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I'd like to say that when Hurricane Mitch came churning through the Caribbean last week on a heading for Cancun, Mexico, where I was attending a seminar on the Bermuda market, I stood my ground, grabbed a disposable camera and notepad and recorded the event like a responsible journalist.

The truth is I packed my bags, as did the rest of the conference attendees, dashed to the airport and waited in line to hop the first plane, any plane, out of there.

While getting out of Mitch's path wasn't easy, it was amazing to see how thousands of people can move when they put their mind to it. "Stampede" comes to mind.

As of this writing, Mitch has been downgraded from a Category 5 hurricane to a tropical storm and still hasn't reached the northeastern tip of the Yucatan, where Cancun sits. But it has buffeted Honduras with gusts of wind and gales of rain and up to 50 deaths have been blamed on the storm.

The first I heard of the storm was on the plane down to Cancun. The passenger beside me said he was flying to secure his sailboat on Isla Mujeres because of the approaching hurricane.

Hurricane? What hurricane?

Arriving at the hotel where the seminar was being held, the palm trees leaned inland to point the wind's direction. The surf was strong, but not so bad as to prevent a handful of people from swimming and playing in the waves. The next day, the waves were much bigger and hammered at the beach and straw umbrellas the hotel had placed in the sand.

Mitch was stalled hundreds of miles to the south, though it was increasing in intensity, with sustained winds of 180 mph and record low pressure.

While it seemed we had plenty of time before the hurricane reached our part of the world, I began to notice unnerving signs that people were preparing for the worst.

Clusters of concerned hotel workers stood along the beach wall, surveying areas at risk. Umbrellas along the beachfront pools were laid on their sides, to avoid being blown away. Hotel workers filled dozens of sandbags and climbed the dozens of palms along the beachfront patio, using ladders to reach unripe coconuts and cut them down, denying Mother Nature a few handy projectiles to throw at the hotel's windows. Later, the palm trees themselves were dug up.

Wary of being trapped by the storm, the seminar's organizers announced they would cut short the meeting a day early so everyone could get out of Cancun.

As I surveyed the crashing surf during a break in the compressed program, the hotel's general manager came to stand beside me. "The power of nature is something to behold," he said philosophically. When I agreed, he offered the assurance that the Mayans endured thousands of these storms. Well, yes, I thought, but where are the Mayans today?

The next morning, as the conference drew to a premature close, the skies were cloudy and the wind pushed against the coast, driven ahead of the spiraling hurricane. It was not hurricane force, but it bent the trees nonetheless and sent sand blowing onto the hotel's patio, which was vacant.

Staying put until my scheduled flight was to leave the next day no longer was an option. Not only did the airlines cancel all flights for the next day, but the hotel also was making plans to evacuate guests to an alternate location further inland.

At the airport were thousands of people with the same goal of getting out of Cancun. At every airline counter except Air Havana, lines six people wide and 50 feet long stretched back out the doors. In all, it is estimated that 500,000 people evacuated Central America last week in advance of the hurricane.

At the airport, behavior was getting ugly, as people badgered gate agents for answers to what they would do if they couldn't get out on a plane. People stood pressed to the windows watching the sky darken and the rain come down. Each time a plane landed, a cheer went up in the terminal.

Finally, I won a seat on the next-to-last flight that evening, bound for Miami. Hundreds of people had gone before me and hundreds remained in the airport.

I will always wonder what it would have been like to stay and witness such a storm firsthand. But at least I now have a pretty good idea what happened to the Mayans: They packed their bags and got the heck out of town.

Editor Paul D. Winston's column appears biweekly.