In the eleven years we’ve now lived in this house, we’d never needed to evacuate it due to a hurricane. In 2016 we were on our three-month trip when Hurricane Matthew resulted in us needing to pack up and leave the campground we were in at that time, in southeastern Georgia.
But this time we were home. And not only were we in a hurricane’s path, but we were on the radar as being located dead-center of her forecasted trajectory.
On September 6th we decided we weren’t going to ride it out. Hurricane Irma was expected to be either a category 4 or 5 storm. Thirteen years earlier this area had been hit by one hurricane after another in the same season, and from what friends and neighbors told us there was extensive damage and outages.
Our house is rated to withstand a powerful hurricane, but what about losing power? Running out of gas? Stores going down? And the likelihood June could come out intact and looking anything more than a pile of toothpicks was slim.
We started making preparations September 6th, completed getting the house ready — including installing hurricane shutters for only the 2nd time ever — on September 7th, and then we hit the road around 4am the morning of September 8th.
Poor Papa ‘Skiy! He had to work on the 6th and 7th, so he’d been up since around 7am the morning of the 7th, and then he was driving again, for an unknown number of hours, so we could evacuate.
We had no destination in mind. Irma was moving closer to Florida’s coast, and all we knew was we didn’t want to be in the peninsula state.
The main interstates and highways were very congested. People were heading north in droves, and we saw power company and emergency response vehicles heading south. We avoided the interstates most of the journey, utilizing Google Maps to determine the roads with the least amount of traffic.
Around 3pm we were approaching the panhandle of Florida and passed a sign showing the location of a state park with camping. We decided to stop so Papa could at least try to get some sleep.
We pulled into beautiful O’Leno State Park and requested a campsite. We were informed we would need to evacuate the next day because of the storm, which was fine with us because we just wanted some rest before continuing north. Due to the circumstances we were not required to pay an entry or camping fee, but we donated $10 to the park and headed for the campsite we were informed we could use for the day.
By this time, Papa ‘Skiy was blind from exhaustion. He’d been up more than 34 hours now and was in desperate need of rest. Once we’d found our site, we proceeded to start backing in when suddenly Mama saw the truck jar to a halt and immediately heard Papa spout a few…er, superlatives. The truck rolled forward again and Papa got out to examine the damage.
He’d failed to watch the fin of the dually on the driver’s side of Bertha and bumped into an oak tree. The good news was that June was unscathed, and that would have been far worse than the dent Bertha got on her backside.
Papa was seething, but Mama couldn’t be upset with him. Considering his level of exhaustion and stress, there was no way he could be blamed for this minor hiccup. She calmed and reassured him, and then they finished backing into the site.
We’d no more than parked when a couple of rangers happened by. They were going around to let everyone know the hurricane’s path had shifted a little and they were going to need to evacuate the park by 6pm that evening.
So now we weren’t going to get the rest needed. However, Mama stayed up to keep an eye on the boys — who weren’t tired because they’d slept in the truck — so Papa could get at least an hour of sleep.
He woke up shortly after 5pm, we took the boys to the playground to run off some steam, and then we vacated the park, on our way to who-knows-where.
We stopped for a late dinner outside of Tallahassee and then Mama started looking on her phone for parks and campgrounds in Alabama or Mississippi.
She made a few phone calls, only to find most places were either closing or closed due to the hurricane or could not accommodate us.
Finally she called a park in Alabama — Blue Springs State Park — where she was informed the campground had no vacancies but we were welcome to come on up and they’d set us up someplace.
We had a location in sight and could finally relax a little.
When we finally made it to the park it was approaching midnight and the gate was closed and chained…but to our relief it hadn’t been locked! Mama got out, unlooped the chain from the gate, opened it up, and we let ourselves inside. She closed it again and left it as we’d found it, then we drove to a parking lot on the left near a lake. There was no one manning the hut at the entrance, and we never did see or hear anyone. But we’d spoken to someone on the phone and felt it was okay we were there. As a precaution, Mama wrote a note explaining our situation and that we’d move by 7:30 the next morning, having seen signs that the park opens to visitors at 8am, and left it on the door of our fifth wheel.
Finally we were able to get some rest.
We woke up around 7am the next morning so we could get ready to move, but when we stepped out of our rig we were promptly greeted by a sweet gentleman — one of the park rangers — on a golf cart. He told us we could stay put and to just relax. When we questioned moving for park guests, he said the park was only accepting hurricane evacuees, no other campers or guests! He said we could stay put or he’d go see if there were any available campsites for us.
He’d just left when a woman — one of the workampers — showed up on another golf cart. She proceeded to ask if we were hungry because they were serving sandwiches at a pavilion in the campground region, in another area of the park, and we could go over to eat.
At that point Mama got emotional. Everything started to sink in: we had to leave our home and everything behind; we had family and friends in Florida who’d decided not to evacuate; we were so exhausted, stressed, and scared; and we were in an unfamiliar area under one of the scariest circumstances we’d yet to encounter. The sweet lady — Tracy — took Mama into her arms and comforted her. Then she left and we decided to walk over to the pavilion she’d told us about, located down a road opposite the lake we were parked next to.
Every vehicle and RV there had a Florida license plate. Everyone looked tired and ragged, and although we were all strangers we all suddenly had so much in common and so many things to talk about. We were treated to a variety of homemade sandwiches and bottles of water, and it was the best breakfast we’d had in days. Then we were told to return around noon because a church was coming by to provide lunch too!
After we ate we returned to June to settle into the parking lot. A couple of other RVs were there now too, doing the same thing. Suddenly the ranger who came by earlier stopped by again to let us know about a couple of campsites that were empty and we could choose from. He suggested one in particular — which happened to be right across from the pavilion everyone was gathering at — and we decided to move to that site.
Sure enough, lunch-time came around and we were fed a full spaghetti spread. To add to the kindness, there was a table of supplies that had appeared! Churches and volunteers were showing up and dropping of canned and prepackaged meals, beverages, paper products, charcoal, cases of bottled water, toiletries…anything and everything you could think of that anyone running from the storm may need.
Tears were being shed all around, by Mama included. The outpouring of donations and kindness was overwhelming!
We decided to run into town that afternoon for a few other things we needed, but after that we never had to leave again. We were also told by the two leading the rescue — Amanda and her daughter Alyssa — that if we needed anything else to just let them know and they’d have someone run out and get it for us. They simply wanted us to stay there and relax as much as possible.
Also that afternoon Mama was finally able to convince her parents to evacuate their home and join us in Alabama. Her brother had decided to stay with his girlfriend and her family, and Papa’s step-father had his sons visiting (Papa’s mother was in Russia at the time) so he wanted to stay home as well. Mama was especially worried about her parents because their home at the homestead was manufactured. Everyone else was in sturdy concrete-block buildings.
Her parents arrived that evening, and finally she was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Dinner was provided that night too, and we were treated to three meals, snacks, desserts, and supplies during the entire stay. Clothes and toys were also donated and gathering at the main pavilion. There was even a pickup truck driven by teenagers going around passing out firewood.
We went swimming in their spring-fed pools and waded in the river the springs fed into. We did a lot of walking and socializing. And we met some of the nicest people ever, who will remain our friends. There was a lot of fear in the air, and many moms would gather to talk and cry out of concern for family and friends back home, their property left behind, and their kids, who were playing on the playground without a care in the world.
Hurricane Irma didn’t take the path projected but moved more west and made landfall on Florida’s west coast, not the east coast as forecasted. She cut through and destroyed the Keys before hooking north and landing just south of where Papa’s step-father lives. When it did finally hit land, it suddenly dropped from a catastrophic category 4 to a much less dangerous category 2! There was such a huge sigh of relief when word of that spread throughout Blue Springs.
Despite it was a weaker storm when it did hit the mainland, the size of the storm was much larger than the state itself. It took out power before it did touch land, and the damage caused by winds, flooding, and loss electricity alone was astronomical.
Irma did end up following us to Alabama, but she was only a tropical storm by the time she got there. The six of us remained safe inside of June, listening to the howling of the wind through the trees, the branches and acorns falling on the roof, and the rain coming and going with each passing band.
Out of the blue during that morning, though, there was a knock on our door. When we answered, it was the park staff, stopping by to see if we were okay…and to deliver some food to us. Despite they were out in the middle of the storm, getting soaked in the process, their concern was still for those of us at the park.
Once Irma had passed we walked around to survey the damage and check on others.
Many people had left, apparently heading east or west to get out of the path. We were surprised to see how vacant the park had suddenly became.
With the exception of some fallen limbs and one uprooted tree, there wasn’t much damage at all. The river had risen and was quite raging, but we were able to walk around and talk to some of the others who had stayed to ride it out.
The next day — September 12 — we packed up to return home, and it was so difficult to say good-bye to our new friends, both the evacuees like us and the incredibly kind people that took such good care of everyone. On the way out we stopped by one of the buildings near the pools, where everyone was gathering one final time. We all shared one more meal, exchanged contact information, and took a group picture together. Then we tearfully passed out hugs, climbed into Bertha, and left.
We didn’t get back home until the next morning. Traffic was heavy and many areas were blocked due to damage or flooding. Electricity had miraculously come back on in our neighborhood before we got back to our house, and the only issues there were a few broken limbs, some debris, and a small amount of washout where we park June next to the house. The water level in our canal was up, but the day Irma had come through the water had actually come up to within feet of the uppermost level.
All in all, our friends and family fared well. Papa’s step-father and visiting step-brothers went without electricity for nearly a week, as did Mama’s parents’ home and where her brother had stayed. Regardless, everyone was safe.
Many weren’t as fortunate. The Keys suffered the worst damage they’d experienced in a very long time, and it will be awhile before they fully recover. The death toll was not nearly as high as feared, and the assistance that showed up from other states was underappreciated and understated.
It was a scary situation, but it was also one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. Never before had we been on the receiving end of help, and we could never thank all of those kind people of Blue Springs State Park in Alabama enough for their kindness…and now friendship.
Never gamble with Mother Nature. She’s stronger than you’ll ever be.
And if you’re fortunate enough, she could also guide you toward happiness and incredible memories, even in the middle of instability and chaos.