How I Escaped from Hurricane Irma
As the hurricane raged toward Turks and Caicos, our writer desperately looked for a way off the island
In the face of possible death, the private airport was just where I wanted to be.
An unassuming, unmarked building hidden behind a wall of shrubs, the Provo Airways Airport is reserved for the kind of people who have money for private jets. The sliding glass doors parted, and I was met with a blast of cool air that I hadn’t felt in weeks.
We were in Turks and Caicos, celebrating the birth of our second son. By mixing some work with a little vacation time, we had managed to piece together three weeks on the island. Reasonable airline prices, a quick flight, and still off the must-see destination radar, it was an ideal place to get away from everything while adjusting to our new normal.
About 20 people milled about, huddled in small groups of five or six, all decked out in designer sunglasses and big watches. Most were looking at phones; a couple people actually looked bored. I wiped a piece of vomit from my shirt and tried to focus. There were sleek white couches everywhere, centered around a long marble counter that displayed pitchers of ice water swimming with fresh fruit. A large display held a variety of snacks, and a uniformed woman was casually refilling coffee cups while restocking the bar. A room off to the right had a children’s play area to entertain the handful of kids who ran about, blissfully unaware of the Category 5 hurricane roaring toward us. Hurricane Irma had already destroyed Antigua, Barbuda, and Saint Martin and was on track to hit us the next day, Wednesday, September 6. Today was our last chance to get out of its way, and it clearly wasn’t going to be easy.
I felt immediately out of place here: My shorts and once-white shirt were stained with sweat and dried baby food. My hair was clumped into tiny knots from the saltwater, and sweat was literally dripping off my chin. I stepped quickly toward the kitchen area, wiped my forehead with a napkin, and waited for someone to throw me out.
A woman named Debbie seemed to be in charge. A cellphone in one hand, a landline in the other, she was typing while fielding questions from a handful of underlings. I needed to talk to Debbie. I walked up to the counter, hovering nervously until she took a breath.
“Hi,” I said with a forced smile. “Obviously, we are trying to get off the island,” I joked half-heartedly. “Do any of these jets have any spare seats to sell?” I hoped to sound like I traveled via private jet every day, but I had a feeling my clothes gave me away.
“Actually, yes,” she said. Debbie’s eyes narrowed as she motioned toward the back corner with the pile of papers in her hand. “That man right there was just asking people about his extra seats. I don’t know if he’s filled them yet, but you can ask.” Then she disappeared into a back office.
I looked at the gray-haired man with tortoise-rim glasses who was talking on his cellphone, casually filling his coffee with creamer. He was dressed the way someone who traveled like this would dress: sharp. Two younger men, mid-twenties or so, were standing with him. I stood in the opposite corner and waited for the older man to get off the phone, then I walked over.
“Are you the gentleman with the jet?” I asked casually.
He had two friends running late and offered their seats to me and the baby but slowly shook his head as my family grew to four. “Only two seats,” he said, as he looked down to avoid my gaze.
I went back to Debbie and took her aside. “No dice,” I said, hoping to sound grateful before I dropped the next one on her. “Would you mind if I made a sign?” I asked quietly. It seemed tacky at this sleek, expensive airport: a sign begging for a ride off the island.
“Good thinking,” she said, handing me a sheet of printer paper.
What should I write? I had no idea, but in the end I pulled out some basic marketing skills: red ink from the business center, capital letters, and make it personal.
HELP. FAMILY OF 4 NEEDS A RIDE TO ANYWHERE IN THE USA. CAN BE HERE IN AN HOUR. TALK TO DEBBIE FOR DETAILS.
How should I sign this? PLEASE? Too desperate. THANK YOU! Too eager. Eventually, I settled on signing just our names—Matt, Kathleen, Connor, and Andrew—and wrote our ages beside them.
I looked at Debbie, embarrassed. “Can I make another one?”
I taped one sign to the wall adjacent to the check-in desk, slightly above eye level, and I stuck the second on the glass door at the entrance of the airport, directly in view of anybody who walked in. I retreated to my corner: six hours until the airport closed and we’d be stuck here to ride out the hurricane.
After ten minutes, I went over to the glass door and drew a line through the four, and made it a two—the kids could sit on our laps.
Thirty minutes later, after still no luck, I crossed out the two and made it a one. One of us on the plane, kid in the lap, and baby goes in the backpack.
In our defense, we had been trying to get off the island for four days. We were booked on a Delta flight for a departure on Thursday, September 7—by most initial predictions, clear of anything hurricane-related. All the seats between now and then were full; standby was only available if our flight was canceled. The predictions for when Irma might hit us changed depending on who you listened to, but the consensus soon became that, at this rate, Thursday would be too late.
“Your only real chance at an earlier flight is if we send a bigger jet between now and then,” the Delta rep told me when I called her on Sunday, September 3.
“How likely is that?” I asked for the second time that day, although the response was different this time.
“I’m kind of expecting it any minute,” she assured me, but she also directed me to a tiny section of the Delta website for updates. With one eye on the news, we tried to enjoy the last couple days of our trip at a rented vacation house, and the weather was happy to cooperate: There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Thirty minutes later, after still no luck, I crossed out the two and made it a one. One of us on the plane, kid in the lap, and baby goes in the backpack.
On Sunday night, we called the other airlines that serviced the island. After some back and forth about going to Toronto via Jamaica, we resigned ourselves to a worst-case scenario: We weren’t getting out. It would be an adventure, we told ourselves. Kind of like camping: No electricity for a night, but movies in a bathtub! No dinner, but candy for everyone! I posted on Facebook for some help: “Getting ready for a hurricane, need a playlist. Any suggestions?”
A little more brainstorming, and our camping adventure buzz fizzled out: How long would we be here? After Harvey hit in August, the airports had taken, what, three days to get back up and running? Would our cellphones even work that long to call the airlines? As for the actual storm, we realized the two of us would be fine, and the baby would be OK (all he did was sleep), but the four-year-old would be climbing the walls to get out of a bathroom, not to mention scared to death.
Things changed on Tuesday. Irma had picked up speed and was on target to hit Antigua and Barbuda that evening. The news reports were growing increasingly dire, and we made another phone call to Delta. No change, they said. Their confidence about scheduling a half-billion-dollar plane to land at the airport gave me a little lift, but not much. Were they watching the same news I was?
My phone was filling up with questions about when we were getting out of there, and my playlist had gone from humorous (Irma Thomas, “It’s Raining So Hard”) to serious (“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe).
More ominously, the weather had taken a turn. Our clear skies were still there, but the horizon was dark, and we could see sheets of rain across the island. I was outside painting with my four-year-old when a large gust of wind came across the sound, knocking over a chair, blowing his pictures everywhere, and tossing a small coconut onto the deck, where it left a dent. My son loved it and spent the next hour painting it varying shades of brown, but I became worried and changed from my swimsuit.
As Irma worked its way up the newsreel, I started digging a little deeper. The projections for the hurricane path looked like someone took a plate of spaghetti and threw it against a wall. It could literally go anywhere from Mexico to Canada. The entire continent of North America? What the hell kind of prediction is that?
“I’m going to the store,” I said after a brief conversation with my husband. “Be back in a bit.” Our hurricane prep list was short—we had plenty of food—so I just wanted to get a few last things. I bought a couple cans of baby formula, a rotisserie chicken, and a coloring book. On my way back, I passed the Turks and Caicos brewery on my left, where the normally buzzing depot for locals to get filtered water was no busier than usual. Across the street, the Quality Grocery seemed a little more crowded, but I cracked a smile when I saw a group of men lounging casually around the door, laughing and drinking beer. It’s like a New Orleans hurricane party, I thought cheerily, pushing Katrina to the back of my head.
Back at the rental house, my family resigned ourselves to staying calm. “It’s not like we can put on a life vest and start rowing. We’ll be fine,” I told my mother over the phone, trying to sound convincing.
I was only half listening as she responded with something about her friend and NetJets. Although I knew enough about the timesharing jet service to know that one wasn’t coming to get us, I did drag out my computer and do a quick Google search on the private airport.
I posted on Facebook for some help: “Getting ready for a Hurricane, need a playlist. Any suggestions?”
Tuesday night was a restless one, and between the news and the baby, I was hardly sleeping. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, news began trickling onto the internet from Antigua and Barbuda. It was slow at first, but soon a steady flow of photos and shaky videos emerged, each more concerning than the last.
One particular video caught my attention: Shaky cellphone footage showed a street filled with water, the wind blowing steadily, whipping the palm trees into a frenzy. “Not so bad!” I thought. As the sound got louder, the tree hit a 90-degree angle and within seconds was ripped apart, sending leaves and wood chunks hurtling into an adjacent building. It was terrifying.
Our rental house became a flurry of muted activity, throwing our stuff into the car while trying not to wake the kids. One of us pressed redial and got the Delta automated menu. Between tossing clothes into suitcases and trying to pack the car, we somehow managed to get a representative on the phone. No change.
Some further internet searches (“How far by boat to Miami,” “Turks and Caicos flights to London”) had uncovered a rumor that was circulating: The Providenciales airport was closing at 6 p.m., effectively canceling our Thursday afternoon flight. What. The. Fuck.
I called Delta again; the hold music made my blood boil. When I finally got someone to answer, I told them about the airport closure.
“We have no record of that,” she said.
I drove to the airport, where there was an undercurrent of panic. Two long lines snaked through the building, and people like me were showing up to try to figure out what was going on. It was still dark, but people were arriving in droves. I heard the couple behind me gasp at the line and start talking furiously back into their cellphones. I headed over to the shortest line I could find and tried some deep-breathing exercises. After a brief wait, I stepped up to the Caicos Transport counter.
“Can you tell me where the Delta counter is?”
He pointed to an empty ticket counter with a group of ten or so people huddled together nervously.
“They get here at 11 a.m.”
I looked at my watch. It was 6 a.m.
“And the airport is closing at 6 p.m.,” he said.
“Do the airlines know?” I asked in a whisper.
“Have to ask them,” he said and motioned for the next person in line.
I wandered over to the Delta line, where a group of guys sitting on the floor were a couple steps ahead of me. “We’re all waiting for standby on this plane. Delta doesn’t know that the airport is closing at 6, and they won’t take standby over the phone.”
“But the agent wouldn't be here until 11 a.m.” I told them.
They one-upped me. “Track the outgoing plane on FlightAware, you’ll be able to tell if Delta is sending a bigger jet. We’re here in case they do.” Someone behind me started crying.
By daybreak, I was headed to the nearby hotel where my family had checked in—it had three stories and seemed safer than our rental house if the waters rose—to drop off the food, baby gear, and a car full of gallon water bottles. I was driving horribly and I knew it. Speeding away from the international airport, I entered a roundabout and missed my exit, forcing me to turn around in an empty expanse of pavement. As I threw the car into reverse, the bag of groceries toppled from the pile of suitcases and the chicken fell into my lap. I opened the door and tossed the carcass into a nearby bush, when my eye landed on a tiny plane humming behind a gate. Tiny blue lights lighted a small runway, but I was halfway to the hotel before I realized that was the private airport I had Googled earlier.
Which is how my signs ended up in the private airport. I was staring at them, hoping someone would notice them, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Is that your sign?” said a voice behind me. I turned and faced a man dressed in a pink polo shirt, with a wife and kids smiling at me in his wake.
“Yes, it is,” I said, unable to hide the desperation in my voice. “Do you have an extra seat?”
As it turns out, he had three and a soft spot for babies.
Racing to the car, I dialed the hotel four times before I connected to our room.
I struggled to remain calm. “Listen,” I told my husband. “I need you to meet me in front of the hotel. Bring only what you need. We’ve got a ride, but it’s about weight, we can’t bring too much. Do you understand?”
If our family has one thing to work on after this, it’s life survival skills. Screeching on two wheels to the front of the hotel, I saw my toddler climbing on a pile of suitcases and the baby stuff everywhere. A light scuffle later, and we were roaring toward the airport—half our bags in the car, and the other half laying in small piles and around the hotel entrance. I ran inside. Debbie shook her head at me and pointed out the window: We had missed it.
Debbie said that a cargo company from Florida had called and asked if they should start running planes to the island. My heart leaped, but there was a caveat: They would only come if there were 30 people willing to pay. “Sign us up,” I said. I didn’t even ask about the price. After seeing men out front crying, what wouldn’t I pay? I swallowed hard and handed her my credit card.
If our family has one thing to work on after this, it’s life survival skills. Screeching on two wheels to the front of the hotel, I saw my toddler climbing on a pile of suitcases and baby stuff everywhere.
“Are we going to have a problem getting 30?” I asked her.
“I don't think so,” she said, looking around. I knew she was right and started herding people toward Debbie to fill our passenger list. The next couple hours were spent barricading my kid into the children’s corner and sending incoming people to the desk to talk to Debbie.
The flight wasn’t cheap: $1,500 per seat, plus tax and a departure fee. I counted my blessings that we could afford to get out of there. It was going to be a hard pill to swallow, but it wouldn’t kill us. As I watched the news coming out of from Saint Martin, I knew it was worth it: The island was decimated.
Word had starting getting out that there were seats, and a steady stream of people started filling up the airport. The food and water evaporated, and there was an occasional outburst of yelling and tears when people realized our charter was full.
The lucky ones who were waiting for the plane relaxed a bit and started swapping stories. One person said that, earlier that morning, a generous man had sent his half-empty plane back to the island to fill it up. On the other hand, I had to walk away when I heard a man cry softly to a pilot, “But I don’t have $26,000 to give you.” His teary wife pulled away the kid tugging on his sleeve.
I looked straight ahead, doing my best to remain positive: We were booked on the flight, they had run our credit card, and the plane was here. We were close.
At 5:30 p.m., I walked over to Debbie. “I just wanted to say thank you, you know, for the signs and everything that you did,” I said. “I really can’t thank you enough.”
She smiled as she leaned against the counter, chatting with another girl beside her.
“I guess you’re staying here?” I asked. “Are you going to be OK?”
“I’m here,” she said. “Been here for nine years. Not going anywhere. We’ll be fine.”
I was just about to say something else when I heard a loud pop, and I turned around to see a group of women pouring champagne into plastic cups. Never one to pass up a chance to celebrate, I asked Debbie where I might find a bottle of our own.
“That was the last one,” she said. “And believe me, they deserve it.”
“We could only get 30 people on this plane, and that woman,” she gestured toward the younger of the blondes, “wouldn’t leave her mother,” she said as she pointed to the older blonde. “So, they’re both staying.”
A short time later, a woman began calling names from a clipboard, and one by one, we gathered in a small group around the gate. After a brief wait, the doors opened, and my four-year-old adjusted his headphones and strolled out ahead of me, not taking his eyes off whatever was on my iPhone, his swimsuit still damp from the pool.
We quickly found our seats. I looked out the window and saw the two women sipping champagne. The engines hummed a little louder, and the doors shut on the 29 passengers.
I looked at my watch again: 6 p.m. I didn’t stop shaking until we landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.