Dan Rattiner's Stories

Blizzard: What I Endured the Day Before the Storm

The photograph that accompanies this article was taken from our front door looking toward the beach and the Caribbean Sea last Tuesday morning, the same day that 30 inches of snow fell on Southampton.

Ha ha.

We’ve spent the past week and a half on the wonderful and very isolated island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, and it is 82 degrees out as it has been every day, with one or two degrees separating one day from another. We live in our bathing suits. We swim around just off our beach. We snorkel and look at the colorful fish. We sit in lounge chairs and rest up and then go back in again. And we are reading some books we have downloaded on our Nooks, books by John Grisham and Agatha Christie and others, while enjoying ourselves immensely.

We either cook the food we’ve bought at Buck’s Grocery in Spanish Town on the grill or we go out to eat at Chez Bamboo, or The Rock Cafe, or Hog Heaven, which sits atop of the mountain on the island. And we hobnob with some of the locals or a few other tourists or boat people. A big ocean liner anchored off the ferry dock on Sunday and about 200 passengers took small launches in groups of 20 to a dock not far from our beach. The locals met them and gave them tours of the island in pickup trucks they’ve jerry-rigged as 16 passenger rickshaw taxis. That day we ate lunch at the Mermaid Dockside Bar & Grill adjacent to the dock and watched them come and go, and also watched the cook throw bits of leftovers to a herd of tarpon, six-foot-long hundred-pound fish that were circling around the back of the Mermaid, waiting for that to happen.

We have Wi-Fi at the Mango Bay here where we are staying, and so I’ve been able to stay in touch with the office and send in Dan’s Papers articles I write and get back and edit parts of the paper before it goes to the printer up there. That happens every Tuesday, and I get the stuff to read whether I am there or elsewhere. We also get to deal with our email. We also have our cellphones. But we’ve put them in a drawer.

On Monday morning, the day before this picture was taken, my wife brought her iPad to the breakfast table for the first time. We were by the charcoal grill, the sun rising over the palm trees on the mountain behind us. We were, astonishingly, now listening to NPR. We’d be going home in two days, but now she’d found a way to hook up our Wi-Fi to one of the New York City stations. It was streaming live news.

The Russians were starting a new offensive against a Ukrainian city. Another woman said she’d been raped by a movie star. New York State Assembly Speaker Silver got arrested by the FBI. The Greeks had elected a new president who will denounce all the austerity that country has been suffering under, and this could break up the eurozone.

“I wish you’d turn that thing off,” I said to my wife. “All it is is bad news. Why don’t they ever put on the good news? We’re on vacation.”

She was about to turn it off when New York Mayor de Blasio came on the news. “This could be the largest storm in the history of this city. My message for New Yorkers is prepare for something worse than we have ever seen before,” he was saying.

There will be hurricane force winds. Three feet of snow. All the power could go out. They were shutting everything down tonight. Subways. Buses. Tunnels. Bridges. Trains. Airports. Tonight, Monday night. Stay home.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Leave it on.”

We would only be here two more days, Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday we were scheduled out on a ferry from Virgin Gorda to St. Thomas. We’d arrive at 11:30. Then we had a JetBlue flight from St. Thomas to San Juan, and finally the big four- hour JetBlue flight from San Juan to JFK. We’d spend the night in New York, then come back home to the Hamptons.

Or would we?

I went to accuweather.com on the computer. Hadn’t even thought to do this before. They were having two-hour live broadcasts about the storm.

“See this curve here, where it kind of bulges?” the weatherman was saying, pointing to a bulge on his radar map over eastern Pennsylvania. “This is when you get the big updraft.” He pointed to something else. “It’s all coming together from every direction. New York will be paralyzed beginning Monday night.”

Maybe I ought to check out our flights. Both my wife and I had to be home Wednesday night and had full schedules for Thursday, she in New York and I in Bridgehampton.

I called JetBlue. A message recorded by that silly but endearing Valley Girl they have came on saying they had long waits to speak to an operator. More than 12 minutes. Instead try jetblue.com. You can do anything at jetblue.com you can do on the phone. I went to the website. It froze up when I tried to use it. I went back to the operator. I’ll wait, I said to the recorded announcement after I got her again. After a half an hour of lovely songs occasionally interrupted by the Valley Girl, I got unceremoniously hung up on.

“Can’t reach JetBlue,” I told my wife.

“They’ve probably got everybody calling,” she said.

Then I thought to Google “JetBlue Cancellations.” It led me to an article on CNN written in January 7, 2014 entitled “JetBlue’s Winter Nightmare.”

In that winter snowstorm one year ago, 150,000 JetBlue customers were affected over a six-day period.

“JetBlue…essentially shut operations at Boston’s Logan International Airport and the three New York–area airports,” the article read. “While other carriers have canceled flights, none has had to halt all operations at key airports.”

JetBlue blamed it on new FAA rules that required more rest for pilots. It affected them more than others, they said, because JetBlue pilots worked longer hours than those on other airlines. Another problem was that 45 percent of all JetBlue flights go to airports in Boston or New York. Still another was that the airline was only 14 years old and so had less experience to fall back on when this sort of thing happens.

“We will do everything we can to earn their forgiveness and loyalty,” said JetBlue spokesman Anders Lindstrom.

How about answering the phone?

I tried again. Still no answer. Then I thought maybe we should just fly aboard a small plane to San Juan from the dirt strip here in Virgin Gorda. As things stood now, there was not that much time between our first flight from St. Thomas and the ticket counter in San Juan for the big flight back home. It would be a mob scene. Would we have to sleep on the airport floor?

I called a local airline that has scheduled service out of Virgin Gorda. They had an earlier flight. And it had four seats available. To get them, I would have to fill out a form they would email to me and then fax it back to them. Panicky, I asked if they could hold the two seats until I did that, and they said no, it’s first come, first served. Also, the tickets had to be paid for in advance with a credit card. Also, it was non-refundable, and if I cancelled I not only lost the money but there was a penalty to pay. I’d need to put the credit card numbers on the form. And if I couldn’t fax it, I could hand deliver it to them at the small Virgin Gorda airport at the other end of the island a half-hour away.

Then I remembered there is a fax machine at the office of Mango Bay, so I drove there, up a long, winding, narrow and steep driveway. When I got there, Gino told me I shouldn’t do that.

“JetBlue booked your flight beginning at St. Thomas. If you don’t take the first part but just show up at the second part, you won’t be let on the plane. It’s an airline rule.”

I recalled that the first leg of the return was not on JetBlue, but by a small carrier they hired for that leg called Seaborne. Maybe they could cancel it.

“I have tried to call Seaborne in the past,” Gino told me. “They don’t answer. You just get the machine.”

Soon we had the Valley girl on Gino’s phone and a recorded announcement on Seaborne on my phone, both on speakers, so we could hear them both at the same time.

Eventually, I did get through to Seaborne. I got their number off their website (which has a big red sign at the top reading THIS WEBSITE MAY BE FOR SALE). Seaborne told me that if the flight was booked by JetBlue, then only JetBlue could change it.

“You’re telling me that you have no control over who flies on your planes?” was my frustrated parting shot at this person.

Around 1 p.m. I got an email from Eric Feil, our new CEO, that they were finishing the issue of Dan’s Papers on Monday afternoon because they were going to close the office on Tuesday. He’d have the front of the book emailed over by 3 p.m. to read.

We got a call from the woman who stops by every day to care for our cat and tortoise in East Hampton while we are away. She wanted to know if we had a generator if the power went out. Chris told her we do, and she gave her the phone number of the people who service it and instructions on how to see if there’s a problem ahead of time. The generator is on the hillside at the back of our house
behind a fence.

“Tell her if she sees that the little light on the side is red, it isn’t working and she should call the people to come get it going. If it’s green or there is no light on at all it is fine.”

“How’s she going to get there in four feet of snow,” my wife wanted to know.

“Well, then just tell her to call the power people if there is no power on in the house.”

Lots of other calls were made. We learned that the daily 7 a.m. ferry from Virgin Gorda to St. Thomas doesn’t run on Wednesdays, so we’d have to get up and catch a 5 a.m. ferry out of Virgin Gorda, get off at the Bull Dock in Tortola, take a 15-mile taxi across Tortola in the dark to the main dock in Road Town and get the 7 a.m. ferry to St. Thomas.

I gave this information to my wife.

“I wonder if we can even get a cab at Bull Dock at 5:30 a.m.?” was her first reaction. Then: “Maybe we should charter a plane from here to St. Thomas.”

By this time on Monday it was late in the afternoon. I hadn’t gone for a swim, hadn’t walked on the beach, hadn’t snorkeled, hadn’t done anything at all but try to deal with this problem. I also tried both the JetBlue websites and phones repeatedly. The website was not interested in letting me in even with my itinerary code typed in.

Finally, at dinner, we went over a backup plan. There are all sorts of beachfront hotels by the airport in San Juan. We’d get in to San Juan on that first flight from St. Thomas and go directly to the JetBlue kiosk, where we could meet an actual person, if we could get through the crowds. If the plane was canceled, we’d get a cab to one of these hotels. We got online and on travelocity.com many of these hotels were already being flooded with reservations for Wednesday night, but finally we were able to book a small oceanfront room at one for $145. We agreed we’d consider this just lost money if we could find another way home. But if necessary, we’d be sleeping beachfront again, rather than on an airport floor.

As we went to bed Monday night, we listened to more people at CNN, NPR and Accuweather tell us this was only the beginning. The huge storm would hit during the night. We’d wake up Tuesday morning here in heaven—up there it would be hell.

I also, on my phone, checked my “Flight Aware” app and found that the 4:05 p.m. JetBlue flight from San Juan to JFK for Tuesday had been canceled. But for the next day, our day, it had not. Yet.

So that’s the story. We are having a wonderful time here in Virgin Gorda. The weather is simply perfect. We have no problems, no cares.

This is the life.

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