Reporting on Hurricanes, and then Fleeing One

Marva Hinton had just reported a story on Hurricane Harvey for SLJ when she was forced to evacuate her home due to Hurricane Irma.
In late August, I received an assignment from School Library Journal to write about how school librarians were coping in the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Like most of us, I had seen the devastation on television. My heart ached for those who had to be rescued from rising floodwaters and those who lost their lives in the storm. As I went about reaching out to sources and conducting interviews, I never imagined that I would be facing a mandatory evacuation order the next month with a hurricane bearing down on my community. But that’s where I found myself less than a week after my story on Hurricane Harvey published. When forecasters first started talking about Hurricane Irma, I was only half listening. For some reason, I didn’t think it would affect me that much. You see, I’ve been really lucky. I’ve lived in Florida for the last 12 years. When I moved to Orlando in December of 2005, Central Florida was still reeling from three devastating hurricanes that had passed through the area the previous year, including category four Hurricane Charley. But during the six years I spent in the Orlando area, we never experienced a major hurricane. In November 2011, I got married and moved to South Florida, and my streak of good luck continued. Year after year went by with no major hurricanes, until Irma struck. Once I started actually listening to forecasters, it became obvious that I needed to pay attention to Irma. Our home was in her path. Fortunately, we had already gathered most of the supplies they say you’re supposed to have to ride out a storm. We had plenty of bottled water. But what about non-perishable food? I wasn’t sure we had enough. Where were our flashlights? Did they have batteries? Did we have enough batteries to power our radio? All of these questions were rattling around in my brain as the forecasts became more dire. But these are questions you ask yourself when you plan to stay put during a storm. The more we heard about Irma, the more we began to realize this might not be a storm we should try to ride out. An evacuation order was issued for the Florida Keys. My family lives about 40 miles north of the Upper Keys. That’s when we started hearing reports of possible storm surge in our area of five to 10 feet. That would have meant flooding in the lower level of our home. It was hard to imagine an evacuation order not being issued. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the storm, but we tried our best to carry on normally. We sent our three-year-old to preschool on Wednesday, September 6, even though the school said we didn’t have to. When I picked our daughter up that day, I asked if many of her classmates had stayed home and was told that only a few had. The storm was not set to hit South Florida until that weekend. However, it seemed like panic had started to set in. Lines were developing at gas stations. My husband waited to buy gas that day just in case we needed to leave town. Before he reached the pumps, the owner came out and said all the gas was gone. After waiting in another long line at a different station, he was able to fill up. Around this time the calls began to come in from well-meaning relatives out of state. They wondered why we hadn’t left. I assured them: Yes, we’re watching the news. No, we are not under an evacuation order. We are safe for now. Please don’t worry. We became glued to our local news, which seemed to give the forecast every five minutes, interspersed with news conferences by the governor, our county mayor, the mayor of the next county, the head of FEMA, and on and on. Then the announcement came down that school would be canceled Thursday and Friday. In a matter of hours, an evacuation order was issued for us. My husband and I started discussing where we would go and settled on the Orlando area. I called a cousin there, and he said we were welcome to crash with him and his wife. But then we began to wonder if that would be far enough north. Orlando was also in the storm’s path. We decided to head instead to North Carolina, where I have family. We make that drive three times a year, but this time it wouldn’t be so simple. In addition to having a toddler to think about, I was also pregnant and had just started my third trimester. This isn’t usually when long car trips are recommended, but my doctor gave me the OK as long as I did certain exercises on the road and took frequent breaks. We set off for North Carolina Thursday at 1:30 a.m. My husband likes to travel overnight when our daughter is likely to sleep and there is less traffic. The trek to North Carolina from our home normally takes 12 to13 hours. But in this case, we didn’t arrive until 8:00 p.m. Yes, it took us more than 18 hours. We obviously weren’t the only ones heading north away from Irma. For hours and hours, traffic crawled, and we were surrounded by a sea of cars with Florida plates. We ended up staying in North Carolina for a little more than a week. We remained glued to the Weather Channel for any word of how our neighborhood had fared, but there was little to no coverage about the small suburb where we live. I finally decided that was a good thing. If it had been really bad, the networks would be there. We did lose power at our home from Sunday through Friday, and with temperatures hovering in the 90s, we were in no hurry to get back. When we returned that Saturday, there were trees and traffic signs down everywhere, and some traffic lights still weren’t working. But there was no damage to our home, and my car only sustained a minor amount. Most of the damage in our state was limited to the Florida Keys. Some schools there were closed for three weeks following the storm, and now, more than four months later, some Keys residents are still displaced from their homes. This situation made me much more aware of what it takes to evacuate during a storm. It’s easy to judge people who choose to stay behind, but it’s important to remember that leaving town isn’t as easy as some would have you believe. We had a car, money for gas, somewhere to go, and flexible work arrangements. All in all, I would say we were pretty lucky. Marva and her husband had a healthy baby boy in November of 2017.

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