15 October 2017,
We still can the believe it how we ended up leaving. Chris’s brother Kevin and sister Maureen were starting to get very worried about us so contacted the Foreign Office in NZ. They were wonderful! They contacted the NZ Embassy in Washington DC, who also tried to contact us with no luck, so it got escalated up to the US State department, still no-one could reach us.
Day 15, we are getting the odd moment of signal on my cell phone. I managed to listen to my voice messages and found a message from Oliver from NZ Embassy in Washington. I had also received a txt from Leigh-Ann saying that Kevin was trying to get us evacuated. And that was it, no more signal! We went up to the square and got in the line for the sat phone and called Washington. During this call she took all our details and said she would email the State Department to say we were safe at the moment but quite keen to leave. I said I would ring them again at the same time the next day to find out any update. We are neighbours with the coordinator for the red cross so we talked to her, she talked to the comms guy and they arranged for us to come back in the morning to make this call from the Emergency Control Centre, on their Sat phone, no waiting in the queue. The fact that the State Department was involved, made us pretty special!!
So we called in the morning (Wednesday) to find they had been calling and txting, nothing getting through, desperately trying to let us know we had been booked on a flight that afternoon, get to San Juan by 1:15. It is currently 10:45! No, we cant make it! It is an hour ferry ride (even if one is leaving NOW) then another hour car ride to San Juan (we have heard that the publicos are not running) so no way we could make it. Got off the phone and told the Red Cross rep this and she said yes you can make it!! We will take you to the airport, there is a flight going to San Juan at noon, we will get you on that. So we called the embassy back and told them that we will do our best to make that flight, please don’t cancel us! And we did it! We raced home, packed our bags and shut the door. Hilda took us to the airport on Vieques, we were the only 2 on this special flight to San Juan.
Vieques airport was like a plane graveyard, planes had been tossed around like toys during the storm.
At San Juan we checked in with Tourism Puerto Rico who were accounting for all the passengers for the humanitarian flight, then lined up for 3 hours to get our boarding pass. There were families with small children there who were sleeping at the airport, who knows how long they had been there, they got on the flight too, we were so pleased. So off we go, we were heading to Newark! Where’s that? New Jersey, ok cool…………….. so……….where’s New Jersey?? No idea!
The flight was put on by United. The crew and Pilots were volunteers. We had the full service on the plane – luxury – real food! Our Steward really looked after us, we had a couple of glasses of wine with our dinner then our Stewardess brought us over a bottle of wine to take with us to the hotel! She said we needed it! Unbelievable! The crew were all so wonderful. There were a lot of people on that flight who, clearly, had never been on a plane before and there were many who needed assistance to get around. Everyone was so kind and patient. Red Cross were handing out food, soft toys and care packages of toiletries etc when we got off the plane. There were quite a few media interviewing people. We were booked into a hotel and transferred there.
We weren’t sure what we were going to do with ourselves after this but we were now able to make contact with the outside world at last. It was 2am by now. We emailed Bob and Lou and they replied in the morning to come up to them. So we went back to the airport and went to the United desk. The night before, people on our flight were being ticketed to further destinations, we hardly really knew where we were, let alone that we could have gone further. (we possibly could have gotten all the way to NZ if we had known to ask) We were just so grateful at this point to be where we were. The lady at the counter started saying we were too late, we couldn’t go further on the government. We hadn’t expected that we would, we were happy to buy a ticket.
But then she had a rethink and said she would talk to here supervisor, next minute, we are on a flight to Portland! She said it wasn’t fair for us to be stranded in New Jersey, all the other passengers got to go where they needed to go, so we did too! So there we were heading north, Bob came and picked us up and we felt very safe! What a journey. We didn’t realise quite how much this event had affected us. We spent 10 days with Bob and Lou, that was probably 8 days longer than we thought we would stay. But we needed that down time to gather our thoughts and get over it, actually I don’t even know how to describe how I felt/feel. I didn’t appreciate how difficult it was. At the time it was just what was happening and you just had to get on with it. Though we were feeling very thankful and relieved to now be safe, I was filled with a great sense of guilt, we were able to leave, we had a place to go. The people of Vieques didn’t, we left a lot of good friends without being able to say goodbye, it felt like abandoning a sinking ship.
We are so very grateful to Kevin and Maureen, for initiating the “extraction” and persevering to see it through. We are so very thankful to Hilda and the Red Cross on Vieques for having the belief that she could get us to that flight on time! Oliver, then Angela at the NZ Embassy in Washington DC and Daniel from the US State Department, didn’t give up trying to contact us and communicated together to make it happen. Kevin said Alexandria and the team at The Foreign Office at home were great to deal with, so professional and caring. We are so thankful to Jae and the team at the Emergency Control Centre, who were so patient and accommodating of our need to make more than our 1 minute calls. A huge thank you to the crew air-side and on the ground of United Airlines, they ROCK!!
We left so many dear friends on Vieques, we feel so sad that we didn’t get to say good bye, but these are forever friends, we will always stay in touch. We survived a cat 5 hurricane, the most devastating storm (at the time) on record.!!
This blog is dedicated to our dear friend Rhonda who lost her short battle with cancer a little over a year following the hurricane. Vieques will not be the same without her beautiful smile and infectious love of life! Rest now beautiful, always in our hearts xx