ST. PETERSBURG — The three-car caravan stalled in traffic as thousands of cars crawled northward along Florida's roads while Hurricane Irma closed in on the state.
While I stayed and reported about the biggest storm to hit Tampa Bay in years, six of my friends and their collective four dogs and six cats decided the Friday before Hurricane Irma struck to board up their homes and drive north.
None of them lived in an evacuation zone, but all of them felt the pressure to leave Tampa Bay. A combination of concern for their pets, pleas from out-of-state family members and the predictions of a direct hit motivated them get on the road that night. At 8 p.m., they joined the exodus.
Experts and emergency management officials often tell those who must evacuate to drive tens of miles, not hundreds. If people don't live in an evacuation zone, they're encouraged to shelter in place instead of risking a road trip and adding to already dangerous levels of traffic.
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This caravan of friends set their sights set as far from Tampa Bay as they could get, with one car heading to Marianna in the panhandle and the other two to Alabama.
"This was a big, ole hurricane, a Category 5, barreling down and coming straight toward us," said St. Petersburg resident Keeley Sheehan, 31. "We decided to just hedge our bets a little and go."
What should have been a 5-hour drive to the panhandle turned into a 13-hour ordeal. The two cars going to Alabama didn't reach their destinations until about 3 p.m. Saturday, approximately 19 hours after they left.
The group hit two major traffic jams that each tied them up for about two hours, said Dan Goonin, 33. They stopped a couple times to stretch their legs and take care of their pets. His wife, Natalia Galbetti, recalled one particularly harrowing bathroom line that stretched outside and wrapped around the building. She waited an hour and a half. Others, too impatient or unable to wait, instead relieved themselves in a field.
They drove through the night, keeping in contact using the radio app Zello that became popular during the storm. And then, when their gas tanks started to get low and none of the stations they passed seemed to have any gas, the group decided to join the throngs of cars in Perry desperate to fuel up at one of the few stations with working pumps. The line crept forward slowly, under the guidance of local law enforcement. It would take two hours before they reached the pumps.
"It felt like the apocalypse," said Josie Caglianone, 27, of St. Petersburg. "There's this mass of people and you're all crawling along the road with limited gasoline and resources, not knowing if you were going to make it where you wanted to go. That sense of dread is all encompassing."
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Stories like these were all too common among evacuees, many of whom, like Caglianone and her friends, didn't live in evacuation zones.
"There's a high risk for the people who really need to get out of these storm surge zones and might not be able to be, because people who don't need to evacuate are clogging up the roadways," said Preston Cook, emergency management director for Hillsborough County. "It's not always a given that you're going to be safe. When you're out on the road, that in itself is more dangerous than if you're in a safe home."
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Cook said people could have their homes inspected to see what kind of wind speeds it can sustain. If it's safe to stay, then they'll need to collect the necessary supplies to shelter in place.
• But those who do live in evacuation zones should heed evacuation orders, Cook said, they just shouldn't try to drive hundreds of miles to reach safety.
• They should prepare well in advance by checking their evacuation zones, then come up with a plan if they have to leave — before the stress of an impending storm is looming.
Caglianone said she can't imagine ever trying to drive that far again during an evacuation.
Goonin, however, stood by his decision, saying it was the best call for him and their pets. Irma taught him some important lessons, though, such as leaving earlier to avoid the gridlock and to gather supplies and board up windows ahead of time.
"There's no question, it was the right decision for us to leave," Goonin said. "I think experts are looking at these big picture statistics, where every person's situation is just so much different."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.