Thanks, Irma. Guest Post by Pat Miller.

By Pat Miller.

I am not sure if you have ever had to pack up your cars with your kids, dogs, and anything you can take with you in just a matter of hours. Imagine what it is like to walk around your place and look at everything you have collected over the years and wonder “what if it isn’t here when I get back?”

As one who has lived on the east coast all my life and has been through a good number of hurricanes, you still aren’t emotionally ready for the possibility of evacuating your home and all your memories. As we watched Hurricane Irma move through the Atlantic for over a week, it was the last thing I thought we would be doing on this particular Friday afternoon. We watched it everyday, waiting for the next update from NOAA and every other news source out there. As each day went by and it looked more likely Florida would be hit, you start to think about the options you have. When you live on a peninsula with only one way out, the primary thoughts are where to head and when to leave. Gas stations and grocery stores started running out of things a week before it hit. Friends of mine in the Miami area were already starting to head north at the beginning of the week.

Hotel reservations in Atlanta are made on Monday, along with contacting friends there as well as a back-up. Still hoping there is enough gas to get us out of town. Wednesday was the first day we really started to think this is really happening. Schools are closing the last few days of the week to give people time to prepare to leave or ride it out. Thursday has now arrived, school is closed for sure on Friday and we have decided to leave late Friday evening.

My family and I spend all day Friday getting our condo ready to leave. We live on the second floor; no concern of floods but just hoping no trees fly through our windows or the roof is torn off while we are gone. Boarding up all windows from the inside, moving anything of value to the center of rooms and covering them with tarps…that was the easy part of the day.

Then came the hardest part of this entire event…preparing to leave everything you own for good! I have done drum corps for over twenty years; I can pack for two weeks of tour in a matter of fifteen minutes. I started to pick out clothes and things but didn’t know what to take. How do you choose from everything you have when you don’t know how long it will be and what situations you will actually be in—all while thinking it could be the last time you see it all? I just started grabbing things, everyday clothes, two sets of school clothes (no idea why), our Disney bands, passports, special jackets I can’t lose, special commemorative CD’s, my college diploma, a few small pieces of irreplaceable art and comics my dad gave me years ago, our trumpets, all kinds of food and snacks for the ride, and who knows what else I actually packed away.

How do you tell your teenage daughters to pack the same way without panicking them about what may happen during the storm? And did I mention, our oldest turned 18 on the day we left Sarasota? She rolls with the punches pretty well for an 18-year-old, but it still sucks to have all your plans put on hold for an indefinite period of time.

Let me step back one day and mention that by Thursday evening we decided to head more west since Irma was now heading up the west side of Florida and planning on going to Atlanta. No more than an hour after putting a post on Facebook looking for anyone in the Pensacola area, a “marching arts” friend from VA reaches out about his brother’s family that lives in Pensacola on a small farm with horse, chickens, dogs, and cats. Within an hour, we have a place to stay for as long as we need with our dogs with people we have never met. This is one of the wonders of the marching arts world: everyone is family.

To make a long story shorter, it took us 15 hours to get to Pensacola…normally an 8 hour drive and 21 hours to get home a few days later. I was in constant contact via text message with friends who were traveling all over the southeast. We would check with each other frequently about traffic and if gas was available in certain towns. During both drives, we slept in our cars in Walmart parking lots with hundreds of other people, pulled into rest areas on the highway that were so packed people were parking on the grass just to stop driving for a bit, learned back roads all over the panhandle of Florida. While everyone was evacuating north, the other side of the highway was pretty empty. The exception was the endless convoys of emergency vehicles, power trucks, police boats in tow, and military vehicles heading into the area where the storm was going to hit very soon. It puts things in perspective when you see people from all over the country driving into the storm to help people they didn’t even know. I should mention that many of these individuals were being put up in arenas and fairground buildings all over the state, sleeping on cots each night, hundreds of miles from their families while working all day to help put Florida back together. In the last few days, we have seen hundreds of those same vehicles heading north to go back home. Thank you!!

Our time in Pensacola was like we were staying with old friends. Each family had two teenage daughters. You would have thought they have known each other for years. We made new friends and can’t wait to see them again soon. We will never be able to thank them enough for the generosity they showed us during this challenging time.

A majority of the damage in our area consists of downed trees and power outages. Many of our friends didn’t have power for upwards of 8-10 days. Our condo escaped without any real issues although many trees behind our building were laying up against the side of it. Sarasota was lucky the storm did minimal damage. Unfortunately, the Florida Keys will be recovering for a long time from the direct hit they received. It was a week after the storm before they let any non-essential people back onto the Keys to see if their house was still standing.

After everything is all said and done, I don’t regret leaving for the time we did. You just never know what is going to happen and the safety of our family (including the dogs) is always the most important thing. The generosity I have witnessed through
this entire event has been nothing short of amazing. From the strangers who traveled thousands of miles to help rebuild the state, to our new friends who welcomed my family into their house, to the friends of ours that personally drove carloads of supplies to smaller towns in south Florida, to the people we know who welcomed multiple families into their house because they had running water and AC. The best in people comes out when the worst things tend to happen. Imagine what it would be like if we just acted this way all the time. I am thankful for all of the things my family and I still have, especially our friends and family. Nothing else is more important.

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