We were somewhere around Macon, on the edge of Atlanta sprawl, when my nerves began to take hold. The problem: Nothing was happening. We were going about 10 mph on a major highway trying to get as far away from Florida as we could. Me and thousands of others just like me, anxiously drumming our fingers on the steering wheel or scanning aimlessly through radio stations, at close to midnight after having been on the road for nearly half a day. At that point, I was so bored yet suffering from hurricane-related anxiety that I'd rather be attacked by bats. Instead, we crawled along until we made it to our hotel for the night where my fellow evacuee, Franklin the Goldendoodle, and I quickly fell asleep.
More than 6 million people were ordered to evacuate Florida before Hurricane Irma. Others left at their own choice, like I did. I started in Naples early Thursday, Sept. 7, with the goal of getting to Ohio, where my 6-months-pregnant wife had stayed following our baby shower the previous week. Southwest Floridians basically had nowhere to go but north. Traffic data reflects it, too. The Florida Department of Transportation keeps a traffic count on I-75 near Punta Gorda. From Sept. 6-8 (the Wednesday through Friday before the storm), about 152,240 vehicles went northbound by that check point. That's almost double the historical average during that timeframe. If you were traveling by there a little after midnight on Sept. 8, you were probably going around 50 mph (the limit is 70) with about 10 times the normal amount of traffic.
Evacuation lesson No. 1: Wear running shoes. You'll thank yourself as you race into truck stop restrooms while your dog patiently waits in the car.
Many in the evacuated areas were encouraged to go to the closest safe place, hopefully, not hundreds of miles away. But those who did venture north across state lines were met with traffic headed westward from evacuated areas in the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia coast. We were all caught in the same maddening snarl.
Evacuation lesson No. 2: Pretzels are a delicious snack for evacuations, but they do cause you to consume your hurricane water quickly. (See lesson No. 1.)
I was fortunate on my journey. We have many things some people don't have: a reliable car, money to afford gas and hotels, supportive family and good health. Ultimately, we were safe, too. When I made it up to Ohio, we got the terrible news that my uncle's father, Richard Koff, died of a heart attack at a Georgia hospital after a car hit him at rest stop. The 91-year-old Naples resident was fleeing the storm. (The Naples Daily News wrote a fine piece on his remarkable life. Unfortunately, I did not know him well, but I can say that his family misses him dearly.)
Franklin taking respite at a park outside Birmingham, Alabama
Evacuation lesson No. 3: Don't watch the hurricane blow around hapless reporters on cable news as it hits your hometown. Rather, go on a walk or a bike ride, or just sit at a cafe patio and have coffee. If you're in Ohio, it may be the only time you can say the weather is nicer there than in Florida.
I'm slowly losing track of time, but over the last 10 days, I figure I've been across five states twice. Oh, and a slight detour on the way back from Ohio to Birmingham, Alabama, where my wife flew into and where we began the last leg of our journey. We stayed a night in Tallahassee then anxiously drove to Naples, in relatively light traffic, to find our home with only minor damage—trees and shrubs blown over and a small leak inside—but no power. So, we booked a hotel in Port Charlotte, where we had a nice dinner of Cracker Barrel takeout and watched Seinfeld re-runs. At one point, when I was heading down to the lobby vending machines, I got into an elevator with a scruffy middle-aged man wearing a ball cap and carrying an insulated shopping bag. We took a look at each other and just knew. "No power?" he asked. "Yep," I said. We shared woes as we walked toward the vending machines. I got my cold drinks and watched as he opened his insulated bag at the ice machine and filled it to the brim.
Evacuation lesson No. 4: Splurge on milkshakes. (This could be a life lesson, as well, but we discovered that milkshakes are a good antidote for hurricane anxiety.)
I am writing this now in Palm City on Florida's east coast. I have family here, and they welcomed us with open arms for the weekend. Soon, we'll make the drive back to Naples, storm-weary but feeling loved, lucky and, hopefully, happy to be home.