Hurricane Irma. Florida evacuation. Death and devastation. Smart people leave the area, and that’s what we did. So soon after the incident, it’s a little difficult to put everything into words, and an accurate perspective may remain elusive, but I’m gonna tell you about it anyway.
Only the geographically illiterate don’t know that Florida is a huge peninsula. It’s big enough that residents wouldn’t know it was a peninsula without the benefit of maps. This creates a unique problem when the entire state is in danger.
In a non-peninsula state you’ve got all directions to run in case danger strikes. The geography of Florida eliminates three cardinal points, leaving only the North. That means there’s only one path – or rather a limited number of paths leading in the same direction — for those fleeing a state-wide emergency. Many residents chose to use those paths this month, and the rush north was epic.
Poorly planned infrastructure in Florida makes driving unnecessarily difficult even in the best of times. Even when there’s no rush hour traffic, no holiday traffic, and no lunch-hour traffic, the roads are very dangerous even for experienced drivers. Then there are other issues.
Florida has the highest number of elderly residents in the United States. Many of those elderly people drive, but the oldest do not, of course. Florida has generally poor roads and even poorer drivers. Having lived there for years, as well as in the second worst state in the country (Michigan), I have to say Florida, while it has better quality pavement in most areas than Michigan, has worse drivers. In my experience they are dumber, angrier, more me-first, crazier, and quick to infuriate over an inconvenience. Search YouTube for incidents if you doubt my words. Running through a field of chimpanzees armed with power tools might be preferable to breaking down on any Florida highway. At least the chimps wouldn’t make you feel sad for your fellow man or the future of the country. But back to the story.
I care for my 93 year old father who is disabled. We live right on a canal on the Gulf side of the state, a few feet above the high tide line. Any person who lives like this keeps an eye on the weather all the time, consuming weather reports every day. There was ample time to prepare for this emergency of course, and I did what I could. I put it that way because Dad didn’t want to leave the house, and would do nothing to help me prepare, not that he could do much. I opened a suitcase for him in his bedroom and asked him to put clothes and things in it. I had another box for him to put stuff he didn’t want to lose.
A few days passed. I had to make a decision soon, so I picked Thursday with the final weather report to determine our plans. Then I determined Friday morning was bug-out time.
After double-checking weather reports Friday morning I knew we couldn’t risk staying. If it were just me, I probably would have, but caring for a disabled 93-year old and myself in what might be a life-threatening emergency flood/storm was too dangerous. After clearing the yard of dangerous objects that might fly away, and battening down the storm shields around the windows, I threw Dad’s clothes in the suitcase, went through his bedroom and filled the box with photo albums and bits that I thought were important to him. I filled suitcases with papers from the safes, went around the house and filled another suitcase with any paper that looked like a record, deed, title, etc., plus more photo albums. My mother’s paintings. And Mom in her urn. Then I bundled Dad out the door.
We got an hour away and hit our first patch of gridlock on US19.
My father started complaining from the moment he saw me loading his clothes. After an hour in gridlock the volume and speed of complaints increased. Most of the complaints were about his ass. Yes, his shriveled ass is old and white and barely the size of two canned hams, so I have no doubt his ass hurt. His back is another issue. Surgery, fused disks, other problems from working as a mechanic his entire life. His heart attack last November didn’t make things any better. Did I mention he’s 93?
I hate driving by the way. I make a point to live without a car or using a vehicle as much as I can for a number of reasons. I do have a driver’s license and I appreciate the necessity of motor vehicles in today’s society, so if you think I’m one of those types who screams about carbon footprints and pollution, etc., then you don’t really understand where I’m coming from, but that’s OK. Hardly anyone does.
Two hours passed in the Weeki Wachee gridlock, in the sun, with Dad complaining about his ass. Thank the gods the air conditioning worked fine. After a while though, my mind began to look for a way out. Maybe the hurricane wasn’t so bad, maybe it would just be a storm and that’s all. I guess I reached my limit (or so i thought) and rationalized a way to get away from the incessant bitching and moaning. I made the decision to go back home.
After driving south on US19 we got back to our place on the canal. I unloaded the car halfway, hooked up my computer and started looking around. That’s when I saw the evacuation order for our area of the county. For a brief moment I deliberated.
What if we stayed? The storm might just be all wind and water. That meant the roof might get peeled off. The tide may rise high enough to flood the house. Both situations would mean I’d have to decamp in the storm and move my father, who can not walk on his own, to a safe place – and where would that be, exactly?
What if we went? The storm might be devastating. A violent surge could wipe the house off the map. High winds might flatten the place. There wouldn’t even be time or a way to get myself and my father out of the place. This situation could mean certain death for my father, and probably myself as well.
I packed the car again. Then I packed the bitching and moaning old man and got underway. He was not happy.
Four hours later I found myself looking at the same patch of littered shoulder in Weeki Wachee that was there earlier in the day. The gridlock was only a little worse than it was earlier, but not a lot worse. And this time my determination was different — we were going and no amount of bitching and moaning was going to change it.
And that bitching and moaning had already begun.
“Why are we going? Where are we going? Won’t be nothing, why are we going? My rear end has blisters. I want to go back. Let’s just go a back. Are we going to Michigan? Where are we going?”
I navigated through the gridlock of US19 for the next 10 hours under a barrage of complaints. Hidebound to previous trips, I took the main line through to the north, the way I knew best, the way the was most direct of course, and the route most people know best. And most people booked all the hotels and motels. There was no place to rest, no respite. In this situation you just have to make do.
Florida roads are laid out in a terrible manner for evacuations, and we were on an official evacuation route. The trouble is, as I see it from a driver’s perspective during an actual evacuation, is the traffic lights. Every few miles, in every community with tourist dollars to spare. was a street light stopping traffic on Highway 19. The timing seemed to me to be the same timing used during non-emergencies. Was this the main reason for the massive gridlock? I can’t help but wonder what a few second adjustment would have made to make the highway traffic pattern a smidge better. But, hey, Florida. Dumb government. Dumb policies. Just watch the fun in Tallahassee and all the local government corruption cases and peccadilloes if you want to see corruption, stupidity, and penny wise-and-pound foolish decisions. Florida is a model for government corruption and ineffective (nonexistent) leadership. Aside from grandstanding after the crises of course, and saying how sorry you feel. Just watch Rick Scott go.
Around midnight I had to rest my eyes. I was seeing black shapes running across the road. A handy Jehovah’s Witness church parking lot provided a handy place to catnap for a half hour. No sleep of course, but at least I rested my eyes. Then back on the road. The best I could do for the next three hours is rest my eyes. A couple hours later, around 4:38 a.m., we found a McDonald’s parking lot to do the same thing.
“Why are we here? Why are we stopping. Let’s go. Are you ready? We’re losing time. It’ll take forever to get to Michigan. Let’s go back. Ready yet? Where are we going? Does she know we’re coming? What are we helping her with? Are we going up the to house? What’s wrong with the house?”
I refused to move until there was light. Noise and stress and pain from my own back kept me from getting even a few minutes of sleep (all I really wanted). Fear that Dad would get out of the car to try and do something was always there. His bitching and moaning had turned into urging me on a constant race to get to Michigan as fast as we could.
The gridlock was gone when I returned to the highway, replaced by bumper-to-bumper traffic moving anywhere from 10 miles an hour to 80, depending on the flow. Somewhere around the Alabama border we reached a rest stop. Time for Dad to use the restroom again.
If you’ve taken care of an elderly or disabled person on the road you know that long trips require rest stops. Rest stops can be a mixed bag. Public toilets at convenience stores, gas stations, fast food joints, highway rest stops. Each one is a unique experience. Sometimes it’s just a stinky place to use and check your shoes, and sometimes the toilets look like the aftermath of an Insane Clown Posse concert or a wine festival porta-pottie. Now add a massive number of visitors, far more than the facilities were ever designed to handle safely.
Fortunately as males we can be rather quick compared to our female counterparts, when it comes to using the restroom. Lines were pretty short to the Men’s Room. And, may they be blessed by the spirits, lots of people helped by letting my Dad cut ahead, holding doors, and other little things that make a huge difference. For the women, a completely different story. The lines were generally a dozen persons long and sometimes stretched out the door and around the building.
After the rest stop we got back on the highway. I handled about two hours of bumper-to-bumper maniacs until I had enough. Using Google Maps on my rapidly discharging smartphone I located the closest side road that led north through Alabama. I didn’t even bother to look for warnings about riparian based banjo players or hillbilly cannibals, welcome distractions compared to the traffic at this point. Besides, we had enough guns and ammo in the car to hold off a dozen drunk Hutarees or local militia nitwits.
Now that I was off the main route, the comfortable route, the way my father was used to taking, another problem quickly developed.
“Where are we going? What are you doing? I don’t know where the hell we are! We’re going out of our way? I don’t want to go 500 miles out of the way! We’re lost! Go back to the highway. We gotta get to Birmingham. Why are we going to Michigan? I hope you know where you’re going because I sure don’t. You’re lost!”
I began to have fantasies about how a person could be made to go missing very easily in an emergency evacuation that involved massive storms and flooding.
Anyway, I have to say the side roads and back ways I found through Alabama were some of the most beautiful country roads I’ve seen. Even with the stream of complaints, I felt like shackles had been lifted from my mind. These rural roads were for the most part well kept, smooth and made it easy to maintain a high rate of speed without destroying your car. Best of all, no other cars were around me. I got through almost half the state before I almost fell asleep and drove off the road. That was enough.
Around 5:00 I started looking for a hotel. I found success a few miles off the beaten track.
“Why are your stopping? We have to keep going. It’s the middle of the day for Christ sakes! Why are we going to Michigan? I could drive for days. Let me drive. It’s my turn to drive. I don’t want to stop here dammit! Does she know we’re coming? Why are we leaving Florida? What’s wrong at home? Where are we going?”
Dad fell asleep on the bed in the hotel room after about an hour. Both of us slept for the rest of the day and the night. By morning I was recharged and ready to go once again. We made it to Michigan with only minor inconveniences at rest areas and difficulties with idiot drivers. (What is it with pickup trucks and bad drivers? Is this genetic?)
Ah, Michigan. We came into the state on I69 from Fort Wayne, Indiana. There was the billboard, nice and blue and really new. Expensive. “Pure Michigan,“ it proudly says. That’s the motto now being used in Michigan. It’s on billboards and promotional material. Sounds wonderful. It infers purity of some kind, obviously something good, right? So optimistic. Kind of bodes well of your trip. Pure Michigan must be fun. It must be easy, since it’s pure, right?
I69 went well enough for a while, then we reached the I69-I94 junction. Road quality on I69 went to hell after that. Miles and miles of serial cracks in the pavement were the first horror. Serial cracks are cracks that occur every four or five feet. Driving over them at any speed makes your vehicle vibrate as if it’s tires are being beaten by a giant metronome, an effect nothing short of torture. A steady fusillade of bangs and thuds from improperly maintained pavement. Miles and miles and miles of this. Then I saw a rest area and pulled off, thinking we could get a few moments of respite.
The vehicle pitched and bounced like I was off-roading it. A mosaic of pits and holes, broken pavement and concrete kissed the undercarriage of our evacuation-loaded vehicle, throwing us around like beans in an empty can. Even the backwoods of Alabama and the ruralist rural roads we’d seen over the past two days were better than this, and this, this span of blasted asphalt, was a Pure Michigan product. An interstate highway, in this condition? What is going on in Michigan government? Can they possibly be as bad as Florida government? The only thing that came to mind was a new motto for Michigan.
We got to the exit for my sister’s place and headed in that direction. Not remembering the exact path, I called her for directions. This is when Dad decided he’d give me directions too.
For the entire trip Dad has been reading signs to me.
“Birmingham 129 miles. Birmingham 78 miles. Montgomery 18 miles. Junction 65.”
God bless him. But he didn’t do that forever. Around the Michigan border he changed. He just announced the miles to each city ahead, not the name of the city.
Between my sister telling me where to go on the road, and Dad barking directions that were as far as I was concerned unverifiable, we made it the last score of miles to our destination. Having no streetlights in this part of Michigan didn’t help, but I guess that’s also part of the Pure Michigan experience.
God I hate Michigan. And my ass hurts.