This is the first in a multi-part recap of my family’s evacuation from Hurricane Matthew in October, 2016.
When you live in Florida, you keep a watchful eye on the weather from June 1st through November 30th during hurricane season. But despite the spaghetti models and (ice cream) cones of uncertainty, there are always last minute changes to a storm’s projected path and strength. So when Matthew formed near the Windward Islands on September 28th, the idea of fleeing northeast Florida was not even on my radar.
Floridians are used to hearing the weathermen work themselves into a frothy frenzy over tropical storms. Obviously lusting for the drama a category 3 storm and above might bring, I blame them for why people choose to stay behind when potentially life-threatening storms really are bearing down on us. Crying wolf repeatedly leaves us all thinking “It’s just another newsroom hype story. It will blow over or peter out just like all the rest of the storms usually do.” After all, it has been 52 years since Hurricane Dora hit this part of Florida, and not many of the current residents recall the devastation first hand.
So when my 92-year-old mother was watching the storm head this way on the Weather Channel, worrying as she is wont to do, I didn’t give it much urgency. It was only weeks before that Hurricane Hermine was predicted to pass over the area coming at us from the Gulf. I had taken precautions like making sure the generator was tuned up and we had diesel. I had stocked up on canned goods, water, batteries and flashlights. We were ready, but Hermine passed us by as little more than a windy thunderstorm. Boarding the windows had been overkill.
Matthew was different. When the storm made landfall in Haiti and eastern Cuba on Oct. 4 as a Category 4, the devastation being televised was terrifying. This storm demanded attention. Mom’s fear was both palpable and contagious. So two days before Matthew was predicted to be closest to us, we had to decide. Do we pack up and leave, or do we stay and ride it out?
Seeing someone so fragile and elderly looking to you with fear in her eyes, wanting you to protect her, you do what your gut tells you to do. You pack up and start heading west as fast as your car can take you. Hotel reservations be damned — we’ll figure that out later. It was 7PM when we had 2 cars loaded up with clothes, pillows, blankets, snacks, electronics, bathroom supplies, flashlights, and 3 cats in 2 cages because 2 of them are mortal enemies who would fight to the death.
I drove one car and my son, Alix, drove the other. We headed out in the dark and rain to go get my sister, Lorraine, and her dogs an hour west of us. The plan was to keep going west, but the problem was that directly across from us there are no big towns on the Gulf. We’d have to turn north and head for the panhandle. It seemed like we drove forever. Mostly because it was night, we were in unfamiliar territory on miles and miles of two-lane highway that connected tiny towns far apart. It rained for hours, and we were running out of gas. Every station we found had plastic bags on the pump handles — the universal sign that they were sold out.
At midnight we found fuel and took a break to Google hotels within a hundred mile radius. But after calling around it quickly became apparent the nearest vacancies were in Pensacola, over 6 hours from us still. We were exhausted, scared and frustrated. Her dogs were tired of riding and my cats would not quit howling. We had to find a place to stop for the night. We drove another hour to an Econo Lodge in Perry, Florida. Lorraine went in to see if maybe by some miracle they’d had a cancellation. No luck. But they did say we could park in a grassy area off their parking lot and sleep in our cars. Oh boy!
We parked and Lorraine walked her dogs while I tried to clean the mess my cats had made of their cages. Riding in the car had literally scared the crap out of them, and for six hours we’d been been living in a cat box. The smell was overwhelming.
Lorraine was gone for a while, but when she came back she was dangling a key in my face. “Pack up, we’re driving across the street. I got us a room!” It was the biggest dive I’ve ever seen yet ironically they didn’t take animals. I’m pretty sure they had hourly rates. Mom and Alix would sleep in the 2 beds, on top of the covers, fully clothed. Lorraine and I would remain sentinel in our cars, not willing to leave our pets unattended.
I did not sleep a wink but passed the time on Facebook and Twitter and texting with friends.
It was during those wee hours that I got a message from my older son, Mark, who was still in his house in Jacksonville with his pregnant wife, kids and dogs, fully intending to ride out the storm. He wanted to know where we were. I explained the situation and lamented on the lack of available hotel rooms. I told him I wished we could find a place that took animals. Then the light bulb FINALLY went on…
I had just stayed in my first AirBNB a couple weeks prior when I went to MedX in California. I had such a wonderful experience I swore I’d never stay in a conventional hotel again. But when you are evacuating ahead of a category 4 storm, you don’t always think clearly. Your mind goes back to what it has been used to for years. I only ever checked on hotels and never gave AirBNB a thought.
So at 3 AM I asked Mark to go online for me and find AirBNB listings within a hundred miles, currently available, and pet friendly. That’s how we discovered Melodie and her loft apartment over a 6-stall horse barn. It would be the turning point that changed everything. We went from panic and fear to having a plan. I booked the place from the AirBNB app on my cellphone sitting in front of that seedy hotel with the cats howling and my legs in a permanent cramp. Then I waited to see if the host accepted. By 8 AM I had confirmation and a plan. Our salvation lie an hour and a half away in a Gulf town that could not have been more aptly named. By checkout time at the no-tell motel, we were on the road, heading for a place called Panacea.
Definition of panacea: a remedy for all ills or difficulties