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Hurricane Wilma 2005 - The Island 1 Year Later
Many INSIDER visitors have written over the past few months urging another Wilma update be posted. While always eager to share news and information with everyone about what is happening on the island, it just seemed redundant after about a month for us to keep saying the same things: “we are cleaning up and recovering from 2 catastrophic hurricanes.” Since the bulletin boards were “a buzz” daily with information and up to the minute news on hotel status, etc. it seemed silly for INSIDER to try to provide the same information after the fact. Instead, we arbitrarily determined 1 year to be a decent benchmark point to provide an update.

Now, a year later, we are able to look back at that time with a bit more perspective and we are able to analyze more of what was going on around us rather than just trying to survive the event. It is clear from our website statistics of that time frame that the welfare of the island and its residents was very much on everyone's mind. Almost 28,000 unique visitors checked COZUMELINSIDER during those 2-3 days of the storm and their surfing generated over 1.2 million individual hits on our site. With those kind of numbers, you can literally "feel the love" and concern folks all around the world had for the island.

And fortunately, here we are toward the end of October 2006 marking the first anniversary since WILMA. Not to short change EMILY in any way, it must be said that the impact of BOTH EMILY and WILMA remains with us in many ways still one year later.

Even though everyone put on a brave and smiling face after Wilma, I think the honest ones would say that we all shared fears and concerns about the survival of our businesses and how quickly the island would recover from these two incredible natural disasters. It cannot be emphasized enough just how pervasive the effects of WILMA ended up being. Everyone had just spent the weeks following EMILY putting things back in order and justifying it all with the logic of “this will all work out because high season is just around corner.” There was no hesitation on anyone’s part after EMILY to begin putting things back together and honestly, it was amazing to see most everything functioning normally within 3 weeks. Yes, there was extensive damage and a lot of work to do after EMILY but the storm moved quickly and there were a lot of new people on the island who had never really been through a hurricane before. Everyone was eager and energetic to put EMILY behind us and get on to the fantastic high season ahead. Just as everyone was beginning to put the final touches on repairs done from EMILY and relax a couple of weeks before high season kicked in, along came WILMA. Three days of pounding that literally sucked the life right out of the island as it left.

The final day of WILMA (Sunday) the storm wasn’t really over yet but the winds had subsided somewhat so folks ventured out early that Sunday morning surveying the damage. The best summation to describe it would be “dazed and confused.” As one encounters the “damage zone” you move in slow motion as your brain tries to reconcile the illogical nature of what is being seen by the eyes. An overstuffed sofa from a bar was impaled on a naked tree limb. A tree limb as big in diameter as a human yet snapped off like a toothpick. No one could absorb the extent of their own personal losses because all around there were other people/places with more extensive damage. Everyone was walking around gawking in amazement and couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the events: a direct hit of 2 catastrophic hurricanes in less than 90 days. The laughs and attempts at humor were simply thinly glazed masks meant to cover the shock and fear we all felt for what we knew to be ahead of us with re-building not only our own personal businesses/homes but the entire island as well.

While everyone did their best to put things back together we could not change what the world now knew about us: we were damaged badly. It did not matter how hard folks worked to meet the November 14th deadline set by the Presidente to “ReOpen Cozumel.” The drummers drummed and the dancers danced at the official ceremonies but no one could make it rain tourists again overnight. As it turned out, the airlines have taken their time in ramping up their flights while some carriers and many charter flights just cancelled everything and pulled out of Cozumel all together this past year. Canadians had it particularly hard trying to get to Cozumel this past winter and virtually all of the flights out of there were cancelled for the season. Through the course of the “high season” some of these flights came back but many others have not so occupancy at the hotels, rental properties & B&B’s continued to be sluggish and lower than normal all year.

The cruise lines also used the opportunity to pick up other destinations like Progresso and Mahajual in the itineraries of many ships so there are far fewer different cruise ships docking in Cozumel right now. Up until just recently, all ships stopping in Cozumel had to tender passengers since work on the piers has not been completed. Initially, it was announced that Punta Langosta was to receive the first ships back at her side sometime in May 2006 while the International pier would be dockable again by Fall 2006 and Puerta Maya would take the longest ~ 2 years ~ since it had to be completely rebuilt. As it turned out, the International Pier down south was the first to have ships dock directly at its side again commencing in late May. Punta Langosta re-inaugurated in late September finally with a Disney ship being the first to tie up. And at this time, there is still no work being done on Puerta Maya’s pier which was 100% destroyed so its recovery is still at least 2 years away once they decide to begin construction. Since many passengers just don’t want to hassle with being tendered in, it has limited significantly the number of folks actually getting off of the ship and doing activities or shopping so the economy continued to suffer all year.

It goes without saying that cleanup and reconstruction all over the island still continues to some degree even one year later. Tremendous progress has been made of course but there is still a good bit to be done. The Naval Base has finally begun its rebuilding and there is still some work being done on beachfront stores as folks are using this opportunity to add a 2nd or 3rd floor to their building. Chankanaab Park finally reopened July 1st but was 2 – 3 months delayed. This is typical of what has happened with most of the major repair and clean up efforts. All of the southern hotels are now finished with repairs and remodeling and receiving guests at some level of occupancy. The final hotel to complete work is Presidente Hotel which is now open again as of this past week with work continuing in some buildings and at the entrance. On the north end, all hotels are up and running normally with the exception of Fontan which is receiving a total renovation and Sol Cabanas which is still completely closed with no signs of reconstruction activity.

I think it should be mentioned rather PROMINENTLY that in general over the past year, it was the SCUBA DIVERS who came back to Cozumel as soon as they could get here just to drop some money into the local economy because they love the island so much. Divers are an adventuresome bunch by nature and typically more flexible and adaptable than most travelers since diving is often done in very remote places with few amenities. The SCUBA DIVERS called and emailed and fought with airlines to re-establish flights yet paid higher fares due to the decreased number of flights and selflessly paid extra baggage fees to bring down replacement items or whatever else they could do to help out. With a laugh, a smile and lots of words of encouragement for all of us, the divers simply dealt with the minor inconveniences this past year and told us all to keep our chins up!

I for one cannot say THANK YOU enough to the SCUBA DIVERS and of course the countless others who ventured their way down to Cozumel this past year. All of us here in Cozumel look forward to all of you visiting again this high season to see how far we’ve come since EMILY & WILMA. But until you can get here, we leave you with these pictures of Then & Now.

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