts and what ifs had started creeping into the edges of my brain.  I told my husband that I wanted to get some more water “just in case”.  We had bought 20 litres the night before, but suddenly I wasn’t sure if it was enough.  What if we had to stay home more than a couple of days?  He didn’t feel it was necessary, but agreed to go out with me to buy more.  We have been together a long time and he has seen “What if” Carmen before.

As we were getting ready to head out, I ran into my upstairs neighbor.  She was going to the nearest emergency shelter.  She knew where it was!  I quickly herded my husband and son out the door and followed her to the shelter.

The shelter was a large event hall on Playa Grande Avenue with a few people manning the doors and small group of freaked out tourists sitting at a table.  Hearing me speak both Spanish and English, one of them took the opportunity to ask me a question.  He told me that they had been evacuated from their hotel that morning, but they couldn’t speak Spanish and had no idea where they were in Puerto Vallarta.  He asked if the shelter was anywhere near the ocean.  Being a hurricane virgin, I knew I wasn’t going to be much help to him, but I did know that answer.  “No,” I told him, “you are nowhere near the ocean here.”  His shoulders actually dropped about two inches in relief.




One thing that surprised me about the shelter was that there was very little in it.  There were only a few chairs and tables set up.  They talked about setting up cots, but there were none visible.  It was a big space and I wondered how on earth they were going to set up furniture for potentially hundreds of people if they hadn’t already started.  The men working the door didn’t seem too concerned.  For them, this all appeared to be a case of “Been there.  Done that.  Got the t-shirt.”

We left the shelter, thanked our neighbor for showing us the way and then went out to get some water.  The city was tense.  The streets were jammed with cars like it was rush hour, but there was an agitation in the movement of the traffic that I have never seen since moving here.  The usual relaxed west coast vibe was completely gone.  Many stores were closed and had their windows taped with giant X’s.  Every convenience store we drove past had a line up of people out the door trying to buy water and other essential items like—Doritos.  Well, we all have our priorities.

There was so much congestion and so many line ups that I thought that I would never get my extra water.  We headed back home, being cut off and beeped at by anxious drivers. Surprisingly, I did end up getting my water at a small mom and pop convenience store just three blocks from our house.  The owner still had a large quantity of water as well as Doritos.  Priorities.

When waiting for “the big one” distraction is essential.  We watched television and surfed the internet until our service suddenly cut off at about two o’clock.  Then we had to find non-digital ways to divert our attention.  We played a Yahtzee grudge match, which I won scoring my first Yahtzee in months.  My husband tinkered with his bikes.  My son and I carved a pumpkin.  Yep, Yahtzee smack downs and mucking around with stringy, slimy, seedy pumpkin innards kept us busy for quite a while.

The time ticked by, but the storm didn’t appear.   The arrival time was pushed back.  We chatted with our neighbor in the rain.  We made supper.  It was pushed back again.  Without a doubt, the waiting was the hardest part.   A prediction would be made and that time would pass with nothing more than steady rain and not a puff of air.  For my son and I this was nail-biting torture.  If we had nothing to occupy us, we both started on the “what ifs”.  It was becoming harder and harder to distract ourselves.  For my husband, however, the waiting was boring.  Although my husband was born in Edmonton, you would swear he was from Missouri, “Carmen.  Where is the wind?  Hurricanes have wind and there is none.  I don’t think that it is going to happen.”

In complete contrast to my level headed hubby, my brain was working overtime, “But what if it hits when we are asleep?  Something might happen and I won’t be awake to deal with it!”  Personally, I think that this notion alone should get me crowned as the Queen of All Worriers.  I clearly brought it up to a whole new level!

It turns out, my husband was right.  (I hope he enjoyed that sentence.  He isn’t likely to hear it or read it ever again!)  At about 10:30 pm I found out from a neighbor, who had been in contact with government officials that the hurricane had indeed hit land, but had missed Puerto Vallarta.  Patricia went through Mexico, but she just flashed her skirts at Vallarta and kept right on going.  Only after hearing that news, could I finally fall asleep.

I hate to sound like an after school special, but I learned a lot about myself that weekend.  All those platitudes about the apprehension of an event being worse than the actual event were completely true.  Yes, I needed to prepare, but I didn’t need to freak out.  I realized that worrying got me absolutely nothing, but a bad night’s sleep and a massive migraine the next day.

I also beat myself up about my less than graceful reaction to a stressful situation.  I looked at my husband and my “cool as a cucumber” neighbor and judged myself as inferior.  Only after talking to my Mexican coworkers did I realize that some Mexicans took the situation as it came while others “what if’ed” themselves into a tizzy just like I did.  One co-worker agreed with me that the waiting was completely demoralizing for much of the populace.  I felt better knowing that I was not the only one that had gotten a bit frazzled by the end of the day.

Looking back, I think I wanted to find a guaranteed way to keep my family safe.  Unfortunately, in that kind of situation there are no guarantees.  You just do the best you can at that moment with the information that you have.

By the way, I never did need the extra water.  The four litre jug I bought on Friday is still sitting in my kitchen unopened.