This is Part 3 of a four-part Series on our Hurricane Irma story and the many things we learned through the process. If you missed the other parts, you can start at the beginning and read Part 1- Preparing for the Storm or Part 2 – Evacuating Before Irma.

As soon as we arrived at the Sandestin Resort in Destin, FL, Stefan headed to the front desk, while I stayed outside walking Ayla. It was around 3 pm and I think nobody was happier to finally have arrived than our geriatric Newfie. She had been getting restless in the back of the Honda for the last few hours of driving, so with Terra Firma back under her paws she quickly took a potty break and promptly plopped herself down in the grass, refusing to walk another inch.

The check-in process went smoothly for us and was a little bumpier for our friends, but we all eventually were checked in. We were all a bit on edge after being awake for more than 30 hours and driving for 16 of them, so we were thrilled to finally get our stuff and the pets stashed in a room. We had made it and could take a quick sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, with the storm track indicating a push for Irma further up the West Coast of Florida, we weren’t sure how long we’d be able to stay (Sandestin is on a barrier island, not the smartest place to weather a Hurricane), but for now, we had made it.

 

Sandestin Village First Impressions

When we first walked into the room, we were very stoked. Instead of a regular hotel room, we had somehow (in our excitement over finding an affordable hotel room) booked a suite. It turned out this was an extremely lucky turn of events and made life extremely comfortable for everyone during the next days. Not only did we have a nice-sized bedroom and bathroom, but also a huge living area that was a combined living room, dining room, and small, fully functional kitchen. Also, there was a small patio with a few outdoor chairs overlooking the golf course and a washer & dryer. Score!

We hadn’t spent too much time looking at all the amenities offered by the Resort when me made the booking. After all, we were just looking for a place for us to stay. That made it so much sweeter when we realized that we wouldn’t really need to leave the resort anymore unless we wanted to. Within easy walking distance the resort featured a little “village” consisting of several restaurants (of different price ranges), bars, specialty shops and even an arcade.

Hungry and tired, our whole Motley Crew set off in search for food, heading straight for the Tiki Bar/Restaurant at the Village, Hammerhead’s Bar & Grill. Relieved to have arrived at our destination (at least for the night), it didn’t take all too long to down the first round of beers and order food. We scarfed it down and finished our beers. Our party didn’t last long as exhaustion caught up with us. By 8 pm, everyone in our party was soundly asleep in our hotel rooms.

 

Waiting for Irma

Saturday morning, Stefan and our friend, Luke, decided to search for more supplies that we lacked. It was 36 hours before the storm was predicted to hit Naples and we were still wondering how long we would be able to stay at our new interim home in Destin. Hurricane Irma was such a massive storm that it covered the entire width of Florida, and it was planned to move right up the middle of the state and potentially right for us. The danger was certainly not past and we all continued to think of who we knew across the United States that might be close enough to take in our team of humans and pets.

While the gas supply was plentiful in Destin, other Hurricane supplies were selling out quickly as it looked like the storm might head right for us. After searching every Wal Mart, Home Depot, and similar store they could find for gas canisters and a few other things, they returned empty-handed around mid-day.

With nothing else to do other than wait, we took to watching the approaching apocalypse on TV and Social Media. As you might imagine, it was not pretty and we lived vicariously with those who were still evacuating, battening down their hatches at home, or choosing to act as if there was nothing happening. And then there were the random flashes of everyone who was not in Florida’s reality — which had nothing to do with hurricane and flood watches at all. It was all rather surreal at times.

As it turned out, quite a few of our friends and acquaintances had bugged out to North Florida too and the afternoon brought an impromptu family hangout with another classmate of mine from the Leadership Collier program. The kids had fun playing in the nearby resort village while a live band played, and we all shared a few of our experiences about what we’d been through in the last few days and picked at a few plates of food. We could hardly believe that the hurricane would soon be making landfall.

With less than 24 hours to go before the arrival of the storm in our home town, the mood swung from sad to worried to straight up gallows humor. It was another surreal experience to run into many of the people at the resort who recoiled when they asked where we were from and we replied, “Naples.” The general response was, “Oh man, I’m sorry.” That’s not the usual response we expect. Normally we hear ‘Oh sweet, Naples is beautiful, awesome, paradise, etc.”.

We ended the night with a cheerful message from the resort which said: “Be prepared to evacuate – we might be closing the hotel because of the storm.” We had a quick “hmmm…. where to next” discussion in our group and knew that the furthest we might have to retreat was New Orleans or Texas where we had friends and family…but at least both offered a free roof over our heads.

Irma Strikes

Sunday morning, the day of the storm, began with another run for gas cans for Stefan and Luke. While they didn’t have any luck finding gas cans, they did bring back a big collection of breakfast goodies to cook a large meal for both of our families ahead of the storm. Watching the news coverage of Irma’s wrath on Haiti and Cuba, nobody was particularly hungry. It really felt more like the last supper than a joyful family breakfast.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon we continued to watch the various weather and new stations, going through the full range of emotions again. Watching a Hurricane approach on live TV is a bit like a slow-motion trainwreck. Sadly, national news channels like CNN and The Weather Channel do more harm than good, sensationalizing every development. It was hard watching the newscasters right in the middle of Naples talking about impending devastation and knowing they were excited it was coming. At one point Jim Cantore even reported on TWC that one of the major evacuation centers was unsafe, stopping short of saying it’s about to blow away. It took local law enforcement significant effort to calm the situation when they already had their hands full dealing with a real disaster. #Fakenewssells.

Luckily in modern times, we have access to live-streaming of local channels. The local news teams did an outstanding job spreading news, but not increasing the hype. We watched as the storm struck Key West and knocked out all the webcams across the island. We worried about the brother of our friend who was living there and certainly was crazy enough to ride out the storm. We saw the rising water in the streets of Miami and thought about friends we knew in the area and wondered if they had evacuated as planned.

The kids were oblivious for the most part and happily played on their laptops, thrilled that the adults didn’t seem to have any interest in limiting their use of electronic distractions. The adults decided to retreat to their own spaces, our friends heading back to their hotel room for a bit and us staying in our suite with the kids. Separately but unbeknownst to the other, Stefan and I both wound up falling asleep and taking a nap shortly before the storm struck Naples. He never naps and I rarely do, but I think all the stress of the last week or so had brought us to a wall. Or maybe we just didn’t want to sit and watch anymore coverage as Irma rolled into paradise.

By Sunday evening it was becoming more and more clear that the impact on Naples had been substantial, but not devastating. Of course, there had been destruction; but it appeared that most of the city had made it through with only a glancing blow. It would take a while for things to get back to normal, but it would not be insurmountable. The tail end of Irma weakened significantly as it came ashore, and thankfully the city didn’t experience the 15-foot storm surge which was predicted. But when all the water drained out of Naples Bay before the storm hit, it was pretty darn terrifying!

The weakened condition of the storm meant that although we would be getting some wind in Sandestin Resort, there would be no real danger other than perhaps a loss of power. Good news all around! We ended this emotional day with a round of Arcade gaming for the kids and some adult beverages for the grown-ups.

The Day After

With the storm behind and “only” a tropical storm expected in the Panhandle the next day, our mission was to gather as much intel as we could about the situation back home to figure out the earliest time we could return back to Naples. Assessing the widespread power outages and other issues from messages from those who had stayed behind, our group decided to hang tight at the comfort of Sandestin Resort until one of our homes had power. Thankfully, with modern phone apps and internet systems, we were signed up to receive notifications when our power came back on and could double check the status of our homes with the power company.

Given the tropical storm, most of the stores and restaurants had closed Sunday afternoon and most of the day Monday. With the storm winds down to only heavy wind gusts and a little rain, it meant a day inside of relaxing for our group, plotting our next move and debating whether we should already extend our hotel reservations (for a second time) beyond Wednesday.

Facing the continued gas shortage in Florida following the storm (especially the further south one went) we also decided not to risk the drive without an adequate supply of fuel. Gas stations were flowing freely in Sandestin, but gas cans were still in short supply. No store in the area seemed to carry them and our group ventured to stake out the loading dock of various big box stores, hoping that the next truck would carry a load of gas cans.

After our three hour stakeout at the back of Walmart, we had finally had enough. We started looking inland and finally found a Walmart in Defuniak Springs, 41 miles away, who had some in stock. They couldn’t “hold” any for us, but they assured us if we moved fast, we might get lucky. Driving like bats out of hell, we were finally owners of 10 brand spanking new, beautiful gas cans. Enough for a full tank of gas for each of our cars.

As luck would have it, a few hours later, just as we were sitting down for a delicious dinner at the Acme Oyster House, a “New Orleans” style restaurant in The Village (which may now be closed?), we received a text message from a neighbor. Power had been restored at our home! We quickly made plans to head out the next morning, getting a late-ish start, to miss the first wave of early risers.

 

10 Things We Learned About Being Hurricane Evacuees

(in no particular order)

  1. Size matters – When Stefan called to reserve a room, he was offered an upgrade to a suite – he thought he declined, as we were trying to save money. When we got there it turns out he did pay for the upgrade. The reality is, you will be cooped up and waiting for the disaster to pass for a while. We were really happy to pay a few dollars per night extra for the luxury of having a kitchen, dining room and living area. While we could have made it in a small hotel room without killing each other, having some space for us and also our friends to relax and prepare some home cooked meals made things a lot easier to bear.
  2. Bring things from home – If you have read part 2 of this series, you know we packed all we could into our Honda Pilot, including most of the contents of our fridge and pre-made pasta sauce & chili. But more than that, having some of the comforts from home like games, laptops and other gadgets helped to pass the time.
  3. Stream local news – All of the big national stations thrive on disaster. Unfortunately, it also means things get blown massively out of proportion. It was amazing to watch the difference between the local TV stations and their excellent fact-based coverage of the storm as opposed to the likes of Jim Cantore that basically trembled with excitement about how our beautiful town was being whipped off the face of the earth, looking for the worst images they could find to fill our tv screens.
  4. Distract yourself and the kids – It’s too easy to get sucked into thinking about the impending doom, and then on the trip back home and what you will find there. Thankfully one of our friends was amazing at motivating everyone to ditch the tv every once in a while to have a bit of fun. Fun dinners, discovering the new surroundings (beyond loading docks of big box stores), movies, games – all let you forget about the 800 lbs gorilla in the room. Booze helps too, especially in the company of great friends going through the same worries.
  5. Be prepared to move on – This one is a two-part lesson. First, we tried to keep light on our feet since we had no idea where the storm was heading, or whether we would need to move on from our digs at Sandestin Resort. The other one was the thought of what if we couldn’t go back home for months or there was no more home. We definitely had some hard conversations about what we would do if there would have been Hurricane Katrina like devastation. Looking at the prospect of a multi-year rebuilding process, we would have likely moved on to greener pastures in the country.
  6. Patience is a virtue – Once the initial rush of preparing our home and hauling a$$ out of Naples was behind, everything seemed to move in slow motion. From waiting for the storm to finally hit to camping out at loading docks hoping for supplies, everything takes time. Also, once we knew that our lives at home did not get destroyed and that we would be able to get home sooner or later, the wait for things to get “safe” as waited to go back home was painful.
  7. Mind the fake news – Fake news doesn’t always come just from the national TV channels, but is even more prevalent on social media. Fake news and ever-worse scenarios spread through the social networks like wildfire. Collier County’s Sheriff Office did an AMAZING job communicating with residents, making sure fake news was extinguished before it could cause too much panic.
  8. Bring on the real emotions – Anything we may have felt while getting ready for the storm was nothing compared to those last few hours before the storm actually hit. Back in his investment banking days, Stefan had a co-worker whose expression was “I can’t eat as much, as I want to throw up”. Over the years, we have chuckled about that saying but didn’t fully grasp the meaning of it until we watched the news coverage showing a slow-motion freight train heading towards the place we call home.
  9. Battery Charger Happiness – Everyone in our group used their cell phones A LOT, whether it was to answer worried texts from friends and family around the world or staying up to date with the situation back home. We found ourselves with cell phone batteries draining faster than ever before. Thankfully we keep a MASSIVE, yet quite portable, power bank in Stefan’s video equipment bag that we took with us everywhere we went. It kept 4 people’s phones happy and charged all day long with power to spare.
  10. Make time for family time – While we grown-ups could have spent all day watching the forecast, packing, repacking, gathering intel and otherwise staying busy, you should never forget about family time. The kids loved spending time in the arcade, and running around and exploring the resort. Us adults really enjoyed our time with friends and chats with fellow evacuees. It made the experience not only bearable but also fun.

 

Stay tuned for part 4 of our Hurricane Irma adventures to find out what life was like when we returned home to Naples, FL and what has occurred in the last six months.