Evacuating From Hurricane Irma

I had hoped that my next post would be about snorkeling in Biscayne Bay — a great outdoor activity I want to enjoy before Miami’s long summer ends — but nature had other plans. We’re in the middle of another busy Atlantic hurricane season, and just weeks after being gripped by horrifying images of Hurricane Harvey’s  destruction in southeast Texas, we Floridians were facing our own threat: Irma.

Irma in her younger days

Having ridden out several storms in the Category 1-2 range, we knew that we would do everything possible to avoid the worst effects of this monster storm driving at Florida with Category 5 winds. The scale of destruction seen in the northern Leeward Islands shows what can befall any location unfortunate enough to experience the full brunt of a major storm’s eyewall. Of course, Irma is also a large storm, so destructive winds cover a large area.

Unfortunately for us, initial forecasts had Irma headed straight for Miami. Even more unfortunately, virtually the entire state of Florida was in the cone of uncertainty, so it was hard to determine the best course of action. Our high rise condo building is located directly on Biscayne Bay in evacuation zone B, so we were under a mandatory evacuation order Thursday.  There was never any question; we planned to heed the evacuation order. Not only did we have no interest in riding out a monstrous storm high up in a waterfront building, but the building management’s efforts to protect the building — turning off all electricity, domestic water, and elevators on Friday — would make the whole experience even more unpleasant.

 

Line for gas. After 10 minutes of waiting, we reached this point. We probably waited another 20 minutes to reach the pump.

Evacuation Part 1

The first stage of our evacuation process brought us about 100 miles north of Miami to my mother’s house in Martin County on Thursday. Luckily we did not need to fuel up to reach Stuart, because gas stations throughout Miami-Dade were basically entirely out of fuel. We were also fortunate to find a station in Stuart that still had gas, though we needed to wait in a fairly long line to access of the two remaining functional pumps. Thursday we worked to prepare my mom’s house by bringing all garden items, patio furniture and other exterior items inside and closing the accordion shutters. These sturdy steel shutters are great for hurricane protection, but during the long periods between use they become home to all sorts of creatures, especially wasps. Yuck.

Projected windfield from Irma’s eastern Florida track, as of late Thursday

Once the house was as secure as possible, we had to make a decision about where we wanted to ride out the storm. We carefully analyzed all the latest forecast information, which we had been closely monitoring for days. A few points were clear: if the entire peninsula is going to feel effects from the north-bound storm, it’s better to be on the western side of the storm rather than the “dirty” eastern side. The difference in expected wind effects between eastern and western Florida was pretty significant, and the forecast track up the eastern side of the peninsula had held steady for about 36 hours. Knowing we had no chance to get entirely out of the state given the time and the fuel situation, we decided to head west with our Airstream to stay with family in an area outside Tampa, where we expected to receive 50 mph winds rather than 100-120 mph winds.

 

Evacuation Part 2

We headed out early Saturday, driving more or less straight west and then slightly north. Despite the heavily reported traffic jams on the north-south arteries like I95, the Florida Turnpike, and I75, we encountered no traffic at all on our westerly journey. We made the 170 mile trip along small county and state roads in just about 3 hours, parking our Airstream at my cousin’s large rural property south of Tampa. It was great to catch up with family, to get more experience setting up the trailer, and to breathe a sigh of relief. We even had time to head over to Home Depot to supplement our extension cords for the trailer and to get gas at a station with essentially no line (1 car ahead of us). I got my workspace set up and caught up on all the work emails I had missed during the day.

 

Evacuation Part 3

Sadly, our relaxation was short-lived. We awoke early Saturday to discover, to our horror, that the forecast track had shifted westward. In fact, the forecast for 2 a.m. Monday was for the storm to be located about 20 miles directly north of us, as a Category 3 major hurricane. Despite our efforts to evacuate, we found ourselves directly in the track of the powerful storm, in exactly the place we did not want to be. The good news — or at least the not-terrible news — was that with the passage of time the forecast was becoming more certain, and we had some confidence that the track along the western side of the state would hold.

Saturday 5 a.m. forecast from the National Hurricane Center. That “M” near Tampa was right on top of us. Crap!

So we spent Saturday morning helping my cousin and his wife board up their house and pack away their extensive collection of outdoor furniture, bird houses, potted plants and garden decorations. We were back on the road around noon, retracing our steps of Friday on the return to Martin County. We still encountered no traffic, and were able to park the Airstream, unload all our clothes, gear, and food, and return to my mom’s house just as the outermost rains from Irma were beginning to arrive late Saturday.

Sunday was the day that we experienced most of the effects of the storm: high winds and horizontal rain. We spent all day glued to any news we could find — Weather Channel, NHC website, Weather Underground website, and various webcams set up in Miami. I wrote most of this blog post. We read books. We just waited for the inevitable loss of power. It was a strange day, since the hurricane shutters covering the windows made it feel like perpetual night. To our immense disappointment, we lost power around 7:30 p.m. and, exhausted from the stresses of the days leading up to the event, headed to bed shortly thereafter.

After approximately 450 miles driven, with over three days of active evacuation and several days of watchful waiting beforehand, Irma finally caught up with us while we were hunkered down Sunday in Martin County. We experienced about 18 hours of continuous heavy storm conditions and finally emerged Monday morning to investigate the results. Happily, we had no significant damage at my mom’s house or to our Airstream parked nearby. But we knew there were challenges ahead, starting with the long wait for power to be restored.  That’s a subject for another post.

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