Better Preparation Handles Mother Nature’s Curveball 

A year ago, I wrote about living through the polar vortex with 80 Costa Ricans in Wisconsin on a high school exchange.

It culminated in our return flight being canceled, which didn’t bother our visitors but created a horror show for me trying to rebook everyone.

So this year, after a white Halloween and a green Christmas and with twice as many people, we had to be ready for anything.  It’s a good thing we were, because misfortune would be after us again.

We had set up flights to Chicago on back-to-back days, and our Day 1 flights went fine. The next day, the first group would tour Chicago and then travel to Wisconsin along with the Day 2 Chicago flight arrivals.

I was the caboose on the Day 2 flights, connecting in Houston. Our other Day 2 flight was a direct flight that left just before ours. All was well until I started getting messages right before boarding about a snowstorm moving into the Wisconsin-Chicago area that evening.  I didn’t get a chance to check the weather before service cut out, but as soon as we hit U.S. airspace, I was able to watch The Weather Channel’s live report on the storm on in-flight TV.

Chicago looked bad.

I checked the direct flight’s progress, and it was looking good until about 30 minutes outside of Chicago. That’s when the flight path took a sharp right – and was now headed for Cleveland.

Oh man, here we go again.

I got all this information before touching down in Houston, so I was ready to hit the ground running. But we had less than two hours to clear customs and get to our next gate with 40 teens and teachers, half of whom had zero experience in making a connection like this.

Lucky for me, I had my smartphone, which would prove to be life-saving in so many ways.  We were stuck in line at customs for almost an hour, which would have been torture in most cases, but knowing my group was unable to wander off, I got to work fixing issues.

One of the first messages I received was from one of the host schools saying not to send the bus to the high school because they had cancelled all after-school activities. It must have been sent when I was without service, as it was really too late to do anything based on where the bus was at that point.

winter students on bus
Ready or not, here we come!

I quickly called another high school that was also receiving a group from the same bus. I explained the situation, and those families agreed to each take in an extra student for the night until the weather improved.


So I had them taken care of, with a second bus en route from Chicago to Madison making stops along the way. Other than that bus being about two hours behind schedule because of the weather, everything was good.

I had no means of getting a hold of anyone on the flight that was now headed to Cleveland and just had to watch for updates from the airline.

The customs line was really long, and on top of that they took two of our students aside for further questioning. So we were still advancing when it was announced that our flight would be delayed 12 hours, until the following morning.

That was stressful news for the teachers and Costa Rican parents to take, as they were already on edge, being only day one away from their children. For me, this was just another sigh of relief and the students… they were the least stressed in the matter.

students sleeping at airport
Airport sleepover!

We would have been crunched to make the connection even with what initially had been a one-hour delay, and these delays were much better than the cancellation last year.  I’d gladly spend the night at the airport as I couldn’t fathom rebooking 40 people on a smartphone.  In the end, we got to Chicago the next morning, almost the same time as the Cleveland “direct” flight.

I couldn’t help but think this was a leftover gut punch Mother Nature didn’t get a chance to unload on me last year. There hadn’t been any winter this year until I decided to fly.

But it could have been a lot worse.

I think of all the little things – like having upgraded my phone in October, having a SIM card ready to go upon U.S. arrival unlike prior years, having the inflight weather/flight status and flying a Big 3 airline rather than their hubs.

I had families ready for deployment at a moment’s notice, so much so that the ones ready to take in an extra student for a night never got the chance. Once word spread, the families from the first school drove to the other school and met their students there.

After the exciting arrival, the weather went back to being dormant and didn’t play a factor the rest of the exchange.

I definitely deserved that; I just hope I didn’t use up all my good weather credit for next year.

students being welcomed
They made it!

UPDATE JULY 22ND: While the weather was great for exchanging in January, the pandemic has completely shut us down.  Thankfully nothing happened mid-exchange, but we’ll be on the shelf till at least summer 2021 and won’t return to Wisconsin till January 2022.  By then we’ll be well rested and excited for anything that comes our way.


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