Mass Exodus

Panic Turns To Fear As Thousands Evacuate To Avoid Hurricane Irma

A man at the Middle Keys Home Depot looks at what’s available for plywood. Empty shelves show a limited supply of the thinner plywood typically used for covering doors and windows. Photos by Katie Atkins

Editor’s Note: Katie Atkins is a former Post-Journal city editor and current reporter for The Keynoter in the Florida Keys.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With a category 5 hurricane headed for Florida, I can say with confidence I have not panicked yet. OK. I panicked, but now I am more fearful.

Monday was a beautiful day in the Keys and the Labor Day holiday was celebrated across the island of Marathon with mention of Irma here-and-there in conversation.

Tuesday, when I got to work, there were cars zipping in and out of our parking lot and people were hurriedly walking in and out of the Sheriff’s Office next door.

“Have you gotten your sticker yet?” my co-worker asked. It is a sticker indicating which portion of the island chain you live on, and it helps officials designate when you can re-enter after a hurricane.

Gas shortages started in the Keys Tuesday and Wednesday.

So I went and got my sticker. And then I watched a truck pull into the parking lot with a bed full of plywood. Then I knew.

Looking at early models of the storm, it was headed right for us as a 5. By now, everyone knows it is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. Even the bravest people I know, the ones who have stuck it out through some major hurricanes, were packing up their things Tuesday afternoon. Others chose to stay.

For work, I went to Publix and Home Depot to take pictures of the lack of water and plywood. I went to a gas station and there was no gas. The seriousness of the storm hit me when it was announced no shelters would be kept open in the islands.

After work, I headed home to make the selection of what to take and what to leave behind.

It was one of the strangest feelings in the world looking around my little place — the cat toy in the corner, things of mine here-and-there like it was any other day. The big palm tree right outside my door swayed gently in the breeze as my neighbors fought in the rush of packing their car.

Workers at Home Depot told me there most likely would not be another supply truck arriving prior to the Hurricane Irma, contrary to the sign.

That palm tree, standing tall there for years and years with the initials of strangers carved into it, has been like a beacon of hope to me. I pray it is there when I return, along with all the other charming places that could be blown away over the weekend.

There comes a point where you have to shove those thoughts out of your mind and make the next step. That can be hard to do, as evidenced by the random clothes I’ve now found packed in my bag that were unnecessary to bring along. Friends of mine were having the same problem Wednesday.

“But I want to bring my ‘Boy Meets World’ DVD box set!” cried my friend Shannon. At least we got a few laughs out of that.

So, my boyfriend and I packed up his truck and hit the road with my cat to his mom’s house in Fort Lauderdale Tuesday night. We decided to leave then in order to avoid sitting in traffic on the Overseas Highway for hours Wednesday or Thursday.

Our problem now is the fact that new models are showing Irma heading for the east coast. Gas is becoming depleted here in Fort Lauderdale, too. I’ve heard, since evacuating, there is no gas in the Keys.

I worked remotely here Wednesday and will continue to do so until this thing is over with and we can go back, hopefully to our still-standing homes.

In the coming days, we’ll have to make a decision about possibly evacuating here. It’s waiting to find out the storm’s true intensity that is most difficult. I don’t think any of us can really fathom what a category 4 or 5 hurricane would really be like, but as I’ve said over and over since Irma even became a part of my life: If we have to evacuate (again) we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.