(Photo at left: Isla Mujeres before the storm.)

This installment of Nature (Human and Otherwise) dwells more on human nature than on Mother Nature – although a hurricane and major flooding do figure largely into the story.

On October 21, Hurricane Wilma – “the most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic Basin” according to the American Red Cross Disaster Overview for Central America – made landfall over Mexico. With wind speeds up to 140 mph, this Category 4 storm bombarded sections of the Caribbean with “heavy rain, strong winds, storm surges and rough surf conditions.” Thousands were evacuated from low-lying areas. Hit hardest were some of Mexico’s resort communities, including Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Isla Mujeres, as well as the city of Merida.

Regular readers of this column know that my family has vacationed on Isla Mujeres, Mexico since 1987. To us it is paradise — a home away from home. While we may visit “Isla” only a week or two each year, we count on those trips to provide the dose of warmth and sunshine that gets us through New England’s long, cold winters. For thousands of other people, mostly Mexican by birth, Isla Mujeres is home.

“Isla” is located in the Mexican Caribbean, just east of Cancun. As resort areas go, it is about as low-key as you can get. There are no high-rises, no chain restaurants or hotels. You can’t even rent a car – most travelers get around on foot, occasionally by moped or golf cart. Five miles long and only a half-mile wide, “Isla” features a number of family-owned hotels and restaurants, a national park, and beautiful white sand beaches. There isn’t much to do there – and we like it that way.

Most of the people (85%) who live year-round on Isla Mujeres work in one way or another for the tourism industry. Fishing is the other primary livelihood. Families are generally single-income, as in Mexican culture women usually stay home to take care of the house and children. The average rent in the Colonias section, where most native Isla Mujeres folks live, is $100 per month. The average worker makes $6 – $7 per day. While this may seem poor by our standards, the people on Isla Mujeres say that they are quite comfortable.

When Hurricane Wilma made landfall, the American media barely made mention of it. Here, we were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, so destruction on foreign shores was not so important to us. One-liners like “Wilma Wallops Cancun Resorts” were all the news I could get. I began scouring the internet for updates, and was fortunate to find a message board with regular news and photos from Isla Mujeres.

What I learned made me so sad. Thankfully, no one was killed by the storm (the Mexican government had evacuated the island), even though something like 60 inches — five feet! — of rain fell in 24 hours. But Isla Mujeres had lost all electricity, many buildings, most phone lines, as well as its water purification & delivery system, … and it would be a month before power was restored and things could really begin to get back on track. Some streets were gone, and many were buried under reefs of beach sand. Homes had been destroyed, and as the coast was hit the hardest, lots of hotels, bars and restaurants would have to be rebuilt. Many on Isla Mujeres were going to have to reconstruct their houses, and as the hotels and restaurants needed repair as well, it might be a month before they could go back to work.

But good news came quickly on the heels of the bad. Once the evacuation was over, residents went home to assess the damage. The Mexican government stepped in to help. The Red Cross arrived with food, water and supplies. Low-interest loans were issued to help people get back on their feet. And the hotels started posting assurances that they would be ready for the start of the tourist season (mid-November). The word on the message board was “Don’t cancel your reservations because this year Isla Mujeres really needs you.”

On a personal level, this was a tremendous relief. Isla Mujeres needed me – and lots of others – to come back to the island to support their tourist industry. How cool was that? I could justify the luxury of my winter vacation because I was “needed.”

That was as far as I took it. But my Dad had other plans. Immediately he began contacting friends on the island to see what he could do to help. At first he planned to go to Isla Mujeres for a month to aid in whatever ways he could with the reconstruction. But he soon realized that his financial support would go much farther.

Bob Bacon on Isla Mujeres

So he started making phone calls – to friends (he and my Mom have brought 45 different people to the island over the years), to family, to business colleagues. He urged folks planning to travel to Isla this winter to pay their hotel fees in advance. He asked others to do what they could to help people in need. Even ten dollars would go a long way . . .

It took about a month, but my Dad was able to raise over $6,000. He promptly wired the funds to a trusted friend on Isla Mujeres, with explicit instructions for distribution, just in time for Christmas. Bear in mind that in their community, this $6,000 is the equivalent to our $60,000. These unsolicited and unexpected gifts would certainly be appreciated – probably more than we know. Is this not what the Spirit of Christmas is all about?

I think it’s important to bear in mind how the little things we do can mean a lot. Did you give money this year to support relief efforts in Southeast Asia, in the wake of the tsunami? Did you send a check for disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina or Rita? Maybe you gave blood this year, donated food to the local food pantry, dropped off clothes at the clothing bank. Maybe you worked for hospice, shoveled snow from your neighbor’s driveway, or volunteered for one of the thousands of local non-profits organizations or charities. It might have felt like a drop in the bucket for you, but your effort – no matter how small – made a difference to someone, somewhere. Doesn’t that make you feel good?

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
December 2005

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.