Running Away From a Hurricane on Our Honeymoon: Episode 5
It's 2pm on Friday afternoon and Ian and I have flown 8 hours to arrive in Antigua, a heavenly Caribbean island with white sandy beaches surrounded by clear blue water. As we get out of the airport, I'm bursting with excitement.
I squeal "We're here! I've been waiting for this moment all year!"
Waiting for a taxi to pick us up, Ian leans in for a kiss and smiles "We've made it baby."
When the taxi arrives, we quickly climb into the backseat and make our way to the hotel.
Our driver, a local black man named Anthony asks "What brings you to Antigua?"
"It's our honeymoon. It's also our one year wedding anniversary. We've been told this place is paradise for honeymooners," Ian reveals.
The driver goes quiet and doesn't say anything.
Feeling awkward, Ian asks "And er... how's the weather looking?"
"Well, it's hot. News reporters say it's so warm a storm in the Atlantic ocean recently turned into a hurricane. There's a good chance it will land in Antigua in the next 3 or 4 days. We're praying it doesn't." Anthony replies.
Out of the loop, I turn to Ian and whisper "Did he just say hurricane?"
Anthony repeats "Yes ma dear. A hurricane."
My heart drops and my eyes open wide. Anxious, Ian starts questioning Anthony, "How bad does it look? Is there a chance we'll be safe?"
"It's a category 5 and it's bigger than the size of France. The last hurricane like this was Luis, but it was a category 4 and was smaller.
About 50% of our island was destroyed because of it. Thousands of people lost their homes, their businesses, access to food, water. Some people died too.
I mean, I lived through it...
But I know people who are still suffering today. For example, one of my friends was home when the hurricane came. It lifted his house into the air, flipped it upside down and dropped it back onto the ground. He's hasn't been able to walk ever since." Anthony explains.
My stomach ties up in knots. How on earth did we fly right into the path of a hurricane?
As we approach our hotel, the driver says "Take advantage of the weather as it is right now. Enjoy your stay and try not to think about it".
When we get dropped off and settle into our couples only luxury resort, Ian and I can't help but follow his advice.
We enter our wooden rustic cottage which is perched on a hill surrounded by dark green tropical leaves and get blown away by the ocean view which looks like paradise. Excited by it all, Ian and I immediately unpack our suitcases to go swimming in the warm water.
When night falls, we get back to our cottage and discover our bed is covered with rose petals congratulating us for our honeymoon. It couldn't be more perfect.
As lucky as I feel right now, something in my gut tells me I should probably check up on this hurricane thing before we go to sleep. Without a TV in our room, I turn to Google only to make a gut wrenching discovery.
On the front page of Antigua's local news is a transcript from the Prime Ministers announcement. It reads:
Alarmed I begin Googling Hurricane Irma, but within minutes into my search the Wi-Fi stops working and I have no access to the internet or the news. In a split second, reality hits.
Gasping as my heart rate speeds up, I insist to Ian "This doesn't look good. There's a 70% chance this hurricane is coming. Should we leave?"
Frustrated, Ian replies "Look. Let's not decide tonight. The hurricane is 4 days away and it's not even 100% guaranteed to come. It's possible the path will change. We've spent a fortune on this trip. Let's talk to the hotel and the British embassy in the morning and we'll leave if they say we should."
Feeling helpless, I slowly doze off to the calming ocean sounds.
It's now Saturday morning and Ian and I rush to reception to talk about the hurricane. Up until this point, no one at the hotel has even mentioned it exists.
As we wait in a queue, I overhear couples arguing in the reception lounge.
A young American woman starts yelling at her boyfriend with her arms waving around, "Why didn't you get insurance? Now we can't get out!!"
Beside her is an angry, elderly red faced British man ranting to his wife, "This is absolutely ridiculous. Bloody ridiculous."
Hearing them argue makes me feel nauseous. What on earth is going on?
When we get to the front of the queue, the manager asks "Are you here to ask about the hurricane?"
We smile and nod.
Teary eyed she reveals "If the hurricane comes, you'll need to evacuate. We don't know where you'll stay yet but we know you can't stay here. Our hotel is made of wood and tin roofs and will probably be destroyed. We're hoping the hotel next door which is made of concrete will provide shelter for all our guests."
It was in this moment that I understood why the couples were arguing. Our hotel isn't equipped to handle a hurricane. We have to get off this island. Now!
Ian and I run as fast as we can back to our cottage.
Only within minutes of searching for plane tickets, we learn all the flights back to London are sold out.
Desperate, I call the British embassy in the Caribbean to ask about their rescue plan for British citizens.
To my shock, I reach an answer phone claiming their office is closed. I try their emergency number only to discover it's inactive and their e-mail doesn't work either.
Terrified, I reveal to Ian. "Babe, I can't get hold of anyone at the embassy."
Panicking, Ian then turns to British Airways to ask for their help.
Talking to customer service, Ian blurts "Hi, my wife and I are in Antigua. We need a flight back to London ASAP. Can you please help us?"
The man on the phone called Thomas agrees. "Don't you worry. We'll get you out of there. Please give me a moment."
A few minutes later, Thomas takes us off hold and shouts "Bingo! You have 4 options! They aren't cheap but they are your tickets out. Here are your options:
A) You go through New York for £1,000. But the catch here is that there's only one seat left on that plane, not two.
B) You go through Miami for £2,000 and stay overnight for the change.
C) You go through Miami for £3,000 but you don't need to stay overnight.
D) You go direct to London for £4,000.
Which of these tickets would you like?"
"£4,000??? ... Woah. We already have a direct flight from Antigua back to London with British Airways. Can't you just reschedule it?" Ian proposes.
"No. Sorry. As you've already flown to Antigua your return tickets are now non-refundable and non-exchangeable. You need new tickets," Thomas says firmly.
Because we haven't budgeted for this, Ian puts Thomas on hold and requests me to call our travel insurance company to ask if we'll be covered for the trip home.
I call our insurance company only to reach another dead end.
"Ma'am. I'm sorry but we can't cover your flight home. The only way we would provide coverage is if the UK government declared an evacuation from Antigua for British citizens. The UK government website does not say this, therefore you do not qualify for a claim."
I couldn't believe it. My heart feels like it's about to burst out my chest.
Ian releases the hold button to reconnect with Thomas.
"Hi, we're back. Can you book us onto the indirect flight through Miami for £2,000?" he asks.
Thomas goes silent. "No. The tickets to Miami are now gone. Someone bought the last two tickets while you put me on hold."
"Oh fucking hell!" I shout while throwing my phone across the bed. My anxiety levels are skyrocketing through the roof.
Scratching his head, Ian adds "Well, can you get us on the £3,000 flight through Miami then?"
"Sure. Okay, so that's a total of £6,000. Are you ready to proceed," Thomas asks.
"What? I though you said the tickets were £3,000," Ian protests.
"Oh don't be silly! The tickets are £3,000 EACH. It's an executive club ticket. The same applies for the direct flight back to London. It's £4,000 each, bringing that total to £8,000. All economy seats are sold out."
Ian's jaw drops in shock. In this moment, I feel cheated and defeated. We've tried everything from talking to the hotel, contacting the embassy, talking to British Airways, requesting a claim from our insurance company and not one of them will help us.
Ian hangs up the phone and my hands start shaking.
It was in this moment that I realised we are on our own. No one was going to be help us.
Waiting to be rescued was no longer an option. If we want to get out, we have to become our own superheros in order to save ourselves.
But how do you save yourself when you're desperate and feel you have no other options?
Unsure what to do, I go back to the drawing board to break down what feels like an impossible problem into small actions we can take.
Speaking my thoughts out loud, I mumble, "The end goal is to get home.... but the first step is to get off the island. This will buy us time and guarantee safety. How can we get off the island?"
Suddenly a light bulb goes off in Ian's mind. "Right!! We just need to get off the island."
Ian quickly grabs his Macbook and discovers the only two tickets left are for a one way flight to Barbados. Knowing this might be our last chance he snaps them up without even knowing where we'll stay.
As soon as we get an e-mail confirming we'll be on that flight, Ian jumps out of bed and screams, "We did it!! We've got a ticket out of here!"
I slap my hand on my chest and exhale loudly. For the first time in a while, I feel like I can now breathe.
Little did we know, getting a flight wasn't enough. The second challenge was for our flight to take off. Sadly, many guests staying at our hotel had their flights cancelled. We won't know the fate of our flight until we get to the airport.
It's 3am on Monday morning and the day of our flight has arrived. We pack everything and head to the airport.
When we queue to check in, I can't help but notice the couples making a scene.
One moneyed elderly British woman is screaming, "Get me off this fucking island. I don't care where we go! I'll buy any ticket, whatever the price! I am NOT leaving until you give me a ticket."
Trying to calm her down, the sales clerk offers her a ticket to Tortola. Without knowing her geography, the woman accepts it and checks in on that flight.
Little did she know, Tortola was still on the path of Hurricane Irma and 80% of the island would be destroyed during her stay.
We then see a young couple desperately pleading at the sales desk. "Please, please help get us off. We arrived for our honeymoon yesterday. We got married this weekend and didn't know a hurricane was coming. It's the first time my husband has even stepped out of America. We've been evacuated from our hotel and have nowhere to go."
The sales clerk apologises and firmly reports there are no tickets left to get off the island. "Please take shelter at a school in Antigua."
Hearing them plead for help makes me sick to my stomach. This could have been us.
After we check in on our flight and get through security, we begin waiting for the plane to start boarding.
Only as time passes by, we start to realise there's a problem with our flight. At the time of our scheduled departure, there is no sign of a pilot nor flight attendant.
Ian and I watch other planes take off while our gate is completely deserted.
An hour after we were supposed to take off passes by and I start to panic. "Ian, can you ask the airport crew why no one is here? Where are the flight attendants? Where's the pilot?"
Ian walks towards the airport crew and learns the reason we haven't left is that the local airline is short-staffed. Some pilots are taking leave to stay home and care for their families. Our pilot hasn't shown up at work today.
Ian comes back to me and reports "The guy said they're hoping a replacement pilot will come. If he does, we'll take off. If he doesn't, our flight will get cancelled."
This can't be happening.
I start sweating and get fidgety in my seat.
Thirty minutes later, an announcement is made.
Hearing this announcement instantly relieves my anxiety. I can finally relax. We are now safe.
When we land in Barbados, Ian and I get driven to the Colony Club, a beautiful beachfront hotel on the Platinum Coast. To our gratitude, it was just as beautiful as Antigua.
On our way over, a man on the radio playing a Rihanna song says:
"Well this is a much more pleasant taxi ride?" I joke to Ian.
When we get dropped off at the hotel, the concierge grabs our suitcases and hands us a rum punch.
The General Manager walks over and smiles, "Welcome to the Colony Club. I'm so sorry you had to flee Antigua. We'd hate for the hurricane to ruin your honeymoon. So we've upgraded your room to a junior suite for your entire stay. We hope you enjoy your time with us."
Ian exhales loudly and chuckles.
"What a way to start our honeymoon huh?" he jokes.
Though we now laugh at how much of an adventure our honeymoon was, there's one thing this experience taught me. It's that sometimes you have to step up and be your own superhero for things to turn out better than worse.
While some people say the only reason we escaped was that we had luck, God or the universe on our side, I know one thing also made a difference.
The moment things changed was the minute we realised and accepted that no one was going to help us. Not the government, not the airline, not the hotel and not even the insurance company we specifically paid to help us out when things don't turn out the way we expect.
When all the doors closed on us, instead of giving up on ourselves we chose to fight to find a new way out. Making that decision in a fast moment helped us to get the last two tickets to Barbados. Had we come to that realisation minutes or hours later, our fate would have probably been different.
We would have joined the majority of the couples stranded at the hotel wishing they acted sooner, wishing they had other options.
So the big question for you is, where do you need to be a superhero in your life? What doors have been closed for you and how will you create new options for yourself?
When you have the desire and opportunity to save yourself, that's when miracles happen. I invite you to decide sooner rather than later.
And whilst we've been fortunate, it still haunts me that thousands of people haven't. Whether it's the people of Barbuda, St Martin, Anguilla, St Barts, the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Florida, Houston... the list goes on. Thousands of people are still struggling to live with the consequences of the changes in the weather and catastrophic natural disasters.
So far, there's not enough help to go around. Companies, governments and the economy are not equipped to help these people rebuild their lives. They may not even be equipped to help you if one day you get affected.
The least you can do as a superhero for yourself, is to find ways to make the world a safer place for you, your family and as a result, the world.
This is the story of my life, and you're reading it as it happens.