Preparedness & Recovery

‘Everyone’s Freaking Out’: Florida Keys Evacuate Ahead of Hurricane Irma

Tourists were ordered out of the Keys Wednesday morning. Residents will be told they must leave in the evening.

by Charles Rabin and Nicholas Nehamas, Miami Herald / September 6, 2017
The Marathon gas store at NW 27th Place and NW 119th Street has their windows boarded but gas was still flowing at 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. TNS

(TNS) - Spooked by the horrific images from Hurricane Harvey and the approaching terror of Hurricane Irma, many residents of the Florida Keys are getting in their cars to flee the path of the inbound category 5 storm.

So far, Florida’s first mandatory evacuation of 2017 — a test case for what could be a regionwide flight away from the coast — doesn’t look anything like the 2005 catastrophe that left dozens dead and motorists stranded as Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf states.

On Wednesday morning, a caravan of cars and trucks — many towing boats — headed north out of the low-lying Keys. Traffic backed up south of Upper Matecumbe but wasn’t much worse than the usual workday rush or weekend crush. Still, even some old-time conchs who rode threats out in the past admitted they were rattled.

“I don’t think it’ll be safe anywhere,” said Melissa Norman, who was packing up belongings at her mobile home in Key Largo’s Blackwater Sound. She’s heading to Fort Myers, where she has an aunt.

The storm could follow wherever you go, warned her husband, Jerry. Instead of leaving, he plans to hunker down in the sturdy concrete building at Mile Marker 100 where he runs a towing business.

“Everyone’s freaking out,” said Jerry Norman, 55, a tall and burly fellow whose phone rings to the tune of “Smoke on the Water.”

“This one is different,” he said. “It’s scary.”

Tourists were ordered out of the Keys Wednesday morning. Residents will be told they must leave in the evening, Gov. Rick Scott said at a Wednesday morning news conference in the Marathon Emergency Operations Center. Even Category 1 storms trigger mandatory evacuations in the flood-prone Keys, where nearly 70,000 people live and there is only one road out — U.S. 1, also known as the Overseas Highway. Irma will be much worse.

“If you’re told to evacuate, get out quickly,” Scott said.

“If ever there was a storm to take seriously in the Keys, this is it,” Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County’s emergency management director, said in a statement. “The sooner people leave, the better.”

Evacuation orders could be issued for coastal Miami-Dade and Miami Beach Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. Broward began evacuating low-lying areas and mobile homes on Wednesday. The city of Homestead, where gas stations are running out of fuel, declared a state of emergency before noon.

Travis Middlebrooks, driving south from Florida City to his job as a marble installer in Ocean Reef, said every gas station he passed Wednesday morning was empty.

“Hopefully, I have enough to get there and back,” Middlebrooks said.

As for the storm, he’s not sure yet if he’ll leave. “I really don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Middlebrooks said. “If I can find a generator, I might ride it out.”

Elected officials are sometimes in a bind when it comes to issuing an evacuation, said Jay Baker, a professor emeritus at Florida State University who studies public response to hurricanes.

“It’s the cry wolf syndrome,” he said. “They’re afraid people won’t listen to the next evacuation if the previous storm missed.”

But Baker said surveys have shown no drop-off in people’s willingness to listen even after what turned out to be unneeded evacuations, which can cost local governments millions of dollars in lost productivity.

In South Florida, evacuations are starting well before a storm expected to hit this weekend. There are fears that even those who aren’t in danger from Irma will panic and clog up roads and highways.

In that case, the Florida Highway Patrol is prepared to change the direction of lanes from south to north or east to west so more traffic can escape, said FHP spokesman Joe Sanchez.

“We have cameras watching the traffic flow,” Sanchez said.

Even in its emptiest tourist season, the Keys were quiet.

Like other hotels, the famous Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, frequented by George Bush, had shut its doors and canceled reservations until next Wednesday. Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant was boarded up. A Wendy’s in Marathon was one of the only restaurants open in the area. A line of cars waited for food before joining the north-bound procession.

“People over here are tripping,” said Angel Ortega, who was headed to join his family in Miami. “I’ve seen people take off all the way to Georgia, already.”

Absent was the usual pre-storm din of hammers crashing nails into plywood and drills setting screws on shutters.

All that was done, for the most part; people were leaving.

“I’m not staying in this,” said Keith Robertson, 59, who lives in a mobile home.

He figured his screened-in trailer wouldn’t stand up well to the storm. Robertson is a Hurricane Andrew survivor, who fought the winds from a Homestead hotel that blew to pieces.

“And I just bought new furniture in there,” Robertson said. “Everything is new in there, even the televisions.”

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