Thankful Journal Entry of a Florida Evacuee

September 2017

Hurricane Watch and Warning

I’m a native Floridian. It’s never occurred to me to evacuate from Florida for a hurricane. Being a Palm Beach County resident for most of my life it seemed that any time we had storm heading our way, it would inevitably turn away from us just in time. A direct hit from a tropical monster was always someone else’s problem. That was until early last week when Hurricane Irma became a category 5 at 185 mph out in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of us.

Suddenly it seems that living with 90-year-old grandparents and having three children under the age of 10 can change one’s perspective when it comes to the idea of evacuating due to a dangerous storm heading in your direction. From early last week my head began to buzz with the possibilities of major structural damage to an unknown amount of time spent in the sub-tropical heat and humidity without electricity—south Florida is uninhabitable in the summer months without air-conditioning in most homes today. That coupled with the mass hysteria that ensued locally with water and gasoline shortages helped me make a joint decision with my husband to leave Florida destined for the Chattanooga area of Tennessee.

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Pack? Bags Thrown Together

 The full moon had just come into view on Wednesday, September 6th and most of the gas stations along our major road had bags on the nozzles or a limitation on how many gallons you could pump. I went out to Costco to gather some more water for family and realized as I was driving around that my heart was not into “hunkering down” for the storm.

Our weather had been stifling on a daily basis and the idea of going without electricity for even only a couple of days was not appealing. Hurricane Matthew just over a year ago had skirted our area and yet I can still remember the way the older windows shook in the house.

I called my husband and asked him to pack a bag for our three children and myself. Funny enough, important papers were an afterthought as I had them in a small fireproof safe. What became paramount was getting out of the area as soon as possible. Upon returning home that evening I threw together a toiletries bag and a box full of school books and my address book.

My only regret is I wish I had left immediately as I had made the choice to do so that very evening.

Longest Peninsula Drive EVER

 My recollection is obviously a repeat of the countless media reports during late last week. As I heard and later read, ours was a Florida evacuation to go down in the record books for the largest amount of people leaving the state because of Hurricane Irma’s determined approach.

After reaching Orlando in 6 hours (normally a trip that took just under 2 hours from my area) I knew that we were in for a horrendous time to get out of the state. I glanced at my phone for a moment to see a friend texting me that we were welcome to evacuate at her sister’s house in Brooksville, Florida “if the drive gets to be too much”. Understatement, “too much”. Still, thanks to #Florida Governor Rick Scott for waiving Florida Turnpike fees and #Florida Highway Patrol for helping us along the way.

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Emotions? Tons of them. Most of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms reverberated with similar thought streams. Some were paralyzed to leave, others grabbed flights out ASAP, still others like myself risked being stranded on the roads rather than wait in the forecasted path of a storm—Floridians and adopted Floridians alike had the same fears and were all reacting in our respective ways. Family and friends we may have not heard from in years were reaching out to ask what our plan of action was. Pretend Hurricane Irma is not happening? American or European model? Which doomsday track was worse for our area? In the end, the storm’s sheer physical size demanded our attention.

The scene along the Florida turnpike was surreal at times. Folks randomly pulled off the side of the highway to relieve themselves or their pets. Some people camped out in the back of their vehicle with their cigarettes after a particularly bad congestion area. I saw vans loaded with gas cans on top. We saw lines for a couple of miles leading up to rest areas. My eyes burned with tears as I looked at the forests we passed by, imagining downed trees or worse, flattened areas should the hurricane hit at a full category 5 strength. Sometimes the slower we went on the highway, the more restless I was to get out of the state.

The children and I had left home around 7am and it was now just after 7pm and I realized that a diet of pretzels and applesauce was not going to end well so I better just stop at Lake City, Florida as much as I wanted to exit Florida first. At the very least I was now north of my Alma Mater’s town of Gainesville.

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#Chick-fil-A, Lake City, Florida

 As I pulled off of Interstate 75, probably going faster in the exit ramp than I had for the past 90 minutes in our 25+ mph crawl, I noticed Chick-fil-A on the right hand side of the road. It was slammed.

Somehow, there was an open parking spot right in front of the entrance that was NOT reserved for the handicapped. As any anxious parent traveling alone knows, this was a golden moment not to be taken for granted.

As I unloaded the kids, my two oldest went in together immediately to go to the bathroom. It suddenly occurred to me what rock stars these sons had been to not have asked to use the restroom until literally the last hour of our 12-hour trip thus far. My youngest had a diaper to assist but this would create a rash of a problem for the next couple of days—literally.

The scene inside of the Chick-fil-A was hectic at best and claustrophobic at worst. Yet I was pleasantly struck with one consistent characteristic of this particular restaurant with its iconic red emblem and fried chicken aroma. Their staff was incredibly attentive, concise and a few were moving quickly in and out of the dining area serving its customers food/drinks and attending to any requests.

My body was stiff and still shaking from the drive. Hunger was an after-effect that was swiftly depleting my body and fueling a very painful migraine. The Chick-fil-A staff here in Lake City impressed me so much in that moment of recognition that I had to call one of the young ladies by her nametag and asked to give her a hug to thank her for taking care of all of us.

I met other parents near the play area who like me let our kids in there and didn’t care that they were moving about like pinballs in all sorts of directions—we all had similar stories of leaving Florida to get out of the way of a possibility that was not worth us staying for to see its conclusion. For us that had the means to leave we knew it was a blessing to do so and our prayers were with others who were staying either by choice or by inability.

Thank you #Chick-fil-A in Lake City, Florida. You made our evacuation easier with your kindness and sustaining food!

#Go Fish Education Center, Perry, Georgia

 My stopover late Thursday night/early Friday morning was Warner Robbins, Georgia. As I cruised into town after a 30mph stint on the interstate, I made the choice that I would drive by night the next leg up to Chattanooga-Signal Mountain, Tennessee where my final destination awaited. I fueled up before I stopped at our family friend’s home and shivered in the 30-degree drop along with several other Floridians who like me were at the very least relieved to be finally north of the border.

Friday, September 8th. I was so grateful for the way the children had traveled the day before that it was important to me to take them out for a treat and to help tire them to sleep well during my night drive. Go Fish Education Center had been a memorable hit a couple years ago so we decided to try it out again.

Upon entering the parking lot at Go Fish I ran into a family from Tampa who was also evacuating and was taking a break from the highway. They reported that the place was fun for their three kids; we swapped stories and wished each other well on our respective evacuation routes.

Once we got inside to the reception area the lady at the desk asked if we were evacuees and once we confirmed were told that the entry fee was waived. I was at a loss for words but most grateful. We spent the next couple of hours meeting other small families traveling with young children and had fun catching fish both virtual and real outside in their catch and release pond.

While there we also got to witness the staff at Go Fish rehearsing a practice electricity loss in preparation for the possible effects from Hurricane Irma. A sobering reminder of one of the many reasons most of us present were leaving our homes in Florida.

#Go Fish Education Center in Perry, Georgia, thanks for helping so many of us Florida parents and guardians of children take a break from a tiresome evacuation by road. Your gracious act of waiving the entry fee meant so much to us.

Run for the Hills, Run for the Mountains

 It was about 2am Saturday, September 9th when I left Atlanta area proper, I had already been on the road for a couple hours averaging 20-40 mph and was so happy to be hitting 65-70 mph now nonstop. Very thankful to #GDOT for waiving the fees to the PeachPass express lanes so that Floridians could get through the area quicker.

I felt my Ford Expedition’s engine rev as I began to climb what seemed to be small hills and now were turning into small mountains. As I entered the Chattanooga area, my heart finally relaxed knowing that I was close to my goal of reaching family on Signal Mountain safely. It was just after 4 am as I drove up the mountain itself, parked our vehicle and took my sleeping children into a cozy and welcoming home. The evacuated grandparents were also securely asleep in the same house. I laid down to rest and felt that we were safely “home” again.

*It goes without saying how grateful I am to our family who sheltered us and others during this storm.

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#Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga, Tennessee

After a couple of days recuperating from the drive and enjoying some beautiful mountain trails, I ventured down with a good friend and her son with my children to Chattanooga. The Creative Discovery Museum has always been a hit with my children in past trips and since the rain was moving from the effects of Hurricane Irma, we figured this was a great way to spend the day.

Of course everyone in the area had a similar idea as we walked into a bustling museum full of adults gathered in groups along walls and benches while children of all ages darted in and out of the various areas. To describe the interior experience as a “swarm” would be too gentle of a word.

However, the tone was immediately set when we approached the registration desk and we were asked if we were evacuating from Hurricane Irma. After confirming this the lady checking us in let us know they were giving all evacuees a 50% off the admission rate for the day. As a mother of three children, any and every discount helps–including during a stressful, unplanned and unbudgeted trip!

Thank you #Creative Discovery Museum of Chattanooga, Tennessee for not only welcoming an enormous amount of people on a rainy Monday but also giving all Hurricane Irma evacuees a discount to give our children an educational and interactive experience after exhausting travel.

#Tennessee Aquarium One Broad Street

It’s been nearly a week since I evacuated with my children and slowly evacuees were starting to leave the area, including our fellow houseguests. Social media and texts were flooding in telling me about how difficult the roads were, gas shortages and overall troubles getting back into much of south Florida.

I decided that it was time to take a field trip for a day again and made the Tennessee Aquarium our destination—it’s iconic geometrical shape can easily be seen by the highway. Although we were tired from the trip, the kids were happy to take advantage of the open spaces and long ramps to take in some beautiful sights of salt and fresh water wildlife contained and in some cases protected within their walls.

Upon registering I was asked if we were in from Hurricane Irma. Again I confirmed this and was told discreetly that they were offering us all a 50% discount. They didn’t want it widely advertised but I must apologize for going ahead and sharing that they did this for us and other families that day. Once again, I cannot stress enough how appreciative we are for such kindnesses especially when on the road with children and during inclement weather conditions. Floridians are NOT used to 50 degree and rainy weather in early September, period.

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#Tennessee Aquarium Chattanooga, thanks for your hospitality, a taste of home in some of your exhibits and overall a fun experience and escape along with some extra cash so we could get some treats in your gift shop!

Epilogue: Power and Gas Dependents Are We?

 As I gather our belongings and prepare for the journey back to Florida, I’ve been reflecting on how dependent we all are on electricity and commodities such as gasoline fuel for our vehicles.

Although we joke that people apparently get really thirsty before a hurricane’s approach and start depleting local stores of water bottles, it is a true concern to lose electric power, cable, internet and phone services. That rectangular disk in your hand that you may be reading my writing with is something that you don’t like to lose use of in the end. Many would rather go without air conditioning than lose usage of their smart phones.

I will admit that this evacuation trip was a pleasant surprise in the amount of personal attention by people that renders any smartphone app irrelevant. It turns out we haven’t evolved to a place where human interaction is meaningless even if we seem to be impersonal at times with these devices constantly in our hands.

This experience for millions of Floridians may have reminded us that more than any federal funding or even a Red Cross campaign—it is the person-to-person relations that have helped us prepare and now recover in the wake of a natural disaster together.

Thank you all who have helped victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma this year. We pray and hope to be spared any other storms in this 2017 season.

RVSB+

 

 

 

 

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