I heard about Hurricane Irma, but like many, I wasn’t worried and didn’t think it would result in much damage (yeah I know, it is a Floridian thing – because we have so many near misses). On Monday afternoon while heading to a friend’s pool party with my girlfriend, she made a joke about enjoying the “last ride in my car.” I shushed her and told her to stop being negative. By Monday night, I was singing a different tune.
As several news outlets reported that Irma would hit Florida directly as a category five hurricane, I became frightened and started begging my mom to evacuate with my two brothers, stepdad, grandma, and dog from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa. She replied that she’s a healthcare professional and would stay in the event she was needed at work. I pleaded, but she would not change her mind. Instead, I went on a quest for water and nonperishable food to stock the house. I got to Publix, and the shelves were empty, sending me into a frenzy. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with the news to know that people were already clearing out grocery stores. My mom and I separated to search at different supermarkets. After numerous empty shelves, we were able to find some water and snacks.
I started making plans to evacuate to Tampa and continued to beg my mom up until Wednesday morning as the news of Florida being hit directly started looking gloomier. This time everyone in my family told me they were riding the hurricane out. I headed to Tampa alone with the clothes on my back and one to change. From Tampa, my partner and I booked flights to go to Chicago on the earliest day we could find, on Saturday. I left with a heavy heart not knowing if I would come back to anything. I left everything behind. The material things were replaceable, but my family wasn’t. Choosing to evacuate without them was the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make.
I spent the next two days stressing, crying, and watching the news with my partner as we tried to keep an eye on Irma to see if its direction would change. I called my family and friends consistently to check up on them. Then images started coming in from the damages in the Caribbean, and my anxiety went through the roof. In between, I updated my Facebook and made jokes to help myself and friends cope with everything that we were hearing and seeing on the news. On Friday, we received notice that our flight to Chicago was canceled, and by then we had eaten the majority of our hurricane food #nojudgment.
On Saturday when reports came in that Irma was tracking west and the eye would hit Tampa, our friends and family frantically begged us to evacuate. Yes, my mom who would not listen to me was now telling me that I needed to get out of Tampa. That night, my partner and I headed towards Georgia. We attempted to get gas, but many stations were out. After numerous attempts, we found one gas station that had gas, but in the middle of pumping, it ran out. We were able to fill our tank to about half. As we started driving towards Georgia, we knew we would not make it. But when my friend called to make sure we had enough, I lied and told her we did so she would not worry.
Raining and dark, we made it to Gainesville. We knew we wouldn’t get far, so we exited to look for gas once again. No gas. We decided to stay in a hotel and hope to find gas in the morning to continue our journey. After a very stressful night, we tried to settle down and get some rest, but we were constantly interrupted. First around 4:30 AM when police and paramedics knocked on our door and then tried to force themselves in. Talk about a scary experience for two black individuals. It turns out they made a mistake with our room number. Even after that ordeal, we were so tired we tried to fall asleep again; only this time to get a call from “someone at the front desk” telling us that our credit card declined and needed to verify the information. Once they started asking for our credit card number and other information, my partner hung up and called the front desk to confirm. The attendant who answered the phone told him that they had an increase in people calling and trying to scam guests. Again, we attempted to fall back asleep. The third interruption came at 8:00 AM by housekeeping. At that point, we got up, packed up our bags, and checked out with about 4 hours of sleep.
Back on I-75N, we stopped at several gas stations with no luck. During our stops, we encountered stressed, anxious, and angry individuals who were also trying to evacuate. We kept our cool as we knew that everyone was experiencing a rough time. Every time we stopped at a gas station and were unsuccessful, you could feel the anxiety in the car as we both acted like we weren’t bothered. Finally, we found gas and was able to fill up our tank and grab some snacks to continue our drive. Talk about excitement!!!
We reached Cordele, Georgia but all of the hotels were booked. Back in the car, we went looking for a place to stay. Finally, we arrived at Perry, Georgia and secured a room. The original plan was Atlanta, but we were too exhausted and wanted to get off the road. The people in Perry welcomed us with open arms. They cooked and brought food to the hotel for the Florida evacuees. The restaurants that were open gave us discounts. Their generosity warmed my heart, and I was so overwhelmed and humbled by it.
While in Perry, Irma continued to downgrade, and I received updates from my family and friends south of us. They were fine and although some experienced damage to their homes, they were not significant. However, many were without power. On Tuesday morning, we drove back to Tampa early to try and beat traffic. It took us 8 hours instead of 5, but we got back safely taking back roads with views of Irma’s destruction along the way. This was one of the most stressful weeks of my life, but I am incredibly grateful that we got back to our house and cars untouched and with electricity. Even more important, our family and friends were safe.
I share this story because many people are judged for the decisions they make during a hurricane. To evacuate or not? It’s not as simple as some make it. I had many friends who wanted to leave but didn’t because they wanted to stay with their parents. Friends who stayed back to protect their home from possible looters after the hurricane. People who stayed to start rebuilding immediately. People who stayed because they had little kids and were worried about having them in shelters with complete strangers or had pets that shelters could not receive. Many people stayed for a lot of personal reasons, and all those reasons are valid. This week has indeed shown me how privileged I am. We had transportation and the funds to be able to make quick decisions and evacuate. We had friends from other cities and states offering up their places and also working to get us out of Florida. Not many people are fortunate, so judgment is unwarranted. Even with all we have, we still faced some challenges. It takes a lot of resources and being able to move freely to evacuate. It’s emotionally, physically, and financially taxing. No one who has been through this should be made to feel bad for any decision(s) that were made during these times.
Through it all, the people of Florida have remained resilient. We are survivors. We will rebuild.