This is a continuation of Part 1 – 10 Lessons Learned While Preparing for Hurricane Irma
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, we were prepping like we were going to stay in Naples – but with the Hurricane models shifting further to the West every hour and putting Irma over our house at a Category 4+ Hurricane, we decided that we really should leave. When we started talking about inflating our rubber boat and keeping life preservers handy in case the storm surge predictions were true, we knew we might not ever forgive ourselves if this storm came in that strong.
Just as we made the decision to leave, our phone rang. It was a good friend asking about our plans for the storm. It turns out, they also came to the same conclusion at the same time: Hurricane Irma is a BIG one and it is coming HERE. They had found a room at the Sandestin Resort in Destin, Florida, at almost the very tip of the Panhandle. And the resort was accepting pets.
We called the resort, booked a room right on the phone and called our friends back to make plans to head out together at midnight. We read on social media that the worst of the traffic was to be expected after reaching Ocala. By our calculation, we would hit the area about the time people would start pulling off the road for the night. At least that was our hope.
Packing to Evacuate
We began switching gears quickly, going from staying put to getting everything important together so that we could evacuate. Since we had a few hours to pack, we spent some time thinking about what to bring. We have a cargo carrier that fits into our trailer hitch for our 2016 Honda Pilot. Between it and the car’s already massive cargo space, you can carry A LOT of stuff, even with a 140-pound dog in the trunk.
What do you take when you know everything you are leaving behind could be destroyed? It’s not really easy, but we tried to think about what we might need if we had to start over. Almost all of our clothing that we really liked, work clothes in case we needed to go to job interviews and start life over, all our important documents, laptops and personal electronics, hard drives, all the food and drinks from our fridge that we could fit in two big coolers and so forth. We also packed a bunch of pet supplies for our furry friends. And things we would need when we came back to Naples like our work boots, gloves, and the cordless drill. It was also important to keep proof of residency handy in case we needed it when we returned. This was a change from our college days. Back in the year 2000, Collier County still issued “Hurricane IDs” for people to prove that they were returning home to a disaster zone. Now, all you need is your driver’s license.
As we put things together, we realized that we’ve reduced our most important things down to just a few things. Yes, there were a few more items we would have liked to take, and perhaps we would consider renting a small trailer if we thought we were going to lose everything again. But since we already live a somewhat minimalist lifestyle, there is not so much our hearts are attached to that would have been vital to our survival or if we had to start life over from scratch. Still, I really would have liked to take my favorite piece of art from our time in Berlin – but how do you transport a 4 ft by 6 ft barndoor painting along with everything else? Gosh, sometimes I really miss my Landrover Defender with its gigantic roof rack.
By 10 pm we were getting antsy. Everything was prepped, everything was packed and there was nothing to do but take a shower, walk the dog and wait until midnight. We did use the opportunity to walk around our now empty community a bit, looking at who had left and who had stayed behind. We joked about how we could dance naked around the street and nobody would be there to see. And if they were, they couldn’t see through their boarded-up windows.
The wait was almost unbearable and at 11 pm it turned out our friends were getting antsy too. The text simply said “We’re on our way” and we jumped into action to complete our final evacuation steps. After Ayla was loaded into the trunk using her ginormous dog ramp, we mounted the cargo carrier and stored items such as coolers and totes. All that was left to do was tape Mack’s “GO AWAY IRMA” poster to the front door and ceremoniously Sharpie “Hurricane Irma – September 2017” on one of the shutters.
Time to Hit the Road
We handed a walkie-talkie to our friends since it seemed like an easier way to stay in touch along the 575-mile ride up to Sandestin Resort. It was an extremely weird feeling, standing in our street during the middle of the night, with virtually nobody around and every window shuttered, about to head off into the unknown.
Social media reports from along the road were not good. Major traffic jams and no gas seemed to be a common theme. We decided to play it safe and start looking for gas whenever either of our cars’ gas gauge was down to 3/4 full. Maybe a bit too cautious, but nobody felt like getting stranded in the middle of Florida.
Even with an extra potty break and some nervous chatter and last minute planning, we hit the road at 11:45 pm, a full 15 minutes earlier than planned. Off we went: 2 cars, 4 adults, 2 kids, 4 cats (3 ginger boys and a recently blind Siamese), and an oversized geriatric Newfoundland dog — we were quite the ragtag team.
Once we hit I-75 North, we settled into a comfortable speed. Although traffic was very heavy, everything moved smoothly. We did notice a very heavy presence of Florida State Troopers every mile or so along the way, watching that traffic kept flowing smoothly. With the exception of a few crazy drivers darting between lanes, it was almost like we were traveling down a river, with all cars going the exact same speed.
We drove the entire night, stopping whenever we spotted a gas station on Gas Buddy (an absolute must-have app in a situation like this) to top off. The farther north we traveled, the more traffic seemed to slow down. Scenes at highway rest areas seemed almost like something you’d see in a Roland Emmerich disaster epic. Car after car packed down with heavy luggage, dazed passengers and lots of pets. It also seemed that people were getting more and more frustrated the further north we traveled. The worry and stress definitely had an effect on all.
Once the sun came up (somewhere north of Gainesville) the traffic situation became very crowded. Still there appeared to be very little gas and we were happy that we were now within one tank of gas from Destin – even with heavy traffic jams.
Choosing to travel on smaller roads for most of the way after Ocala, the ride through Tallahassee was smooth, but slow going. Thanks to our friend Luke for the AMAZING guided tour through his old stomping grounds of Tallahassee during our drive through town. Since it was coming through the walkie-talkie and delirious from sleep deprivation, it almost felt like being on a tourist bus.
Florida is a big place, and once you reach the north there is still a LONG way to go when heading west. Avoiding most busy highways, we found it slightly faster going along backroads the rest of the way to Destin. Two lane highways are pretty, but they do require a lot of patience. One small town, which must have never seen this much traffic, seemed to have gone into full-on crisis mode. Their single stop light was timed to be appropriate for the normal traffic flow of smalltown USA. However, when one car wants to cross in one direction and the rest of Florida wants to move through in the other direction, patience is a virtue. In an effort of what seemed like the towns entire police force (4 cars) the traffic signal was disabled and traffic directed “almost” efficiently.
Finally, after nearly 16 hours of travel (with only potty breaks and fuel stops) we arrived. It never felt so good to pull up to a hotel before! Usually the drive takes about 8-9 hours…but with all the traffic along the way, and stops to make sure we didn’t run out of gas (or go delirious from the driving), it took forever. The last 3 hours in the car felt as if time was running backwards. But at last we had arrived at a safe place.
10 Lessons Learned from Evacuating from Hurricane Irma
- Bring Snacks — We wanted to get out of dodge as quickly as possible, without wasting too much time tracking down food. Since we knew that all of our food in the fridge would likely spoil once the power went out, we packed as much of it as we could into coolers we would take with us. We also spent some time packing easy-to-access snacks in the passenger seat so we could munch on snacks while on the road to soothe the nerves. With so many Floridian’s making their trek up north, we also didn’t want to rely on roadside convenience stores since we thought they may have been picked clean of anything edible.
- Strength in Numbers — We were really, really happy to make the trip with our good friends in two separate cars. It would have been tight, but we could have all squeezed in one car if things got hairy along the way. Also, with so much traffic and commotion, it is nice to have a second pair of eyes to keep watch during the long drive. Funny enough, our different versions of Waze sometimes gave different “best route” options to each of us, even though we had the exact same destination and traveled close together. We really enjoyed squawking over our walkie-talkies about which route suggestion would be the better one.
- Mind the Gas Gauge — The gas situation along the route was a nightmare. I would estimate that more than two-thirds of gas stations had run out of gas by the time we passed them while heading north. With a little bit of planning and the use of various apps (see lesson 5) we managed to arrive in Destin just fine without ever having to touch our friends 10 gallons of extra gas, but we would have definitely felt safer having our own gas supply. As mentioned above, we followed the strategy to start looking for gas whenever we hit 3/4-full and always found gas by the time we hit half a tank, without having to wait for hours. In fact, using this strategy we had the luxury of cruising by some gas stations with long lines and kept going until we found one with only a few cars waiting for gas. Using the app GasBuddy was indispensable. It wasn’t 100% accurate, but accurate enough. Usually, we had our best luck when we found 2 or 3 gas station located close together that would be marked as “open.” Whenever we spotted one of these clusters, chances were there would be at least one of them that had some gas. For the “lonely” gas stations on the map, it would be a bit more hit and miss, even if they were marked as having gas in the app.
- Bring Cash — Did I mention that hurricanes are expensive? Indeed they are! On top of that, it seems many gas stations were quickly outrunning their credit card processing limits and resorted to cash only for their precious gas supplies. Others however accepted only credit card. Stay prepared and keep some money on hand when you are running for your life; it feels a lot better to have something of actual value in your pocket rather than just a 10 cent plastic card that requires power and internet access to process payment.
- Use Intel to Stay Ahead of the Crowd — With modern technology, the future truly is now. We came armed with a slew of apps and devices on our exodus. The passenger seat almost resembled a cockpit (our mobile data plan was draining quickly) with iPhones, iPads and more. With crowd-sourced traffic/navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps, the information of other users on the road is sourced and taken into account to give you real-time information about your best and fastest route options. Pretty nifty when you try to escape from an almost 500-mile long peninsula with just a few major arteries. Also, we went old school with a set of walkie-talkies to keep updated with our friends and to pass the time. In retrospect, we should have spent a bit more and bought something with a longer range (ours were 2-miles). But we only had one time where we lost each other due to some poorly timed traffic lights and the walkie-talkies were a much easier way to stay in contact than via cell phone or texts.
- Emotions Run High — This is a common theme through this and the other posts about hurricane Irma – and I would guess it’s the same for any other slow-moving trainwreck of a disaster that makes you look into the abyss of potentially losing everything you have built. Florida drivers already tend to be prone to road rage, and it has to be said, we do have some of the worst drivers in the country down here. Throw hours and hours of heavy traffic, lack of food, and lack of sleep into the mix, you have a pretty volatile mix along the road. For the most part, everything seemed fairly subdued (if not surreal), but do expect to run into some cranky people.
- Patience, Patience, Patience — Following along with the previous lesson: Patience in this situation most definitely is a virtue. It is a long drive from South Florida to the “mainland” on a normal day, but with nearly 16 million Floridians on the run, the streets were PACKED! As I mentioned above, traffic lights in some towns just couldn’t keep up with the river of cars trying to make it through. If you are forced to wait for gas, it will require patience. Weaving your way through the hundreds of cars funneling through a rest area – you guessed it – you need patience. We made the best of the time marveling at the craziness of the situation, listening to some killer tunes on Pandora (it was a little freaky when the first song that came on we left our home was ACDC’s Highway to Hell) and generally just accepting the fact that it would be a LONG time until we made it.
- Pack Heat — I know this is going to be a controversial one and whatever your personal feelings on guns are, I can tell you I felt much better having a big D-Cell Maglite by the driver seat and a pistol in the center console. Normally, I feel incredibly safe living in Florida. In Naples, FL, crime is virtually unheard of. When fleeing from a Hurricane with the rest of Florida, well….there are quite a few unsavory people in Florida, and I wouldn’t want to be stranded with my family in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, without a way to protect myself. Going back to Lesson 6, there is a saying: “When people lose everything, they lose it” and we didn’t want to take chances. That being said, there were a couple of gas stops with some really freaky folks at the gas station, but we didn’t run into a shred of hassle with other motorists along the way.
- Plan a Good Route – and Stay Flexible — Florida really doesn’t have all that many main arteries heading north, but there are a ton of local highways and rural roads. While it still won’t allow you to travel at supersonic speeds, it beats sitting in a traffic jam that isn’t moving along for hours. Whoever was in the passenger seat would monitor the route ahead on Google Maps and Waze. We would make adjustments based on what the apps told us and what we heard from other people on our social media channels that were ahead of us. We traveled some adventurous roads but thankfully North Florida is quite beautiful and the rural feeling helped with the boredom of travel.
- Expand Your Storage – Unless you have a big truck or van, chances are your car is not necessarily equipped for hauling your family and all your most important stuff out to safety. I used to drive a Land Rover Defender 110 when we lived in Germany. I bet I could have loaded almost the whole condo in that car. In Naples, as I mentioned before, we drive a Honda Pilot (LOVE IT!), which has a huge amount of storage. Still, with a 140lbs Newfoundland in the trunk and a child and cat (plus carrier) in the back seat, the room to haul stuff becomes a little inhibited. While the trunk has plenty of space to let Ayla lay comfortably and stretch out her arthritic bones with some luggage, space becomes a premium. About a year ago we bought a trailer hitch cargo carrier to carry coolers and other camping stuff for our camping trips. This thing was worth its weight in gold on this mission.
So there you have it – part two of our wild adventure.
The third installment of our four-part recount of our hurricane story will be along soon. And for those who live in a hurricane-prone area, I’ve begun working on a book as weell to help everyone prep.