Recently, I had the opportunity to learn what life is like as a true Floridian. As Hurricane Irma approached my new home in Tampa, Florida, I experienced my first ever hurricane evacuation. It was a high-stress time, and my heart goes out to those who were impacted significantly by Irma and the several other hurricanes that have affected so many in the past month.
Before I realized I would be undergoing a hurricane evacuation, there were many steps involved to ensure that I was prepared should I be weathering the storm in Tampa. First things first, I learned that it’s not nearly as easy to immediately leave as one might think. Growing up in Georgia, I never experienced a hurricane evacuation and through this I came to realize just how challenging it can be to safely evacuate. For starters, supplies fly off the shelves instantly.
In my experience with Irma, the hurricane was forecasted to arrive over the weekend, so the Tuesday before, I started to prepare. I went immediately to the store and was shocked that shelves were completely empty in many aisles – bread, water, Gatorade, nuts, canned soups, batteries, flashlights, candles, and more. When I went to the next store to try to find just one pack of water, signs were posted on the entry doors that they were out of all water. The hurricane was still 4 to 5 days away and they were completely wiped out. I grabbed what I could and tried to be strategic with my purchases to hopefully have items that would be useful should I lose power or not be able to get to the grocery store.
Next, the lack of fuel provided another challenge. The prices of gas had skyrocketed and there were lines down the street at each and every station, and many were already empty by Tuesday afternoon. I remember sitting in the car waiting in the line for gas and calling a friend and sharing that I was so scared of what was ahead of me. I had no idea what to expect and, here I was, on week three of living in Florida, preparing for a major hurricane. It was all I could do in that moment and later in the evening when I was talking with my parents to remain calm and be as proactive as possible with the pending hurricane and days ahead. I was lucky to be able to fuel my car, but there were many not nearly as fortunate.
The next day, my plans changed when the path of the storm shifted a bit to potentially have a larger impact on Tampa and suddenly I was preparing to evacuate rather than preparing to get through it. But before the hurricane evacuation, there were several more things I needed to do to prepare. For example, unplugging all electronics to avoid any potential for electrical fires to start from the result of flooding. Other steps included removing valuables or items close to windows, lining the windows and doors with towels to help soak up any water that may enter, clearing out and packing the perishable foods in the event of power outage – that only scratched the surface! Many residents were also purchasing sandbags, boarding up windows, moving cars to higher places, purchasing generators, assessing whether or not they could safely evacuate, considering family members with medical conditions, and more. Needless to say, I quickly learned just how challenging and stressful this experience could be and was for so many residents.
After several hours of preparing my apartment and quickly packing a suitcase of clothes, the real hurricane evacuation began. I headed out on the road at about 4 p.m. on Wednesday. I had a 7.5-hour drive to my destination in Georgia, but I was unsure of how much the traffic would impact my arrival time. My goal was to arrive safely, regardless of how long it took me to get there. It did not take long for traffic to hit and I was moving at a pace of about 20 mph for over 4 hours. I had only made it to Ocala, Florida (which is normally 1 hour away, about 80 miles) from Tampa. I waited 45 minutes for gas and was exhausted. Two more hours on the road and I made a stop for the night in Gainesville, Florida. Luckily my sister came to the rescue with a friend who let me spend the night before hitting the road for another long day of driving.
Fortunately, I had prepared for the drive as much as I could to make the hours of slow traffic pass by quickly: 1) I packed a lot of snacks! Since I had already purchased non-perishable food items when I was preparing for the hurricane itself, I had many options to snack on and provide some energy along the ride. I also picked up some of my favorite candy to tide me over in those really challenging moments when I was frustrated, exhausted and ready to be out of the car. 2) My biggest fear before leaving was my ability to stay awake during the journey. Since I didn’t have a travel buddy to talk with, I knew that was going to be a challenge. But let me tell you, my friends did not hesitate to come to the rescue, and it made the drive that much easier. I had friends who called every hour to check in and make sure I was staying awake, alert and attentive on the road. I am so grateful to these friends and family.
In the end, my drive took about 14.5 hours, just about double what it normally takes. Despite the time spent in the car and the hours of traffic, I am grateful that I was able to evacuate when others were not as fortunate. I am also very thankful that I made the journey safely and without any accidents along the way. It was a very dangerous drive with so many people on the road, many of whom were just as exhausted as myself, and some had been driving for even longer.
Throughout this entire journey, I walked away with an appreciation for my safety on a daily basis, for supportive and encouraging family and friends (and sisters!), for my physical ability to have a safe hurricane evacuation, and for no damage to my apartment. Others were not as fortunate, and many residents stayed in Florida and weathered the storm in their homes or in shelters. It was a scary, stressful time and for many and recovery efforts are still ongoing. Those affected are in my thoughts and prayers daily – having experienced this event, I can only imagine the fear and worry that likely consumed so many other Florida residents.