This story was updated on September 11 at 3:30 p.m.
If all else fails, Russ Fisher joked, his Audi A-4 is rumored to float.
The retired New Hampshire man says his mobile home park back in Crescent City, Fla., is 50 years old “and no hurricane has ever touched it.” But he and his bug-eyed pup, Betty Boop, decided to take off, racing in a tiny car ahead of a massive hurricane. Of his vehicle, he says, “One thing I’ve realized: That thing is not comfortable to sleep in.”
Lesson from meteorologists: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. The lesson was borne out by the track of hurricane Irma migrating 150 miles westward by Sunday morning. That westward movement shifted ground zero in the hurricane from Miami-Ft. Lauderdale to the westward end of the Florida Keys.
It also put evacuees, who had fled north ahead of the storm, which was a Category 4 when it hit the Florida Keys Sunday, directly in its path.
More than 6 million Floridians and Georgians fled hurricane Irma – perhaps the biggest mass evacuation in United States history, dwarfing the 1 million who fled Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Millions ended up in hotel rooms and friends’ houses in cities like Birmingham and Atlanta, where throngs took to restaurants and lounges and where the Atlanta Braves treated evacuees to free tickets on Saturday night.
But Mr. Fisher, a Walmart employee, was one of the disaster’s thousands of wanderers, landing, like a wind-blown butterfly, at the National Peanut Festival grounds here in Dothan. Hundreds of RVs and cars pulled in on Saturday only to pack up again Sunday as the National Hurricane Center, once again, tweaked the storm’s track to the northwest, its sights this time on Dothan.
Finding it impossible to find a hotel room and with friends too far away, the evacuees braved Irma on the highways, bringing whole kennels, horses, the elderly, and babies on a harrowing escape ahead of Irma’s spinning top.
To a person, they say they are battling fear and personal uncertainty, along with the dread of what will happen to their homesteads. Many also talk about a darker sense of survivor’s guilt, and worry about many of those whom they begged to leave.
"I've just got me and my bike and felt I had to go," says Tampa filmmaker Timothy Abbott, who left with less than $100 in his pocket. Strangers gave him another $100 for gas money, and he has the promise of a place to stay in Mississippi. "I left my parents and my granddad back there with God."
As they watch the skies, Irma’s itinerants also bear witness to a deep resiliency in the US, given back-to-back hurricanes and wildfires out West. As in Houston, Americans' spirit of generosity and philanthropy have rushed in to fill the void. Evacuees talk about being given, food, shelter, and money for gas as they fled the storm.
“We have top-down institutions like FEMA and law enforcement, but then we have bottom-up phenomenon too, like the market and civic engagement, so people can flee feeling secure that they can find a hotel room, that there will be a church that can help, or friends will reach out, even if they’re dealing with survivor’s guilt,” says Daniel Aldrich, author of “The Power of the People” and a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. “Hopefully we are going to see that places like Florida and Georgia are resilient to this kind of shock.”
Although the most damaging and dangerous forces were near the eye of Irma, bands of rain squalls and strong winds completely swallowed Florida.
Generally, damage in and around Miami appeared to be far less than what residents on Florida’s West Coast and Northeast corner were enduring. Jacksonville was hit Monday by record flooding. Officials also described widespread damage to Marco Island and the Florida Keys as the possible site of a humanitarian crisis.
More than 7 million Floridians were reported to have lost power Monday. While 38 people were killed during Irma’s charge through the Caribbean, so far fewer than 10 deaths have been reported in Florida. That number, officials warn, could rise.
Many on Florida’s southeast coast, who by Sunday afternoon had long ago lost power and were listening to the news on battery-operated radios, were grateful that ultimately the center of hurricane Irma did not come to the region. But theirs was a gratitude tempered with prayer for those in the storm’s path.
Dennis Wolke and Mike Murphy, who have been partners for 37 years, realized three days ago that their home at Riverview near Tampa would likely see a massive storm surge. “It won’t be there when we get back,” Mr. Wolke predicts, grimly. They have wandered the Southern lowlands for three days, their cats, Alex and Dexter, in the backseat of their sedan.
Mr. Wolke, who drives tanker trucks, spent days ferrying fuel to fill the thirsty gas tanks of those evacuating Florida as Irma became a Category 5 hurricane and Gov. Rick Scott (R) warned everyone in the Florida Keys and the mandatory evacuation zones to "get out now."
Mr. Murphy, offering his partner a gas station coffee, is sanguine. The cats, which spent the first day mewling, have mellowed out. They all have each other. They’ve had other devastating losses and have persevered. “With a little prayer, we’ll all make it,” says Murphy, a McDonald's store manager.
Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm but was downgraded to a tropical storm by Monday. More than 2 million people had lost power and several deaths were reported.
One of the recurring problems with attempted mass evacuations is that people are reluctant to leave their homes unless they can bring the family dog or cat with them. In South Florida a number of “pet friendly” shelters were set up, including a shelter for pets only in Tamarac, in Broward County. The staff was trained by the Humane Society. By Friday, they reportedly had an evacuee population of 49 dogs, 63 cats, and one probably very nervous duck.
News from the Hemingway House in Key West that all 54 famed cats were safe was cheered by Floridians. And rescue workers in Manatee County successfully saved two stranded manatees.
Hank Tester, a longtime television correspondent with CBS4 in Miami, has covered his share of hurricanes over the years. In a report on Sunday morning from Ft. Lauderdale beach, he paused to consider the implications of a major hurricane hitting the Florida Keys near Key West, for which many Floridians hold a special affection.
On the second floor of the Hemingway House there is a display featuring a plate painted by Pablo Picasso, he told listeners. Ernest Hemingway and Picasso were friends in Paris, he added. “I just hope it’s OK,” he said, referring to the plate.
The storm's size and power drove Richard Hill, the son of a Florida pioneer, to set out with his wife, two grandkids, and no particular end in mind.
Mr. Hill is a lifelong Florida resident whose dad settled Fort Lauderdale in 1906. Many in that generation of Florida founders were Michigan copper miners who helped dig the Panama Canal. They began the shaping of a mosquito-ridden swamp into the tourist haven that Florida is today. “They were tough people,” says Hill.
Hill is tough, too. He didn’t run from Wilma in 2005, nor Andrew, which tore through Homestead, just 20 miles from his house in 1992. But this time he took his two teenage grandkids and drove away in the family RV. The crew spent the night at the Peanut Festival Grounds. But once the forecast turned, it was time to move again.
“I may just drive to Kentucky,” he says. “Anything to escape a case of the nerves.”
For many, the only belongings with them are important papers and ice chests. Professor Aldrich says anti-price gouging laws and basic corporate decency have so far protected those without many resources as they make their escape.
When Lori and James McShane arrived in Dothan, for example, a police officer guided them to the Peanut Festival grounds. There, a Baptist church, which was feeding evacuees, gave them a tent and air mattresses.
“These people were so good,” Ms. McShane says. “Makes me want to move to Alabama.”
“The hurricane is like a spinning top – it goes where it wants to go,” she says. “We truly don’t know where to go from here. The only thing we can do is keep moving.”
“At least we’re learning how to camp.”