Families fleeing South Florida just trying to stay safe
Every hour or so since leaving Fort Lauderdale Thursday night, Richard Pierre would pull out his phone to check the security cameras in his house.
“Looks great right now,” he said, sipping a milkshake in the parking lot at the Holiday Inn in Lake City, where his family stopped to eat and stretch their legs.
But the fear that his home could be destroyed at a moment’s notice was a nagging concern.
“What will we go back to?” he asked.
As Hurricane Irma sets Florida in its sights, evacuees from coastal cities across the state stopped in Lake City for food or rest, or to simply figure out where to go next.
Pierre, who decided to evacuate Fort Lauderdale with his wife and two teenage sons around 8 p.m. Thursday, still remembers the unnerving sounds the wind made when Tropical Storm Katrina passed through Florida before hitting New Orleans as a hurricane.
“And it looks like it’s the same kind of storm that’s about to hit,” Pierre said. “We didn’t want to go through that again.”
Michael Breen’s family hadn’t planned on stopping in Lake City when they fled their Martin County home Thursday night, but fate forced them to.
The family planed to stay with relatives in New Orleans until the storm passed.
“We were just trying to get somewhere safe,” Breen said.
They were driving the left shoulder on Interstate 75, which authorities were allowing in response to traffic congestion, when another vehicle pulled in front of them Friday morning and caused a wreck, Breen said.
“It was surreal,” he said.
After their car was towed away, Breen, his wife and their three-year-old daughter sat in front of the Holiday Inn in Lake City Friday afternoon, waiting for their rental car to arrive.
They passed the time at the Holiday Inn by walking around the area.
“We’re actually just happy we’re all together,” Breen said.
Breen said he felt a sense of solidarity with other evacuees who were staying at the hotel, despite only speaking briefly with them.
Seventeen-year-old Mitzi Hernandez, whose family stopped for food at the Burger King near Interstate 75, worried about her friends who stayed behind in Miami.
“I just hope that they’re doing fine,” she said.
The trip from Miami to Orlando, usually only four hours, lasted 10 hours for Hernandez and her family.
During the drive, she reflected on when her father asked her to start packing and help look for a rental van.
“I was scared to lose everything,” she said.
Justin Austin, his wife and stepdaughter, who left St. Petersburg around 7 a.m., stopped at the Lake City Chick-fil-A around 2 p.m.
They kept themselves entertained during the drive by watching Netflix on a laptop and singing songs together, Austin said.
“We’re treating it like a family vacation,” Austin said.
Austin said he dismissed the storm when he first heard about it.
“I’ve lived in Florida all my life,” Austin said. “At first, we were like ‘don’t worry about it, God’s got us.’”
After hearing more reports about Irma’s destructive potential, Austin eventually changed his mind.
“I just want to get everyone to a safe place,” Austin said.