For my entire life, I have never personally experienced a natural disaster. No tornados. No earthquakes. No Floods. No volcanoes. No wild fires. And no hurricanes – until now. Even my experience with Hurricane Irma, however, was not direct, but only the trials and troubles of an evacuee.
With a prospect of one of the biggest and most destructive hurricanes in recorded history setting sights on the home my son, Alex, and I share with our old family friend, Bernie, evacuating seemed the most prudent option. Alex headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee with his girlfriend. My daughter Yvette, who lives nearby in Ft. Lauderdale joined me in a two car caravan for parts unknown. Having a place to land seemed far less important than the need to get out of town before Irma arrived.
I thought it best to leave early – ahead of the crowd. When I went for gas, I realized a lot of people had the same idea. Scores of cars lined every side of the gas station. Even worse was the fact that the pumps were dry, so we had to await the arrival of the next tanker. From that point on, I was impressed with the number of tankers that were showing up at every station to keep the supply flowing. This was true all along our 500-mile exodus route.
Given the possibility that that house may be blown off its foundation by Irma or his mean little sister tornados, the first challenges was to decide what to pack up and how to do it. Many things were obvious – water, food, medicine. Since I work out of my home and did not want to be out of business, I took my PC (yes, PC with Windows 7) and the most important files.
I had to ponder and deal with a lot of personal stuff – two dozen family photo albums from the days before digital cameras and when clouds were white puffy things in the sky. Also, lots of special memorabilia and the best parts of my collection of Chinese artifacts. My son’s guitars and two suitcases – one with a change of clothes for him and one for me. Leaving so much of my life behind was a bit concerning, but there was only so much one car can hold.
Then the adventure began.
While the television images of the evacuation looked like on solid slow parade of cars, trucks, vans and campers. In reality, it was a series of slow spots broken up by clear roads. At times, we were moving about five miles an hour, or not moving at all. Other times we were doing the more normal “10 over the limit.” It averaged out to about 30 miles per hour.
If you ever had any doubts about the goodness of most Americans, you need to be in such a situation. Hour after hour of painfully slow progress and not a single example of road rage. In fact, I cannot even recall hearing a horn blow.
Each time we stopped for gas, people waiting patiently in lines of various sizes. In some cases, people departed their vehicles to chat with fellow travelers. Second to gas, was the importance of potty stops – usually accomplished at the same time, but the needs of the car and the calls of nature were not always well timed. Again, there was always a line. At one stop, the group had a clever solution. Everyone, man and woman got in one line and whichever door opened – “M” or “W” – the next person entered.
Yvette and I traveled well past midnight, but eventually we need to crash … or run the risk of literally crashing. With no plans or reservations, there was no chance to find a motel vacancy. We spent the first night parked side-by-side in an almost deserted shopping mall parking lot. I say “almost” because there were scattered around the lot a few occupied parked cars. It was less than a two-hour nap.
Checking the internet for available housing at some future destination proved fruitless. The scores of hotels listed on such sites as Trivago and Expedia were booked all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. On one of our gas and potty stops, I decided to give it a try. I went to the motel next to the gas station and inquired. To our amazement, they had a room – good news and bad news. The good news was the fact that we had a place to stay for a decent night’s sleep. The bad news, it was only a one night option. They were booked otherwise. Our only chance was a cancellation or a no show. As it turned out, we got that second night and a third. In fact, I am writing this column from the America's Comfort Lodge in Warner Robin, Georgia. Outside my door are the dying winds and rain of Irma.
My daughter and I are grateful to the efforts of the Patel family (from left: Ashwin, Jinal and Papul), that owns the Inn. Realizing our plight, they provided every possible comfort, recourse and assurance during these stressful times. Though from India, they represent what is best in America – people from such different backgrounds, sharing common human values.
I was also impressed with the official response to this major natural disaster. Though every death is a tragedy, the amazingly low number is largely due to the actions of our governments from the White House to the local police and first responders. Millions of people left their homes to seek safer ground. This was done peacefully and successfully because of the advance warning and the logistics of supplying the necessities, such as water, gas and medicine.
I give special praise to the Florida state government. Florida presented a challenge that no other state had ever faced. First, it was a record breaking hurricane in both its ferocity and size. Irma was bigger than Florida and impacted on the entire state.
Evacuating so many people in so many vehicles was complicated by the fact that Florida is a large peninsula --- surrounded on three sides by the surging seas. This meant that there was only one direction for evacuation – north – and only two major routes – I75 to Atlanta and I95 to the east coast.
Governor Rick Scott did a great job of making sure the police worked with the petrol tankers to keep those gas stations along the route well supplied. The rolling out of evacuation orders prevented a sudden mass exodus. Travel and safety alerts were virtually continuous.
We are here awaiting reports to see if our home has survived the onslaught. If so, we will be joining the hoards of returnees to do whatever needs to be done to restore normalcy to our life and the lives of friends and family.
What we saw day after day, was America NOT at its best, but as it is every day – just a little more obvious this past week.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.