By Greg Downer, as told to Laura Watilo Blake, Associate Editor
It was always a fantasy of mine to move to the tropics and live on a island, but I never thought it could happen.
One day in 1998, while I was working at Mississaugua Golf & Country Club in Toronto, I found a seven iron on the driving range. As it turns out, the guy who it belonged to happened to be the pro at Britannia Golf Club in the Cayman Islands (the Caribbean's first signature Jack Nicklaus golf course operated by the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman). I struck up a conversation with him, and thought it sounded cool. I sent him my résume in case the club might need someone over the winter., but he quit 10 days after I had that conversation with him. In that time, though, I had faxed my résume. My résume was on top of the pile. I knew friends there, so they put in a good word. A month and a half later, I was in Grand Cayman.
Along came Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Downer and his wife of only two weeks found themselves in the eye of the storm:
My wife and I were married on Aug. 28, 2004. We were on our honeymoon in Napa Valley (Calif.) watching the Weather Channel. We thought we’d go back to the Caymans before the hurricane hit; we thought, “how bad could it be?”
On the Friday night before Hurricane Ivan came through, we went to the shelter, which was in a friend’s restaurant. We didn’t expect the storm surge to ride so high. By Saturday morning, around 10 a.m., the water was coming in pretty quickly—up to our waist. By 11 a.m., it was up to our chest. Luckily, we found a tool box with a chisel and screwdrivers, so we chiseled a hole through the ceiling and climbed through the rafters into another section of the building. We had to swim across what was a children’s play area, cut another hole through a wall, jump into a stairwell and get upstairs to the top floor, which is a World Gym.
Cars were floating by and there were 200 m.p.h. winds outside. We were sitting in the back sauna during the heart of the storm. It was dark and loud, and the walls were moving and the roof was flying off. My wife and I just held hands.
I thought for sure that was it. I never had that feeling before, and I hope I never do again. It was awful. We were there for two and a half days. On Monday at 8 a.m., the water had gone down enough so we could get out.
We got out and wandered around looking at the devastation. We went back to our house, which was right on the beach. Whatever wasn’t wet and soaked was stolen—someone kicked in the door and took it all. There was a bad looting problem.
In the aftermath of the storm, Downer jumped in to help out hotel guests stranded on the island:
I didn’t know what to do, so I just started working. There were more important things that had to be done.
When the 200 hotel guests started coming back from the shelter, we had to feed them and make sure they were safe. We had lots of food, because the hotel had just gotten a frozen container full of food, but for two weeks after the hurricane, nothing was coming in or going out because the airport was pretty damaged.
For the most part, everything went relatively smoothly. By that time, we were getting shipments of water from the British Navy and Marshall Law was in effect. The grocery stores were guarded by soldiers with machine guns, and we had to ration—we could only get one container of milk, one loaf of bread and two containers of water at a time.
One thing really bothered me, though. There were some tourists and a few well-to-do local people who would come for a meal at the hotel restaurant and not finish the food or water they were served. That really upset me. People would’ve died for an extra bottle of water. So, I got kind of bitter about that. Give me a break. I almost died, and they were upset over being served on plastic plates or whatever.
After the hotel guests were evacuated, the process of rebuilding would take several months:
I spent three months just removing trees and debris on the golf course. People were getting bored and wanted something to do, so I did what I could to get the golf course going. By May 2005, the carts were there, everyone was playing golf and the membership was coming back. It was an “Old West” golf course, but it turned out to be a lot of fun.
That same month, he left Britannia Golf Club to become Director of Golf at the Royal St. Kitts Golf Club. The love affair with the Caribbean still continues despite the ongoing threat of potential hurricanes:
It comes with the territory. It’s the price you pay for living in a place like this. If it happens, it happens. It can’t be any worse than what we went through in Grand Cayman. C&RB