We started pulling exhibitry out of our shipping containers, which had been sitting outside on Grand Cayman for a week. But the laminate was limp, and all the connective glue was swilling around in the crate like maple syrup.
Working in the exhibit-building industry occasionally means traveling to exotic locations for projects, and compared to building stands in big-city convention halls, the prospect of working on a tropical island can sound pretty exciting. But when that island is in the Caribbean's hurricane belt, sometimes it's not the kind of excitement you were hoping for.
A few years ago, my company received a contract from Cable and Wireless Communications PLC, a telecommunications company that was rebranding itself as Land Phone, Internet, Mobile, and Entertainment (LIME) on 17 Caribbean islands. It planned to build stores and sell all kinds of new technology, so to train staff, LIME wanted a modular exhibit outfitted like a new retail store that could be shipped from one island to the next. Its first installation was in the Cayman Islands, which sounded like a really great gig, so I volunteered.
We designed and built the roughly 30-by-30-foot display at our facility in the United Kingdom, and then crated it up in two 20-foot ocean containers, and sent it on its way. While we were building the stand, Hurricane Paloma struck the Caribbean. But it didn't grab much U.K. news, and LIME officials didn't say anything about it to us. Plus, our installation date was three months later, so Hurricane Paloma wasn't even on our radar.
When we arrived for install and rode in the cab from the airport to the hotel, we were dumbstruck. The devastation we drove past was of biblical proportions — trees snapped in half, buildings demolished, and ships weighing thousands of tons stranded in fields miles from the ocean. Some buildings on the island fared better than others, and fortunately the hotel we were deposited at was mostly unscathed. So we checked in and got a good night's rest.
In the morning, we took a taxi to the LIME headquarters where our containers were sitting in the parking lot. They had been there for a week, but we didn't think much of it until we cut the locks off of the doors and pulled one open. It was as if we had just opened a pressure cooker — a blast of hot air blew our hair back and took our breath away. The display pieces inside were about the temperature of lava, so we sent someone to the store for thick oven mitts just to handle them.
Once armed with hand protection, we started pulling out pieces of the display, but what we were holding hardly resembled the exhibit we had created. Large pieces of laminate were as limp as flower petals, and all the glue that had been holding them to panels was swilling around in the bottom of the crate like maple syrup.
In a full state of panic, we hurried to get everything spread out in some nearby shade, taking care to lay our laminate pieces flat in the hopes that we could still rescue them. Glue was obviously no longer an option, but we were going to have to come up with some way to get this display "Frankensteined" back together without it looking like, well, Frankenstein.
Folks in the LIME office got us a driver, and we set off in the hope of finding supplies and some creative construction inspiration. But because of the damage caused by Paloma, hardware stores on the island were virtually empty, and as we wandered through the picked-over aisles, we came to the realization that we were pretty much screwed.
Our best bet, we decided, was to drill holes in the laminate, nail it to the frame, and then paint over the nailheads. There was just one problem: By midday, it was so hot that our brains were boiling inside of our skulls, and we knew we'd have to work as much as possible in the coolness of night.
We hammered away under the lights of the parking lot for four nights, but the work was slow going. If we didn't get help, we realized, we were not going to get it finished. After a bit of research, we learned that there was one events company nearby, so we had a driver bring us there to see if we could round up some extra hands.
The sight that greeted us when we pulled up at the address made our problems look pretty small by comparison. The storage warehouse had been ripped away by Paloma, and the company's stock of rigging and lighting was laying open to the elements. A small office had survived, and we found the owner living in it because his home had been destroyed. Even so, he was glad to help us, and in no time he had assembled the crew and tools we needed to get us back on track.
On the bright side, we had new hope that the project would get done. On the downside, these workers were accustomed to the heat, so they expected to work during the day rather than at night. My colleague and I bucked up and joined them. But the heat was exhausting, so we drank copious amounts of water and tried to mirror our Caribbean counterparts, who worked at a slow, steady pace and took frequent breaks to cope with the sweltering temperatures.
I've worked in hot places like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but they were nothing compared to this. It was so hot that we lost layers of skin touching black gaffer's tape and millions of brain cells from the sun beating on our delicate English heads — until a Cayman worker informed us that we were probably going to die if we didn't put hats on. But thanks to this crew that took us and our project under its wing, we finished the build on time and survived, neither of which seemed probable at the outset.
I never did get to work on my tan by the pool, but I learned that you can get a hell of a tan in a parking lot. I was also reminded that this industry is filled with good people all over the world who will help when you need it, even when they could actually use a little help themselves.
— Peter Bowen, CEO, Access Displays Ltd., Westlea, England