As wind whipped across the tarmac at Miami International Airport late Friday night, dozens of people inched up a staircase and into a 737-800.
At first glance, the scene around the Miami Air International charter flight resembled the start of a routine cross-country journey to Los Angeles for the Miami Dolphins. But the cheerful shouts of children — they're not usually present on team flights — rose above the whine of idling jet engines. This was anything but normal.
As Hurricane Irma swirled toward south Florida, millions of residents evacuated. So did the Dolphins. Owner Stephen Ross chartered the plane for coaches, staffers, players and any family members they wanted to bring along.
The flight formed one part of a breakneck effort relocate the Dolphins to California in time to escape Irma and prepare for Sunday's game against the Chargers at StubHub Center. Something approaching normalcy returned Wednesday for the Dolphins as they practiced for the first time at the simple facility in Oxnard where the Dallas Cowboys hold training camp and, at least for this week, added a third NFL team to Southern California.
"It seems like it's been forever," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said of practicing, "but it's only been a week."
As Irma threatened South Florida last week, the Rams offered the Dolphins the use of their facility in Thousand Oaks and the Cowboys suggested the city-owned facility in Oxnard. City manager Greg Nyhoff discussed the option with the Dolphins on Sept. 5. They signed a lease agreement — the Dolphins will pay $12,000 for the week — three days later.
Crews mowed the grass to NFL specifications, lined the two practice fields, reconnected power and assembled a tent that covers a weight room stocked with equipment from the Cowboys. A sign was added to the long cinder block wall separating the fields from a new housing development: "Two coasts, one nation — Oxnard, CA welcomes the Miami Dolphins." Nyhoff stopped by a couple of times to check on the progress.
"It's crazy, but we're happy to have them here," he said of the unexpected tenant.
Originally, the Dolphins planned to arrive in L.A. a couple of days early, stay downtown and practice nearby. Irma changed everything. Joe Cimino, the equipment manager, loaded a truck with all the gear the team would need and sent it west without knowing the final destination. Meanwhile, Scott Bullis, senior director of operations, coordinated the logistics of transporting a football team almost 3,000 miles with no idea of when they could return home.
"It was a little hectic," center Jake Brendel said. "We just got on the plane as fast as we could."
Less than half of the players on the 53-man roster took the charter flight. Running back Jarvis Landry smiled as he remembered the noise from all the children aboard. The rest of the players scattered around the country, taking advantage of an unexpected bye week after the NFL postponed their season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The stragglers trickled into the hotel adjacent to the practice facility in Oxnard on Monday and Tuesday.
Bullis worked to book flights — Ross again picked up the tab — for family members to return to Florida. Team officials weren't aware of any players whose homes sustained significant damage. For many, however, uncertainty lingers about how their friends and neighbors fared.
"It was tough to some extent because you can only really follow what the news gives you," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "Other than that, you've just got to wait and see."
Though the Dolphins made contingency plans to move their operations to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia before next week's game at the New York Jets, they'll instead return to their usual routine. The team's facility in Davie, Fla., survived Irma with minimal damage — a few missing roof panels and displaced landscaping.
On Wednesday, the usual signs of a football practice filled the fields at Oxnard — three cherry pickers, an ambulance, orange tackling dummies, jugs of Gatorade, thumping music. Bored-looking private security in white shirts strolled around the edge of the field. A nearby garbage truck emptied a dumpster with loud thuds while Gase conducted his usual news conference in the middle of a tennis court.
A couple playing tennis on nearby courts watched the scene, seemingly perplexed about what had descended on this quiet area next to the River Ridge Golf Club.
"It's our normal Wednesday," Gase said without a trace of sarcasm.
Children ran through the hotel parking lot in Dolphins gear. A hotel employee drove a dark blue golf cart decorated with a Cowboys logo. Players picked at Styrofoam trays of lunch and checked cellphones. After a week they won't soon forget, the routine had returned.