Irma is the most powerful hurricane to spin up in the Caribbean in a really long time, maybe the most powerful ever recorded. She has devastated several islands in the Lesser Antilles, and is currently heading towards the Turks and Caicos. From there it is predicted she will hit the Bahamas and then head up straight to Florida.
With so many friends we have met along the way in our two years of travel, it has been painful and devastating to review the pictures and videos of the wrath that was once Irma. It is also terrifying to hear personal accounts of loss of property and in a few cases, a few of our friends have not yet checked in so their whereabouts are unknown.
It is with these thoughts that my hesitation and trepidation began building the day before my flight. I had nightmares of getting stuck at the airport and living through God knows what as Irma makes landfall in Florida. I had booked a flight back to Texas from Grenada via Miami a long time back, and it just so happened that it coincided with Irma’s pending arrival in Miami.
After a significant amount of hand wringing and consulting with some of my ex-coworkers at Southwest Airlines (even though I was flying American), I came to the conclusion that I would proceed as I was assured that the airlines are going to go above and beyond to ensure their passengers got out of Miami prior to the storm. I still had my doubts.
The day before the flight, I was full of anxiety about the trip, and on the day of the trip the anxiety escalated. In my mind I knew my flight would get stuck at the airport.
At the airport in Grenada, my name was called. Odd, I had vaguely recalled seeing the dreaded ‘SSSS’ on my boarding pass. I was being called out as if I was on the no-fly list and extra screening was going to be required. At this point I had very bad feelings about continuing on, and the agents suggested that if I had bad feeling they could rebook my flight without changes since there was a Travel Alert for Miami. I called Mike in a panic and was in tears. I guess I was waiting on him to give me permission to not go, but instead he said, ‘Breathe’. Next my friend Kay texted and she said the same thing. I thought ‘put on your big girl’ pants and get on with it. So with feelings of impending doom, I boarded the flight.
The flight was delayed. I knew the distance between the gates and Customs in Miami, and knew it would be extremely tight with about an hour of intense running and waiting and praying, all the while the time frame was shrinking. I got on the flight. Breathe.
Next was the actual run from the time our plane landed to boarding the next flight from Miami to Austin. Oddly the airport was a ghost town. It appeared we were one of the few last flights coming in. It was deserted, which was highly unusual; I had never seen it like that. We all breezed through immigration and customs in record time, then I checked my bag back in. Then the dreaded run from customs to the last gate in the American Concourse. This time I was able to successfully locate the train that bought me 5 minutes to spare on the flight to Austin.
Finally I relaxed. The dreaded part was over and now all that was left was to enjoy the ride. It seemed like it was taking an extraordinary time to taxi to the runway and the Captain indicated that it was a mass exodus of flights from Miami, probably the most in one day ever. My seatmate turned out to be an American Airlines Executive Platinum member and he mentioned he had never seen it like that before. Then emergency vehicles started whizzing past on the tarmac. We both unknowingly at the same time and found that from Google there was a person in the airport with a gun, and the police ‘took him out’. So we decided that had to be playing into the delays. After we had been on the tarmac three hours, we were summoned back to the gate, and the flight attendants assured us that they and the pilots were not going to ‘time out’ or hit their max hours until 7:00 am. It was now 1:30 am. Well the airline had different ideas and they cancelled the flight stating they had timed out. Honestly our flight was relatively very small compared to some of the big jets leaving so American Eagle may have other ideas how they were to be deployed.
It was also about this time that everyone’s cell phone started making an emergency notification sound with the loud alarming beeps you hear during an Amber Alert, notifying us that we were now under a hurricane warning with a mandatory evacuation. These alerts continued every 15-30 minutes on everyone’s phone in tandem in the Miami airport. In addition, we were constantly being reminded via a pre-recorded message coming from the PA system that the flights out of the airport would be ending at noon. It was unnerving and there was a sense of panic among the passengers.
Back in the terminal we ran to the rebooking gate. I was way up at the front of the line so I thought I might be able to get out the next day. Not so, I was rebooked on a flight that didn’t leave for 4 more full days. At this news grown men were screaming obscenities and passengers were crying. There was a Cat 5 hurricane heading directly to Miami and the airport was in its path. There were no cars to be rented, no hotel rooms to be had. We were stuck at the airport for 4 more days, and that was assuming there was minimal damage and the airport reopened on Monday.
At this point I weighed my options – not promising. The agents told us not to leave Concourse D to get our bags or chances were we could not get back in due to the ‘incident’ referring to the suspect that had been shot. So my option with American Eagle would be to wait until Monday at the airport. Not having eaten dinner or having water in hand, I decided I didn’t like that option. I even asked an American Eagle employee what she was going to do and asked jokingly if I could stay at her house.
I had to get away from the crowd. By this time I was completely calm but it was total chaos at the gate. All the flights the next day had standby lists a mile long, so my chances of getting out of Miami at that point were slim to none. I felt like I needed to talk to someone, but by this time it was 3:30 in the morning and I decided I didn’t want to wake up my friends and family. Who could I call?
I remembered that the Southwest Airlines Customer Service Department works 24/7 so I could expect someone to pick up the phone and I would inquire as to what they were going to do with their employees. Being a SWA retiree, I thought if I could get to the Ft. Lauderdale airport where Southwest flies; I could possibly hook up with the SWA employees and find a safe place to stay.
I spoke with Customer Service representative and told him my predicament. I also told him that I would be willing to fly anywhere Southwest flies just to get out of Miami, even Detroit. He said he had been looking all day to no avail, don’t get my hopes up, and at that point I heard a change in the timbre in his voice, and he came back with, “How about Nashville?” Sure thing, I told him and he said he had already reserved the seat for me. I was so excited that I was halfway through giving him my credit card number when it occurred to me to ask him how much it would cost. It was $194.00, which seemed like a bargain to me at the time. I now had a confirmed reservation on Southwest to fly out of the Ft. Lauderdale airport later that day. I could finally leave the terminal and go pick up my luggage.
All the luggage was grouped by destination city. I went to collect my bag and it was nowhere to be found. Fortunately with RFID, an agent was able to ascertain that my bag was sitting on the tarmac in a container, and my best bet would be to pick up the bag in Austin. All I wanted to do was to get out of there, so I grabbed a cab to take me to Ft. Lauderdale.
It was an interesting taxi ride at 4:00 that morning. It was eerily deserted and all the toll signs were flashing red notifying drivers that the tolls were waived due to the hurricane. With the mandatory evacuation in Miami, I expected to see more cars on the road.
The Ft. Lauderdale airport was a far cry from the scene at Miami. It was crowded, but everyone was going about their business in an orderly fashion, there were more dogs and cats than usual, a sense of calm, and the airport was not scheduled to close until 8:00 that night.
I went through Security at 4:30 am and found my gate and decided to camp out until my 2:30 pm flight. By that point I was deprived of sleep and overall just punch drunk sans alcohol at the whole situation. With time on my hands, I took in my surroundings. I hadn’t seen large groups of US citizens in so long that everyone looked familiar so I started naming people. My friends and family must have started worrying as the text message exchanges became more frequent and funnier. Auto correct was providing hours of entertainment. My mind wandered and I wondered why Auld Lang Syne was playing over the PA system.
There was an announcement that someone had left a walker at Skycap with a request to come pick it up. Why was I the only one laughing? A bit later there was another announcement that a cane had been left at Skycap with a request for the owner of a walker and now the owner of a cane to please pick them up at Skycap. A while later a SWA employee came over the PA and said he now had “two canes and a walker” that had been left behind. I started wondering if Skycap was performing miracles and healing people.
Our flight was delayed until 4:30 pm. I noticed that most of the flights were delayed. Finally a Southwest employee explained that due to the extremely high volume of flights coming in and out of Florida, the air traffic controllers were having a hard time trying to keep up, so the traffic in and out of the airport was delayed due to overall congestion. I believe this was the case at the Miami airport, yet I never got a clear message indicating what the problem actually was at the time.
The flight to Nashville finally left at around 4:00 p.m. We hit the runway and were off. No sitting on the tarmac waiting for planes to take off. Once we were in the sky, all my worries melted as I figured if there was a problem, Southwest would divert to another city and not take us back to southern Florida. We first flew to BWI, changed planes, and then onto Nashville. Using getaroom.com, I was able to find a hotel close to the airport. Just for fun I looked up southern Florida on the website, and no hotels came up at all. Wild!
The hotel I chose wasn’t part of a chain; it was a locally owned facility. The rates surrounding the airport were running about $180 average, and this place looked nice at $132. My first indication that something might be amiss is on the shuttle provided by the hotel, there was a truck driver whose rig had broken down near the airport and he was staying at the hotel. He thanked me when I asked the driver to take me to a store so I could buy some beer. He bought some too. At the hotel I got a closer look. I renamed it the “Hotel Wanna Be”. It looked like a normal hotel with a breakfast bar, but they required a $50 room damage deposit and had a DIY laundry onsite. What goes on in this hotel?
I went to my room and realized my pocketknife with a bottle opener was in my checked luggage. So I wandered back to the desk to ask for an opener. Not having one, the clerk suggested I check in the breakfast area. I opened every drawer and cabinet looking for a bottle opener. I had gone thus far without a beer, and now I really wanted that beer. I went back to the room and Googled how to open a bottle without an opener. That looked too difficult to follow. I looked around the room. I noticed that the knob on the drawer of the desk could potentially double as an opener. If I was careful…bingo, it worked! I was pretty pleased with myself. I texted some more to provide updates and made a few phone calls to family to let them know I was OK.
At this point I had to figure out my next move. I didn’t have a confirmed flight out of Nashville, but being a Southwest retiree has its perks. I could fly standby the next day for free. Considering I was cutting into my time in Texas, I decided I would fly into Dallas instead of Austin. Getting the luggage might be a challenge, but it would allow me to go straight to my parent’s house. I made a listing to fly nonstop from Nashville to Dallas the next day at 12:30 p.m. There were still 52 seats available for sale, so I felt confident I would make that flight.
The next day I checked out of the hotel and took the shuttle back to the Nashville airport. You can learn a lot about a city these days by going to the airport and perusing the menus and souvenirs. I had a Whitt’s BBQ sandwich at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge at the Nashville airport. It was a pulled pork sandwich with some awesome BBQ sauce. I then wandered into another restaurant that had live country music by a 16 year old that was amazing. I’m sure she will go far, she was awesome. After listening to her set and talking with her briefly, she gave me a CD and a business card to remember her by.
Julie picked me up at the airport in Dallas. She had picked up my luggage in Austin and drove it up to Dallas. She deposited me at Rockfish and I met up with my parents and cousins for a fun surprise dinner. It took 3 days and 6 airports to get to Dallas from Grenada. It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror and determine I should have never boarded that flight from Grenada to Miami 2 days before a Cat 5 hurricane, but some things have to be lived through to get the message. Next time I’ll trust my own intuition and seriously question flying during a Travel Alert. Considering I live on a sailboat currently anchored in Grenada, I’m grateful that the only drama I encountered from Hurricane Irma included these travel obstacles. Several friends and acquaintances lost their boats during the storm.
Flight 4592 was cancelled again that following Monday. I still wonder what happened to all the passengers on the cancelled flight that Thursday who may not have had the opportunity to leave Miami.