On Dodging a Perfect Storm in Puerto Vallarta
Courtesy of Visit Puerto Vallarta (View); Ric Chamblee (Piñatapv); NOAA GOES Project/NASA via AP (Satellite Image).
On Friday morning, October 23, 2015, we woke up to a knocking just before 8 a.m. It was our sixth morning at Piñata, a new gay guesthouse in Puerto Vallarta. I scrambled to pull on some shorts and opened the door.
Ronnie, one half of the couple who own Piñata, told us that a hurricane was on the way and that he was going to go to the shops and buy some food, enough to weather three days without services. And cash too — he was maxing out his ATM daily withdrawal, just in case. If we wanted, we could try to get a flight home now, but the airports would be closing. And the roads too. We’d need to decide now what we wanted to do.
“Wait — what?” I asked.
He started over, slower. “Hurricane,” he said, “a big one.” He seemed hesitant to say the words, as if a massive storm were a breach in his hospitality obligations.
My husband Andreas and I looked at each other, slack-jawed.
We’d spent the whole previous day on a great day cruise with Diana’s Tours (DianasTours.com), drinking and sunning and eating, followed by more drinking at Diana’s party at Blue Chairs; we were out for the count by sundown. All four days before that, we’d spent totally idle on the beach. I read a whole book. Our only preparations for catastrophe had been my overly ambitious SPF. “Fifty?” Andreas said. “Who needs 50?” He regarded the spray can I’d just handed him as if it were a dead rat.
Hurricane. We weren’t sure what to do first: Check flight schedules? Pack the suitcases? Flashlights? I remembered there was something useful about flashlights. We decided that Andreas would look up flights while I raced to the market.
The skies were gray and the rain was just starting as I ran into the Farmacias Guadalajara. I got loaves of bread, cans of tuna fish, some no-refrigeration milk, some cereal, and a bunch of candy bars. There weren’t a lot of options. I was the last shopper out, and the staff locked up the doors behind me. When I returned to Piñata, Andreas said we could try standby for a flight — but if we weren’t successful before the airport shut down at noon, we’d be stuck there. Or worse, we could be stuck on the road attempting to come back when the hurricane made landfall.
“OK, we stay,” I said. “Yes, but you’re not going anywhere without me,” Andreas said. I nodded. Twitter weather reports told us that the storm would hit at 2 p.m.; Ronnie’s neighbor told him the city would shut off the power then too.
Andreas and I walked quickly to an ATM on the main drag near the beach. The wail of sirens was coming closer. A stream of 15 ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, and black pickup trucks drove past in a slow procession. From a loudspeaker atop one of the trucks, a man gave instructions, or warnings, or directions to shelters in Spanish, over the sound of the sirens.
Men were pulling giant sheets of pressboard from the backs of pickup trucks and nailing them over restaurant and shop windows. All the other windows in every street were covered with giant Xs of tape — like protections against a biblical plague.
A coffeehouse was still open, and as we passed we realized how starved we were for caffeine. The woman at the counter blithely made us two café lattes and told us she was open until noon.
On the way back we grabbed more junk food and a big jug of water from a convenience store — where’s a goddamned Lärabar when you need one? — and went back to Piñata. On Twitter we could see that this wasn’t just a storm brewing. It was the most powerful Western Hemisphere storm on record. They called her Patricia. And Patricia was being a real jerk.
Some astronaut was tweeting pictures of the massive disc of atmosphere as seen from space. The coiled center hung just over our little spot on the globe. I hope my mother doesn’t see those, I thought. My hangover was starting to scrape its way out from under the adrenaline rush.
Around 2 p.m. we brought our luggage and disappointing groceries down from our room to the central brick building used for parties at Piñata. It was newer, safer, and sturdier than even the public shelters, explained David, Ronnie’s fiancé. On the counter was a big, frosted sheet cake with feliz compleaños written under an intensely colored rainbow in shortening frosting, and a big jug of margaritas. They were remnants of the aborted birthday party that had been planned for that night — but also offered as comforts for settling the nerves.
The room was adorned with cool art in keeping with Piñata’s wrestler theme, and it was stocked with luchador masks, giant fuzzy carnival heads, and sequined sombreros. Also in the most festive bunker on the west coast were three flight attendants from Seattle, a mysterious guy from New Jersey, and the pal of the birthday boy from Portland — all guests — and some of Ronnie and David’s local friends, including a trio of early-20s local go-go dancers and an American expat who owned the gallery next door. We had all the makings of a campy disaster movie.
Andreas and I sat down on the couch. Nearly everyone compulsively checked his phone for hurricane updates. “Am I the only one not facedown in a phone?” the perturbed gallery owner asked the room. No one sympathized. “I don’t believe in smartphones,” he said. He didn’t believe in reading the room either.
Some of us had a margarita or two — but only after Ronnie’s short, sharp command that no one get drunk. If shit got real, a drunk could endanger us all.
Over the next eight hours, I stared at my phone, tried to read, and held Andreas’s hand. The gallery owner grumbled that this hurricane was too boring, so he left. We ate tuna fish sandwiches. The flight attendants put on the big carnival heads. The dancers listened to local radio, and David translated hurricane path updates and wind speeds: Patricia was still whipping at over 200 m.p.h. Even so, time skidded to a stop.
Around 10 p.m., the dancers did a little victory dance around the radio. The storm was headed south of us, to Manzanillo. The winds might be bad, but the likelihood of catastrophe was now near zero. Some of the guys drank a toast to being spared, and Andreas and I headed back up to our room, thoroughly worn out.
The evacuations south of us were successful, and incredibly, no fatalities were reported. The next morning the streets were soaked and leaf-strewn, but no windows were smashed, no homes toppled. The small river through town had become a raging brown torrent, gorged with water from the mountains. But the boogie boarders didn’t mind. They jumped right in where the muddy, cold rainwater was pumping into the warm blue sea.
I’m a total wet blanket in an emergency, it turns out. But Mexico wasn’t. Mexico was prepared. Patricia robbed us of just one day’s beachy bliss. But I’m determined to make up for it as soon as we can get back to Puerto Vallarta. And if another hurricane comes our way, we know where to find the party.