A friend of Traveling Dad Tim Jones shared this image of a neighbor’s house in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

From August 30 to September 10, 2017, Irma was a low-pressure system that became a tropical storm that became a Category 5 hurricane.

As Hurricane Irma’s strength grew and its path fluctuated, Floridians scrambled, and in doing so underscored something that’s going to sound insufferably glib, but it also happens to be true:

Evacuation is travel.

Traveling Dad strives to thoughtfully explore the intersection of travel and parenting, and as the four stories herein illustrate, when a hurricane is heading for that intersection, the rules change a little.

What doesn’t change is our desire to share good information and tell interesting stories. And as was the case with Hurricane Irma, remind our readers that recovering from a hurricane is not an event, but a process. As one of our writers suggests to his fellow evacuees in the Florida Keys, “realize and prepare yourselves for the fact that you’re not coming back to things the way they were.”

A big thank you to Tim Jones, Raphael Ocampo, Parker Chapman, and Shawn McAskill for the perspectives they bring to this special report. Floridians, dads, and all around good guys, they really haven’t had a lot of time on their hands these past few weeks to tell their stories.

But we’re grateful they did.

~ Paul Eisenberg, Editorial Director, Traveling Dad 

Tim Jones: “Being separated from my family was not a fun situation.”

For months, maybe even year, I had had a weekend trip planned to Chapel Hill, N.C.

That was the weekend Irma hit Florida.

If at all possible, I didn’t want Irma to detour that trip. In fact, once it seemed imminent that my family and I would have to evacuate our Florida home, the Chapel Hill plan seemed to get better and better. I left on Wednesday to avoid some traffic with the idea that my wife and kids would follow me up there the next day.

Well, with Wednesday came the news that North Carolina. would be one of Irma’s likely targets.

Time for a new plan.

With Irma staying off the East Coast of Florida, my wife and I reasoned it made more sense for her and the kids to head south rather than join me in Chapel Hill. And that’s what happened. They evacuated that Thursday to Titusville (my in-laws’ house) with a plan to move inland to Orlando if necessary.

As you might imagine, being separated from my family was not a fun situation.

A lot of emotions ran through my mind. Fear, self-loathing (what a jerk I was for not being with my family during a hurricane!), anxiety, and finally, acceptance. My wife, a Florida native, had been through a LOT more hurricanes than I had and, I knew, she’d weather this one just fine.

As you know by now, Irma made many twists and turns, a nightmarish scenario for many, including the forecasters. My wife and kids ended up staying in Titusville, where the storm took out a couple trees and the power. Other than that, my family was among the lucky ones. They were safe as well as sound. I was also safe in Chapel Hill. From there, I was able to contact some neighbors who had stayed behind and learned that our house was okay, for the most part. I left North Carolina as soon as the bridges to the Jacksonville Beaches had opened.

That was a mistake.

After zig-zagging my way through South Carolina (literally, one side of I-95 to the other on back roads), none of Georgia’s exits were open. And not just closed. The National Guard preventing exit kind of closed. Also, no gas. No potty breaks. And bumper to bumper traffic, including most of South Florida trying to get home.

In hindsight, I should have left North Carolina a day or two later. Yet ultimately, it all worked out. We were among the lucky ones.

In our neighborhood: A tree resting on a friend’s house. Image: Tim Jones


Lessons learned:

  • Get your trees trimmed and/or cut down well before hurricane season. We lost a LOT of branches from our two large live oak trees in our front yard. It probably still needs some branches trimmed off. We’re also very concerned about them falling on the house, as live oaks have a very shallow root system.

Debris just from my yard alone. Image: Tim Jones

 

Our pool was quite a magnet for debris, too. Image: Tim Jones

  • Gas! Get at least a couple five gallon gas cans and fill them up! I had no backup for the closed exits in Georgia. I also had no backup if I needed to run a generator.
  • Know your flood zone. We’re on very high ground, relatively speaking, in our house. Others nearby, not so much. Jacksonville had flooding unlike anything they’ve seen since the 1800’s. Yes, that’s an 18 that starts that number. Be prepared to sand bag your house, if necessary. A friend’s house flooded with Matthew. He had to gut it and rebuild. You can bet he surrounded his house with sand bags for Irma.
  • Know your evacuation zone. We evacuate. Period. And we don’t wait for our zone to be called. We just prepare and go. We can’t “hug” our house and save it. It is good to know what zone you’re in, though to know if you MUST evacuate.
  • Prepare early! Irma didn’t hit our part of Florida until very late Sunday night into Monday morning and afternoon. We were already experiencing food and gas shortages on the prior Wednesday! By the time my wife left on Thursday, there was only one gas station with gas in our area. By the weekend, you could just forget getting any last minute supplies. We have a fair amount of non-perishable food and water on hand at all times, but the gas one really threw me for a loop.

One more tip: Before evacuating, pile your stuff in your garage so parts of your property don’t become flying weapons of destruction. Image: Tim Jones

I’ve been through at least a dozen hurricanes and tropical storms in my adult life. Some of these “lessons learned” (the gas) were new for me. Most are known, but easily forgotten or dismissed.

I can assure you, I won’t forget them, next time.

~ Tim Jones

Raphael Ocampo: An evacuation with young children becomes “a way to focus on things other than the impending hurricane back home.”

Traveling Dad Raphael Ocampo, his wife Tara and their twin boys evacuated Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Irma. The Ocampos’ journey, documented in the video below, underscores that for better or worse, when you have young kids in tow, evacuation becomes family travel, and you do whatever you need to do to make the best of it.

As he touches on in the video above, Raphael launched a food and clothing drive in his neighborhood to help the Florida community of Immokalee, who lost power and water for days in the summer heat. The video below further recounts those efforts.

Below, Raphael walks us through some moments from their journey.

Woman carrying water from a donation center at a church in Immokalee, Florida. Image: Raphael Ocampo

 

The Atlanta Braves offered free tickets to Floridians displaced by Hurricane Irma. Image: The Ocampo Family

 

Outer bands of Hurricane Irma begin to pound southwest Florida the Sunday afternoon of September 10.

 

The boys reflect and send positive thoughts to their friends and home back in Florida while at Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Image: Raphael Ocampo

 

As Irma approached, gas was a scarce commodity as the biggest evacuation in American history unfolded in the state of Florida. Image: Raphael Ocampo

 

The Red Cross workers on scene in Immokalee, Florida were grateful for the donations the Ocampos gathered from their neighbors. Image: Raphael Ocampo.

~ Raphael Ocampo

Parker Chapman advised his fellow Keys evacuees upon their return: “Be mentally prepared to have your senses assaulted.”

An old friend and henceforth an honorary Traveling Dad, Parker has long called the mid-Atlantic region home. He decided not long ago that part of his heart also belonged to Key West, so he keeps a home there, too. He was in the Keys during Irma’s approach and like many Floridians, kept his friends and family apprised of his plans and eventual evacuation via social media.

Parker was reluctant to leave the Keys but eager to get back. What he found upon his return made for riveting and, not incidentally, informative reading on Facebook. With his permission I’ve shared that post below.

To those displaced evacuees who are coming back tomorrow:

Be mentally prepared to have your senses assaulted.

Visually, the leaves along US1 are either on the trees, off the trees or the trees are gone. In any case, they’re brown and dying from the salt. Along the road, the farther south you come, there’ll be debris all along the way. It’ll include boats… Big boats that have been shoved over to clear the highway.

You’ll notice lots of smells. The ocean of course, but rotting vegetation along with food stuff removed from refrigerators and freezers.

Mentally, you’ll need to be tough. Marathon through Big Coppitt is literally a disaster. A warzone with the combatants removed.

Realize and prepare yourselves for the fact that you’re NOT coming back to things the way they were when you left.

Best advice in my opinion:

  • DO NOT PASS on US1. There’s no need to rush. Drive carefully and defensively.
  • Realize there is a curfew. Most of the Keys are under a dusk to dawn curfew and it’s being enforced. Plan your travel accordingly.
  • We’ve seen improvements and amazing progress since the storm went through but looking at things ‘cold’ with no point of reference can and probably will be disheartening. Keep in mind that things are improving daily.
  • Be fully prepared for a camping experience. Bring drinking water, food and fuel for yourselves. Better to bring it and not need it than needing it and not having it.
  • Every neighborhood through the Keys needs help. Be ready to pitch in but take care of your own first.
  • Just because they opened the Keys doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy BUT it’ll get easier as time passes

~ Parker Chapman

Shawn McAskill: Hurricane Irma Forever Changed How We Connect

Traveling Dad and Floridian Shawn McAskill and his family emerged relatively unscathed from Irma, yet he was struck by how during the hurricane social media moved “faster and more unpredictably than any spaghetti model.”

Hurricanes, like all disasters both natural or man-made, turn our natural order of things upside-down. Threats of this magnitude not only raise the value we place on the basic needs of food and shelter, but change how we communicate and interact with each other.

Like many of my fellow Floridians who found ourselves confronted by the largest recorded storm ever to cross the Atlantic, I sought immediate comfort in my neighbors. Political differences, salaries, faith, and all manner of things impolite to discuss over dinner all fell by the wayside; the only thing that mattered was the potential destruction slowly approaching from the southeast. This was far from novel – after all, nothing brings a community together more quickly than possible annihilation. However, there was something unique in how my neighbors and I came together prior to Irma’s landfall:

We did it over Facebook, first.

Social Media Moves Faster and More Unpredictably Than Any Spaghetti Model

The Wednesday before Irma was forecast to hit, my business partner and I made the decision to shut Keenability’s doors and allow our team the time necessary to prepare. We still didn’t know exactly where the storm would make landfall, or how strong it would ultimately become. Nothing was certain. Yet, by the time I’d arrived home, I was already receiving a glut of notifications from a massive Irma-inspired Facebook group some intrepid soul(s) had founded.

Over the uncertain week that followed, much of my iPhone’s precious battery life was dedicated to reading the interactions and conversations within the group. Membership appeared to grow with every update of Irma’s track. I was witnessing social evolution play out in real time; rather than bringing restless residents together block by block, social media was bringing them together from different area codes, counties, and even states. We were bound together by sharing our fears, questions, and experiences before, during and after the storm.

It was the same disaster-related community bonding that has played out for centuries, but on a massive scale. Despite this, it remained shockingly intimate. We all may as well had been sitting around a dinner table contemplating our impending doom with close friends.

It was utterly, wonderfully unexpected.

Social Climate Change is Indisputable

This is an example of the potential that social media embodies. A potential that unfortunately is often misunderstood, or simply ignored by a disheartening amount of marketing clients. On a near-weekly basis, I encounter more pushback on social media marketing and strategy than any other aspect of digital advertising.

Yes, it’s almost impossible to quantify Likes, comments, shares, and retweets if you’re only focused on dollars and cents (unless of course, an ill-advised rant results in a boycott). The truth is though, the value a business owner places on social media is – to put it frankly – irrelevant. The real bottom line is your customers not only see value in social media, but hold it in high regard.

I witnessed countless examples of group members asking for directions, suggestions, or simply support and empathy. The responses they received didn’t come from a phone line or website FAQ – they were issued promptly from their peers. This group became their primary source of information; with phone lines down, lights shorted out, and televisions silent, they – as did all of us – remained glued to our bright little handheld screens.

The Aftermath

Speaking simply, the purpose of any business is to serve the customer to the best of its ability. In that regard, taking advantage of social media is just another smart and necessary business practice. For better or for worse, it has become a platform of first and last resort for many.

We’ll never stop seeking out the comforts that come with a shared community when we find ourselves in peril. However, as the days and weeks pre- and post-Irma have demonstrated, the ways we go about it have irrevocably changed. The time has come to acknowledge and embrace this, or find yourself among the rubble left by an awesome force of nature.

~ Shawn McAskill

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