There are more luxurious accommodations on Martha’s Vineyard than the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs school gyms. But on Friday night, more than 150 tired members of a stranded tour group were more than happy to sleep on cots set up on the parquet floor as Hurricane Arthur lashed the Island with torrential rains and high winds.
The details read as though they might have come from the playbook of a regional public safety drill. A category 1 hurricane races up the coast on July Fourth. The Steamship Authority (SSA) cancels the last boats and more than 150 mostly Asian tourists from New York City who expected to depart on the 8:30 pm ferry wait anxiously in the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal with no place to go.
But this was no drill. As the rain fell and the winds picked up to gale force, members of the Island’s emergency management network and public agencies sprang into action. Within hours, all of the visiting tourists had places to sleep. By 7 am the next morning, they were on their way back home with an exciting story to tell about their trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
Calm before the storm
Friday was hot and humid. Hurricane Arthur was predicted to race by Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket late that night. Weather forecasts predicted heavy rains and strong winds as the storm passed by late at night.
L & L Travel Enterprises, Inc., a major tour operator in New York City that caters mostly to Asians and Chinese speakers, had brought about 400 visitors to the Island for the day. The visitors planned to spend the day shopping and sightseeing and return that evening on the 8:30 pm ferry to Woods Hole and waiting tour buses.
And they were not alone. Two more tour groups, about 100 people, were on the Island.
Later in the day, as the storm began to approach, SSA agents were able to convince many members of the tour groups to board an earlier ferry to Woods Hole. Others continued to shop and look around town, unmindful of the worsening weather conditions and the likelihood of boat cancellations.
SSA terminal agent Dave Merritt said that terminal manager Bridget Tobin cautioned travelers as they disembarked throughout the day that the approaching storm could disrupt later travel.
By 6 pm, terminal agents were doing their best to get day travelers to board early boats.
Mr. Merritt said the tour directors appeared to be doing the best they could, but with so many people off in so many directions it was difficult to communicate. “We told one of the tour directors, you need to go on this boat or an earlier boat because there is a possibility the 8:30 boat will not run,” he told The Times in a telephone conversation. “I told her that, but the people didn’t want to get on the 6:15 because the people in general didn’t know what was going on.”
Due to worsening weather conditions, the SSA shifted the 8:30 departure from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven. There was a 7:15 scheduled to depart Vineyard Haven.
“The 6:15 left and they didn’t get on it so we started sending groups and groups over to Vineyard Haven to try and get them on the 7:15,” Mr. Merritt said as the tour operators attempted to get in touch with members of their group.
Mr. Merritt went to Vineyard Haven to help out. “We got tons of people on the 7:15, but it was like pulling teeth,” he said, “because they didn’t want to go because all their people weren’t there and some of their tour directors weren’t there because they were over in Oak Bluffs trying to find all their people. It was really a madhouse, lots of confusion.”
Mr. Merritt said he spoke to one man, who appeared to be in charge of one of the groups, and told him to get his people on the boat and their tour buses would be there to meet them on the other side.
“The 7:15 left and everybody was fine and then all of a sudden more people started coming in from all the tours that were scattered around town, that didn’t get called, that didn’t make it in time. About 170 of them. All of a sudden the 8:30 cancels. Uh-oh.”
Call to action
It was dark and raining, and SSA terminal agents Dave Merritt and Joe Sullivan had more than 170 people crammed inside the small building with no place to go. Ticket agents began calling around for rooms, but few were available. An alternative needed to be found.
Mr. Merritt called Chuck Cotnoir, Dukes County emergency management coordinator, who works closely with each town’s emergency management director. “I said Chuck, we’ve got a shelter for these people, 170 people, they’re Chinese. Some speak English, some don’t. We’ve got to do something for these people.”
Mr. Cotnoir began making telephone calls. Mr. Merritt said initially it was difficult to reach people. Mr. Merritt contacted Tisbury police. There was some initial confusion about the extent of the problem and what needed to be done, he said.
In a short time coordinated efforts began developing to help the stranded visitors.
Tisbury Police Sergeant Chris Habekost and officer Jeff Day helped keep people calm. Sergeant Haberkost began calling hotels to find rooms for the elderly and families with children. On one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year he was able to locate seven rooms in Tisbury and four rooms in Oak Bluffs.
In the terminal, several people began feeling sick. EMTs arrived to help out. Nearby Porto Pizza faced a deluge of customers. “It was really interesting,” Mr. Merritt said. “But we all did great, we all pulled together. Everybody that was working here, the Steamship Authority, the police, the tour guides, there was no problem, no fighting, everybody was listening and communicating.”
Plans were made to open up the Tisbury School gym, a designated emergency shelter.
But there were no cots immediately available. Mr. Cotnoir called John Christensen, West Tisbury emergency management director (EMD).
Mr. Christensen began rounding up cots. When he realized he did not have enough, he called Tim Carroll, Chilmark EMD. The men worked in the rain to get the cots to Tisbury.
Angela Grant, Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrator, directed buses to assist with transportation.
Richard S. Reinhardsen, chairman of the Salvation Army, and Shelley Christensen arrived at the Tisbury school to hand out juice and snacks.
Ann Marie Cywinski, Martha’s Vineyard American Red Cross team captain and assistant Tisbury assessor, brought resources that included personal hygiene kits to hand out to the stranded people. She and other volunteers would spend the night in the shelters with the unexpected Island guests.
Tisbury Police Lieutenant Eerik Meisner, who is also the town’s emergency management director, contacted Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling. The men opened the Tisbury School gym and began setting up cots.
Mr. Meisner also called Oak Bluffs fire chief and EMD John Rose, who began mobilizing to open the Oak Bluffs School.
“We weren’t expecting that to happen, but we made a good show of it,” Lt. Meisner said.
“And kudos to Oak Bluffs. They stepped up and took about half the people, otherwise I don’t think we would have been able to fit all those people in the school.”
A VTA bus transported more than 70 weary travelers to the Oak Bluffs School.
“We set up all of our cots and they were happy,” Mr. Rose said. “By midnight they were pretty much all sleeping.”
Mr. Rose and a police officer spent the night at the shelter along with the town’s guests.
The next morning a VTA bus arrived and transported the visitors to the ferry terminal in time to catch the 7 am ferry. “It was pretty seamless; it worked pretty well,” Mr. Rose said.
All came together
Ms. Cywinski said the first bus load of about 70 people went to Oak Bluffs. Buses took 84 people to the Tisbury School. Members of the Salvation Army were there to greet them with snacks and juice. “They just came in and ran for the cots, they were so tired and confused,” Ms. Cywinski said.
With the help of a translator, Mr. Cotnoir put up signs in Chinese so that people would know where the bathrooms were located in the Tisbury School
Mr. Cotnoir praised the regional effort. “I think that everybody did a truly excellent job,” he said. “It was just incredible the way it all came together. The whole thing was from 8:20 pm to midnight and they were in all bed. That is what coordination is all about.”
Thank you Martha’s Vineyard
L&L company vice president Rich Sun told The Times in a telephone call Saturday that he was very grateful for all the help.
“We were very grateful, very thankful that they did their best to find shelter,” he said. “We really appreciate it. We saw the pictures of the night and all the people very peacefully resting. We really appreciate it.”
Mr. Sun said his company paid for the hotel rooms. “It was pretty expensive, about $400 per room,” he said.
Mr. Sun said he sent four busloads of visitors to the Island on Friday, about 200 people in all, mostly Asian Americans from New York City. He questioned why the SSA did not provide a warning that there was a possibility boats might be cancelled. “All the tour guides were very experienced and none of them were notified about this,” he said.
He said that one group boarded the 7:15 pm boat and made it back to the mainland. The
majority were stranded, however. “I hope if a similar thing happens some warning would be given to tour guides before they get on the Island,” he said.
Mr. Sun said he was aware of the weather reports of a hurricane moving up the coast. “I did see that, but when we checked weather reports we did not see anything so significant,” he said.