My Irma evacuation: 600 miles and a few tips for Florida

I was cat-sitting for my cousin Thursday when I realized I would have to flee Tampa — hurriedly and voluntarily — once I could hand off the cats. The instant my cousin walked in the door at 5 p.m., I was in the car and driving north. Soon the hard edge of Hurricane Irma would be headed our way, forecasters said.

What followed was a 600-mile drive — to Birmingham — before I found a hotel. By then, it was 7 a.m., and I had been driving for 14 straight hours.

I know what you’re thinking: “Why didn’t you book a hotel room beforehand?” Well, that would have been great. The problem: gridlock traffic that caused me to direct my odyssey northwest toward Alabama. I wasn’t sure when I would actually arrive at any particular place. What if I booked a hotel in a city that I could never reach? What if I ran out of gas before I got there? What if I never even made it out of Florida?

I had a full tank of gas before I left — lucky because even on the back roads that I took to get around the traffic, most gas stations had those telltale plastic bags over their pumps.

Which brings me to the first big way the state could improve the evacuation process: Find more ways to make gasoline available to evacuees. In some areas, more than 65% of stations were out of gas. How do we evacuate without gas?

Think of it this way: In northern US cities that have to deal with snow and ice for several months of the year, city trucks are dependably clearing and salting roads before dawn. They know they’re going to get slammed by winter weather. It happens every year, and they’re ready. Yes, it costs money, but at least residents of cities around the Great Lakes know they can get to work in the morning.

Likewise, Florida knows it’s going to have to deal with hurricanes every year (and their effects stand to get worse and worse). The University of Miami chose its mascot in honor of this fact. So it makes sense to devote more and more money and resources to solutions to this problem. The most obvious answer is a better mass transit system — to help people quickly flee without cluttering the roadways — if only we would wake up to the benefits of such a system.

Another solution for hurricane evacuations: buses. Imagine the amount of gasoline you could save by evacuating 40 people at a time instead of one or two at a time. Evacuation buses would also alleviate traffic congestion.

The next big way the state could improve its hurricane evacuation process: encourage hotels and motels to allow people to stay in the lobby, pool room, exercise room — anywhere there’s space. Hotels are businesses, so I’m not suggesting they allow people to crash on the couch in the lobby for free. They could still charge money for a spot on the floor. I would’ve paid it!

Instead, we have a situation where weary travelers, running on little to no sleep, are repeatedly turned away at hotel after hotel, and end up getting back on the road when they shouldn’t be.

If there are evacuation shelters, why can’t there also be shelters for people who simply need to sleep for a few hours? At one of the rest areas where I briefly stopped, there were hundreds of people sleeping in their cars. There were also people sleeping in their cars on the side of the interstate. Wouldn’t it be much safer to work with hotels and motels to find ways for exhausted travelers to catch some shuteye?

After driving through the night, I reached my limit –14 hours and 600 miles later. Thankfully, a Hampton Inn in Birmingham allowed me to check in immediately, waived the noon checkout and let me and sleep until 2 p.m. The next day, I drove to Kentucky, where my relatives live, and that’s where I’ll be staying until I can return to my job and life in Tampa.

Not everyone was as lucky as me. If not for a full tank of gas, and adrenaline to keep me awake, I could easily have been one of those people asleep on the side of the road — vulnerable in an approaching catastrophe. In Florida, hurricanes pass by every year. Can’t we do a better job of finding people shelter from these storms?

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