I fled Irma and found the best side of America

I always face the storm. Not because, as a hard news journalist, I’ve been on the front lines of natural disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti and Guatemala.

But because before I even became a reporter, I was a native Floridian — and that meant sucking it up, enjoying hurricane-watching parties.

When Hurricane Irma began threatening South Florida’s eastern coast, I would have sworn on any relative’s grave I wasn’t going anywhere.

So, you can imagine the sense of disbelief when I heard that Thursday’s mandatory evacuation order for Miami-Dade County included my house. We packed up two cars, three dogs, a kid, baby, and hit the road north expecting price gouging, reckless driving and mass hysteria.

But what I discovered on the road amazed me.

The Andrew era

Growing up, most people in my neighborhood lost their homes in 1992 to Hurricane Andrew. It was ground zero on our block. I still remember when Gloria Estefan visited the tent city in Homestead, Florida, where my family would go eat hot meals in the aftermath of the storm as I played with displaced children my age. These things seemed rather minor to me at the time.

That’s because a few hours prior to Andrew making its landfall in Miami, my mom had canceled my Barbie-themed birthday party. Instead, I woke up to destruction. I saw my immigrant-born dad cry. He went to fetch water all over Miami. Hours later, he arrived carrying bottled water and a cake.

That night as the city was under curfew, my six candles were the only light in our home. They sang happy birthday and we all had a piece of cake on paper napkins. “No importa cuantos ciclones pasen” — my dad said the number of hurricanes didn’t matter. “The most important thing is to be together.”

To stay or go

When you train and live as a news reporter, you have no problem parachuting into any town and testing your luck in finding sleeping arrangements.

It’s not the case when traveling with dogs or kids.

Who was I kidding? I wasn’t the intrepid solo reporter that had started her stint in Guatemala for the AP anymore. By the time I left almost five years later (by then, working for CNN en Español) I had married, adopted my very first dog, became a stepparent and had a vivacious blended family that could be cast as the Latino version of The Brady Bunch.

Now, we were all escaping Irma!

For the first time ever, I was overrun with a sense of panic. This wasn’t just me anymore. I scoured Expedia. Every hotel room south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. was booked. Airbnb was my last resort.

I messaged hosts, and they let me know they couldn’t take me in because they were hosting another family that had messaged them earlier. Query after query, I realized I had tapped into a community that was helping people make their way safely out of Florida. I searched for five hours nonstop until a listing appeared.

Southern hospitality

It took 16 hours to get to our Airbnb outside Atlanta. Usually I would have totally lost it, but we met people at gas stations and convenience stores that waved when they saw our license plates and stopped to wish us well.

On Saturday morning. we started asking how we’d make it home: Irma had destroyed roads and flooded our homes. We thought perhaps we’d cross over to South or North Carolina in the interim. I took to Airbnb again.

It’s how I got to talk to Cameron Glaws. He and his wife, Kimberly, run a rental home not far from where they live in Charleston, South Carolina. I booked his place before he could mark it as unavailable. The night before he had taken in two mothers with seven kids, after the moms had driven for 24 hours straight. “I think they will be here longer than expected. It’s important to me they know they are safe,” Glaws said.

Then he added something I never expected, “Look, I don’t want you guys thinking there’s nowhere to go. If you come to Charleston either I, or someone I know will take you in. And don’t even worry about paying.”

I was dumbfounded. He wasn’t even registered on the home-sharing platform’s Disaster Response Program.

“Sometimes the South gets a bad rep being on the wrong side of historical arguments, and sure I’m happy to say we behave like this in the South,” Glaws told me. “But I hope that if I were in this situation you’d do the same. It’s not a regional thing, American thing, but a human thing.”

Knowing we’d be able to head there gave us peace. We enjoyed the weekend with friends we hadn’t seen in years, barbecued and even went to visit the historic Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

About a mile down from King Center, I had been tipped off to an Italian pizza joint in downtown Atlanta helping Florida evacuees.

It turns out this wasn’t a pizza-by-the-slice shop, but a full-blown restaurant. They were inviting Florida evacuees to have a proper meal, pay what they could (or not) and eat the rest on the house.

Chris Langley, manager at Amalfi Pizza, said the owners and staff had family in Florida. The former veteran and National Guard member added, “When disasters hit, most people want a place to sit down and a warm meal.”

In just a couple of days, the impact has been so widespread Amalfi Pizza patrons are also getting involved. Manager Christine Bunts explained Atlanta customers were also adding to their tip amount in order to start a donation fund for evacuees.

“Here, it’s not about the ‘I,’ but the ‘we,'” she said.

A long road home

The morning after Irma destroyed my home state, we decided to head east toward South Carolina. About 40 minutes later, our Airbnb host inundated us with calls, telling us not to come because of the path of the storm.

We made a U-turn, parked the cars in the garage of the Georgia home where we are staying, and 30 minutes later the power was out. It’s been out ever since.

I’m currently filing the end of this piece over the phone with a gracious CNN editor.

We are unclear when we will head home but two things are for sure — family sticks together, even if we’re eating cake off napkins.

And wherever we go next, we’ll find kindness along the way.

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