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Return from Wilma's wrath

Nearly 11 months ago, with thoughts of swaying palm trees and white sandy beaches clashing against the reality of Fargo-Moorhead's frozen tundra, the Gilbertson and Penas families of south Moorhead planned a seven-day vacation to the Caribbean co...

Nearly 11 months ago, with thoughts of swaying palm trees and white sandy beaches clashing against the reality of Fargo-Moorhead's frozen tundra, the Gilbertson and Penas families of south Moorhead planned a seven-day vacation to the Caribbean coastline of Mexico.

What their vacation plans didn't include was five extra days of no sleep, little communication with loved ones, constant fear and an additional $8,000 in airfare because of Hurricane Wilma.

"I can say it's the most frightening thing I've encountered," Jayne Gilbertson said. "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I'm still in Mexico."

Gilbertson vacationed there with her husband, Jonathan, their three children - Alexandra, 12, Kendra, 8, and Aanders, 6 - and the next-door Penas family.

"The hardest thing for me was my daughter asking if we were going to die," said Tracy Penas, who traveled with her husband, Rick, and 13-year-old daughter, KayLani.


The Category 4 hurricane ripped through Mexico's resort-lined Mayan Riviera on Oct. 21 with torrential rains and wind gusts up to 145 mph. It battered the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for two days, ripping away storefronts, peeling back roofs and flooding streets.

Officials needed five days to evacuate 40,000 tourists who were ordered inside shelters when Wilma hit.

The Gilbertson and Penas families were among the 40,000.

The families' vacation was mostly enjoyable.

They flew charter into Cancun's airport Oct. 14 and traveled about 35 miles north to their plush resort, the Mayan Palace.

Weather leading up to the hurricane was ideal. It allowed the families to snorkel, lie by the poolside and spend hours at the beach.

Reports of a hurricane threatening the area began to surface Oct. 16. Rick Penas said TV news programs predicted the hurricane would hit 50 miles offshore. There were conflicting reports about its projected path, he said.

Some resort guests scrambled to get out after hearing the news; others appeared calm and unfazed.


"We didn't focus too heavily on getting out early," Jonathan Gilbertson said.

Oct. 20 was supposed to be a day of winding down before the families flew back to Minneapolis at about 1:30 p.m. the next day.

But it was anything but peaceful and reflective.

When weather forecasts confirmed the hurricane would hit the area, the resort issued a notice for mandatory evacuation beginning at 4:30 p.m.

The Penas and Gilbertson families were ushered - along with about 1,500 other guests and 200 hotel staff - to the resort's shelter by 9 p.m.

Staff woke up families with children about 2 a.m. Oct. 21 and ordered them out of the shelter because of a mandatory evacuation order from the Mexican government.

Guests piled into three coach buses, which headed south to avoid the hurricane.

After an hour on the road in driving rain and wind in the middle of the night, the buses were stopped by authorities in the city of Playa Del Carmen. They were escorted to a local high school.


People on the buses refused to go inside the school after one of them noticed it was packed with locals.

"Everyone on the bus said no," said Jayne Gilbertson, who described the atmosphere in the bus like people being on a hijacked plane. "We're not staying. We'll risk going back to the resort."

After an hour in Playa Del Carmen, the buses returned to the resort and its shelter, where guests stayed until Sunday morning.

They survived the storm, but getting out of the tropical paradise was another disaster waiting to happen.

The families waited in line almost five hours for buses to take them to a small airport in Merida, the only operating airline in the region and about a five-hour drive away. Cancun's airport was shut down because of storm damage.

Buses left the resort about 9 p.m. Sunday and were stopped after just a few miles when word arrived that a shorter northern route to the airport was cleared. But the buses were stopped again an hour later because of downed power lines on the road.

A truck who notified the buses of the blocked northern route graciously escorted them to a different route, which wound through side streets in a Cancun suburb. The buses drove past hundreds of stranded people wading through waist-high water or standing on cars.

"It was complete destruction," Jayne Gilbertson said.


The buses arrived at the airport in Merida at 5 a.m. Monday. Jonathan Gilbertson and Tracy Penas immediately went to the city's airport to book flights back home.

The two were finally able to call home to tell family members everyone was OK.

They waited in line for six hours to get a flight on Continental Airlines. But only one flight was leaving for Houston that day, and it was booked. The next flight Continental offered to Houston wasn't until Thursday.

After pleas from Gilbertson, the airline reluctantly agreed to overbook the flight. He bought four first-class and four coach tickets to Houston.

The families slept overnight in the Houston airport because every hotel room was taken due to the World Series. They booked a flight arriving in Minneapolis at 1 p.m. Tuesday, bringing their additional airfare to $8,000.

"There was a lot of prayer," Jayne Gilbertson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story Readers can reach Forum reporter Joe Whetham at (701) 241-5557

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