Friday, December 02, 2005

Isla Mujeres After Wilma: 'Mexican Paradise Bounces Back' - Chris Lane in Today's Madison Capital Times

Rob Zaleski: Mexican paradise bounces back

By Rob Zaleski
December 2, 2005

Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, was quickly restored by the Mexican government after Hurricane Wilma struck this summer. (Submitted photo) (click here to go to original article and see photo)

About Rob
Rob Zaleski is a 32-year veteran of the news business. His columns appear every Monday and Wednesday in the Communities section.

When the skies finally cleared and Lodi native Chris Lane stepped outside to get his first glimpse of what Hurricane Wilma had done to Isla Mujeres - the tiny slice of nirvana off the coast of Cancun - two months ago, he wondered if the island would ever be the same again.

Homes had disappeared, businesses were in tatters, streets were waist-high in water, and dozens of "hurricane-proof" telephone poles were floating amid the debris. Although the island's palm trees had somehow withstood Wilma's 155 mph fury, most other trees and shrubs had been uprooted, and about 4 feet of sand and water covered Rueda Medina, the island's main drag.

"Everything that wasn't cemented down is gone," a shellshocked Lane had told his parents, Rick and Vicky Lane of Lodi, in a phone call on Oct. 21.

The devastation, most locals agreed, was even worse than what Hurricane Gilbert had inflicted on the island back in 1987. The only good news was that there were just two fatalities: a fishermen who had fallen off his boat and drowned, and a woman who had suffered a heart attack.

(As noted in an earlier column, the La Gloria English School operated by Tom and Maggie Washa of Middleton - which sits on high ground - sustained just minor water damage.)

That was two months ago.

Last week I got an e-mail from Chris Lane asking if I'd relay a message to the hundreds of people from the Madison area who had discovered Isla Mujeres over the last decade and now consider it one of their favorite vacation spots.

Although Cancun is still a mess, Isla Mujeres has made an extraordinary recovery and is ready for tourists again, wrote Lane, who moved to the island in 2003 and runs an Internet phone service there called Diga Me.

So if you're looking for a place to unwind over the holidays, he said, please consider the friendly and seductive little island that's just a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun - providing, of course, that airline service to the Yucatan Peninsula has returned to normal by then.

"What we really need now is tourism," Lane wrote. "The economy has stalled, and we need some gringo bucks."

Isla was back on its feet? Just two months after nearly being wiped off the map?

I found that hard to believe, so I contacted Lane this week, and he reiterated what he'd told me in his e-mail. Implausible as it may sound, the streets have been cleared and most of the hotels and restaurants are back in business, he said. (And if anyone doubts that, Lane suggests they check out the photos on his Web site.

"I'm just amazingly impressed by what's happened down here," he said. "Everybody just rolled up their sleeves and worked together and the island's functioning again.

"There's obviously still some damage and people have lost their homes and things like that. But as far as tourism, they've replanted the trees and the shrubbery's coming back. And North Beach (editor's note: one of the premier topless-optional beaches in the Caribbean) is even better than before."

But the bigger story, Lane suggested, is the role that the Mexican government played in the recovery.

"I mean, they got here so fast and everything was so well organized that it made the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina look ridiculous," he said.

Within hours after Wilma departed, military helicopters loaded with food and water were landing on the island's lone air strip. "That went on for days," Lane said, noting that martial law had been declared even before Wilma struck and that there was a 7 p.m. curfew for almost a week.

Around the same time, he said, boats carrying trucks and huge water pumps and other essential supplies began landing at the island's port - and military personnel fanned out across the six-mile-long island to begin a non-stop cleanup effort that continues to this day.

Initially, islanders were told it could be three months before electricity would be restored, "which was a little scary," Lane said. But the power was back after five days, and just a few days after that the island had running water again.

Meanwhile, outsiders responding to an urgent plea on Lane's Web site donated tens of thousands of dollars that were used for everything from diapers to reconstruction materials.

Lane said the whole experience has restored his faith in mankind. But the story's not over yet, he added, because the Isla economy is barely hanging on.

So please help spread the word that the sun's hot and the beer's cold, Lane said.

"Tons of Wisconsin people know what a special place this is. We could sure use their help."


Published: 9:58 AM 12/2/05

Copyright 2005 The Capital Times


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