My phone beeps again. It’s another well-meaning friend demanding I leave my small home in Florida with my kids and dog in tow. “Stop being stubborn! Get out now; who cares about your stuff!” they type angrily. Hurricane Irma is coming. She’s here.
And I’m not leaving my home in Gainesville, in north-central Florida. I can’t.
Already, more than 20 counties have been told by the government to evacuate, and more are being added to the list by the hour. We’re looking at one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history. More than 6 million people live in southern Florida. As they all pile into their cars and try to outrun this massive storm, experts are telling those not in storm surge areas, low-lying flood areas or coastal areas to try to stay put. “The majority of Florida will have major hurricane impact and deadly winds. We expect this along the entire east coast and west coast,” Scott said at a news conference. “All Floridians should be prepared to evacuate.”
But Florida has only two main roads: interstates 95 and 75. They are parking lots, and have been for days. People are sitting in their vehicles, completely stopped on four-lane highways, running out of gas. There are no exits on these roads for scores of miles at a time. Once you get on a Florida highway, you are not getting off. You’re stuck. So, my family’s choices are: We stay here in our flimsily built house, made of sheet rock and plywood; or we hop on an unmoving highway and risk running out of gas closer to the coast, with only our car for protection.
We would further clog those roads for the people in South Florida who need to get to safety, too. At least I’m inland. Irma is going to blast right over us, but she can’t bury us in rising seawater. Miami needs the roads. We’d better stay off them to keep others alive.
In Gainesville, we are nearly out of gas. So is Orlando. So is Florida — half of Miami’s gas stations closed. Scott has ordered highway patrols to escort fuel trucks to gas stations as people scurried to refill their empty tanks. Shelves of water have been empty for days. Work and school is canceled at least through Monday. Twelve shelters have opened in my town in preparation.
The last thing we need are demands that we leave. Mandatory evacuation could do more harm than Irma herself. Scott has the best of intentions, but you can’t tell millions upon millions of people to evacuate without giving them any real way to do so. Two major highways just won’t cut it for that parade of refugees.
Meaningful evacuation would have meant public transport, safe shelters along the way, medical help and facilities throughout, and safe shelter, food, water and sanitary supplies on the other side of it all. For free. Because evacuating is expensive: You need gas and a reliable vehicle. You need good health to make a slow-moving, anxiety-inducing journey with thousands of other people surrounding you at every turn. You need money to buy supplies and emergency equipment, and to miss work. You simply need things we don’t normally have. Being prepared is a luxury, and it’s not always possible.
Florida has been in a state of emergency since Tuesday, and when the hurricane hits, most of us will still be woefully underprepared. There’s nothing to describe the sense of doom as you stare down the barrel of a Category 5 storm knowing you should be tying everything down, boarding everything up and driving far away. And knowing you can’t do any of those things. All you can do is sit and wait to see what happens.
I’m moving important papers and bedding to high shelves. I’m taking my patio furniture inside. We’re going to sleep in the living room because there’s a gnarly old oak tree poised to crash down right on our bed.
But we can’t board the windows. We don’t have plywood. It’s been out of stock since early in the week. I can’t box up our stuff. We don’t have Tupperware tubs. I managed to find three mini flashlights at a Walgreens. I got the last five small bottles of water at Staples. Everywhere is out of everything.
I’m scrambling right now, trying to figure out how my dog is going to survive, and when I should fill my bathtub. I’m charging every single device we have, planning to go through them one at a time when we lose electricity and can’t reach the rest of the world. We are literally trapped.
We need access to sturdy buildings and shelters. We need places to store bedding, blankets and food. We need people and organizations with generators to open up, not after the storm, but now. We need places to keep our animals safe. We need planes flying in and out of here, getting people to safety cheaply.
What Irma makes clear is this: It is not the residents’ fault when a storm takes everything they have. It’s the country’s. We know these storms come, and private citizens only have so much spare cash and time to deal with it. We need comprehensive state and county evacuation plans. We need a preventive plan set into motion before a storm hits to save lives. Sending in the cleanup crew to count the bodies and save the traumatized survivors isn’t enough.
It’s 85 degrees and sunny in Florida today. And we need help. Now.