What was supposed to be a relaxing vacation in Los Cabos turned into “quite an adventure” for Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas and her family, who were caught in the eye of the category 4 hurricane that devastated the Mexican resort area last week.
Fraley-Monillas, her husband Domie Monillas and their adult son Dominick returned to Edmonds Friday night, Sept. 19, after catching an emergency airlift from Los Cabos to Los Angeles Thursday, then another flight to Seattle. The family is fine and Fraley-Monillas said she suffered no ill effects, other than heat stroke while waiting seven hours in the hot sun for a flight home.
According to our online news partner The Seattle Times, an estimated 30,000 visitors, many of them Americans, were in the Los Cabos area when the hurricane struck. The Los Cabos area, at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, includes the two resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo and a beachfront string of luxury hotels between them.
The Monillas family travels regularly to the timeshare condo that they own in the Villa De Arco resort. They had planned this particular trip months ago, and at the time of their departure Friday, Sept. 12, a tropical storm was predicted – nothing unusual for that area and something they had experienced before, Fraley-Monillas said.
By Saturday – the day after their arrival – a hurricane alert had been issued with no flights allowed into or out of the area. On Sunday, the family was watching the Seahawks game at the resort’s sports bar when Fraley-Monillas said she noticed out the window that “palm trees were bending all the way over.” Soon after, bar patrons were told to return to their rooms.
The resort was relatively new – about five years old – so the family “felt pretty secure,” she said, but they hunkered down in an inside bedroom and waited. The hurricane hit about 8 p.m. and “you couldn’t even see out window,” the councilmember recalled. “It was storming so bad the rain was going up the window. It was pretty frightening, I’ll have to tell you.”
The three-bedroom, two-bath condo had four different decks, each with sliding glass doors, and “stuff was flying every which way, so we listened to slamming, banging,” she said. After several hours, “all of a sudden it was dead silent. There was not a raindrop, no wind, all of a sudden there was nothing. We kind of froze in place.”
Fraley-Monillas said she then realized that the family was in the eye of the hurricane. Next came “a little bit of rain hitting the windows and all of a sudden it went boom and all hell broke loose. The winds went the opposite direction,” she recalled. “We’re six stories up and on top of us is the penthouse. The building was shaking. The doors and windows were rattling. Dominick was two feet from me and he couldn’t hear me.” By about 5 a.m., around daybreak, the winds finally died down and the storm was gone.
“We had no idea of the magnitude of damage at that point,” she said. “We were kind of trapped there. All around us you could see the looters from our timeshare, could see the local Wal-Mart being looted. Police were everywhere, there were Army helicopters, even the president of Mexico (visited). We kind of felt like we were in a war.”
The resort was without power and there was no Internet or phone access, she said. “We had no idea what was going on – none.”
The resort staff stepped into action, taking care of their guests, even when some of them had lost their own homes to the storm, Fraley-Monillas recalled. The staff rationed food and water, and the Monillas family – like hundreds of tourists stranded at the resort – “ended up eating up three meals a day with them, in the lunchroom.”
Meals consisted of whatever staff had on hand including beans and “meat-like substances,” the councilmember said. As the week wore on, meal portions were getting smaller, but “our biggest concern was the looters,” she recalled. “We could see what was going on in town. Police were everywhere, the army had come in, chasing people all over the streets to stop them.” Villa de Arco staff had written a warning to trespassers on a sheet to stay out, and had draped it over the entrance, she said.
Few hotels had electricity, and at night everything was pitch black with a few exceptions, she added. “The beach is gone, literally. All that’s left on the beach are rocks. The sand was blown out. “
The nicest hotel such as the Sheraton and the Westin “were destroyed pretty much,” she said. “Whole towns, portions of villages were gone.”
On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 18, a staff member came to their room and told the family they had 15 minutes to pack, and that they would be airlifted out of the area.
“We threw everything into bags and jumped into these shuttles that hotel had hired” to the airport, which had been severely damaged by the storm, the councilmember said. Upon arriving, they had to wait in a mile-and-a-half-long line with thousands of other tourists for several hours – in 95-degree heat with no shade.
Those awaiting flights were told they would end up in one of several Mexican cities, and would have to find their way to the U.S. from there. “Nobody had any idea where we were going,” the councilmember said. While the Red Cross was tossing water bottles at those waiting for a flight, Fraley-Monillas said she suffered from heat stroke; fortunately, paramedics were waiting in line behind her and provided assistance.
After seven hours, the family was almost at the front of the line when they were told it wasn’t certain if anyone else would be able to get a flight home that night. “We all kind of looked at each other,” Fraley-Monillas said of those who had been standing in line together all day. “We can’t go back to Cabo, we have nowhere else to go but stand in line all night.”
(In an interesting twist, representatives from the U.S. Embassy had been walking up and down the line all day, according to Fraley-Monillas, telling Americans that those who wanted to sign a promissory note for $600 per person would be able to leave on a chartered flight. Fraley-Monillas said she was told later by Congressman Jim McDermott’s office that U.S. law prohibits providing rides out of the area for free.)
“We kind of waited and waited and pretty soon from around the corner, representatives from Alaska Airlines appeared,” she said. As it turns out, the airline had volunteered to send planes to provide emergency airlifts of those stranded, regardless of which airline the passengers had tickets on. Alaska Airlines employees had also volunteered to work on the flights.
“They said we have a jet and we’re taking 80 of you,” Fraley-Monillas said, grateful that her family was among them. Airline employees “were unbelievable for our comfort,” the councilmember said. “There was a hot meal for every one of us on our flight, and anything you wanted to drink.” After being airlifted to Los Angeles in the middle of the night, the Monillas family decided to get a hotel at the airport, where they had their first hot shower in several days. They returned home Friday night, arriving at SeaTac at 8 p.m.
“It was quite an adventure,” Fraley-Monillas said. “Being through a hurricane and living in a Third World country and trying to evacuate.” Because the resort where they stayed suffered minimal damage, she expects the family will have no issues with future vacations there. “I’d go back in a flash. I wouldn’t think twice about it, she said. “It’s a beautiful place and beautiful people.”
While they saw their share of bad, Fraley-Monillas said she was continually touched by how caring the resort staff was, even when some of them experienced personal devastation. “We had two days of maid service even during the hurricane,” she said, and she remembers asking the maid if she was OK. “She said, ‘My house is gone. My family, we have nowhere to stay, have no food or water because of the looters.’
“We considered ourselves so fortunate at that point,” Fraley-Monillas said. “Here are the people who are serving us who don’t have anything.”