Everything went right on Jill Steelman's birthday this year. As right, that is, as it could have in the middle of hurricane Emily.
She was surrounded by family, everyone sang an off-key chorus of "Happy Birthday," teased her about her age, and lit colored candles. She didn't blow them out, though, she says, "because of the electricity outage and all."
Emily slammed into Mexico's Caribbean beaches in the early hours Monday morning, uprooting palm trees, knocking down power lines, flipping boats and cars, and sending metal sheets cartwheeling across the road. Fresh water stopped flowing and electricity was cut, and tens of thousands of tourists visiting the region were left stranded, with airports and bus stations closed.
"We prayed," says Jill, "and we made jokes - the two necessary ingredients for getting through any tough times."
Emily, which started as a category-four hurricane (on a scale of five) with 135 m.p.h. winds, arrived here after first ravaging hundreds of homes and killing at least one man on the island of Granada, and then sweeping away a family of four in a car in Jamaica. Two people were killed in a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday as they reportedly helped evacuate more than 15,000 workers from off-shore oil platforms.
This was the second major hurricane of the season, arriving days after hurricane Dennis ripped through Cuba and Florida, killing at least 46. "I watched the news before we came," says Jill's husband, Barry. "But it seemed so unlikely there would be one hurricane after another like this."
The Steelman clan, 11 strong, from Chattanooga, Tenn., had been planning a family trip to Mexico for over two years. Grandpa Fred, a Baptist minister, thought it was high time the grandchildren got on a plane and saw a little bit of the great world that they live in. His daughter Alyson and her husband, Pastor Tony DeYoung, suggested Playa del Carmen where they had honeymooned.
Sunday night, just as the Steelmans sat down in their rented house three blocks from the beach to discuss whether Jill was, in truth, really only 39, the winds started rising. Soon, they found themselves near the heart of the storm. "But we sat up together all night," says Barry. "We listened to the winds and stayed close."
"I would not choose to go through that again," says Alyson. "But I felt secure. I felt it would be all right."
As the hurricane roared in, buses moved some 30,000 tourists from nearby Cancún to temporary shelters, while 70,000 to 80,000 more people were evacuated statewide to community shelters, hotel ballrooms, and schools, away from the wind. Others, like the Steelmans, remained in place, having stocked up on food and taped the windows as instructed.
"People were coming around the neighborhood, yelling out instructions with megaphones," describes Alyson, "but it was all in Spanish." The family, however, found neighbors and strangers "exceedingly helpful." Stocking up on food at the supermarket Sunday afternoon, Barry says, he was amazed by how "polite, calm, and helpful" everyone was being.
Cynthia Castillo, a high school teacher from Miami remained unphased. "The sun is not out and there is no one around to discuss snorkeling tour options to Tulum," says Castillo, referring to the underwater Mayan ruins. "But many of us have bonded here, and I am not going to let a little rain dampen my vacation."
By Monday, the worst of the storm had passed. The winds slowed to 110 m.p.h., as the storm crossed the Yucatan peninsula. At press time Tuesday, Emily was headed toward the US-Mexico Border.
The weakening of the storm as it hit the Yucatan relieved many people here. Previously, Cancún mayor Francisco Alor compared the oncoming Emily to Hurricane Gilbert, the 1988 hurricane that killed 300 people in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Tuesday, tourists waded through the water, searching for an open restaurant or a working public phone to call home. Locals were busy hammering roofs back on and sweeping up broken glass, while firemen unblocked street drains.
The Steelmans, meanwhile, were getting ready to fly home. They had been told that the airport would be reopened and their flights would take off. Rebecca, the youngest of the Steelmans at age 4, had, she says, "a wonderful holiday. It's sunny here," she explains, showing tan marks from earlier in the week. "And," she says, opening her hands wide, "rainy."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.