I’ve lived on the southeast coast for almost 21 years (not consecutively), and I have never had to evacuate from my home (My sister and I were forced to evacuate the Outer Banks one time, but it isn’t really the same because it wasn’t my home town). Until now. Seemingly out of the blue — the weather was sunny and warm — we were informed that we must evacuate to at least 100 miles inland.
We were given more than 24 hours notice, but the closest pet-friendly hotel was in Alpharetta, Georgia, about five hours away. I didn’t think we would have to travel that far, but with so many other evacuees from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, we had no choice. In fact some of our friends went as far as Tennessee and the mountains of North Carolina.
It’s a surreal experience, to be away from your home and to not know what is happening. Of course, we had the Weather Channel, but they were covering larger cities and towns than ours. And we had Facebook, but specific details of certain areas of town were hard to obtain.
What does one do when evacuated? Well, we tried to make the best of it. We shopped, took the kiddo to an arcade and Go Kart track and to a movie, but it all felt kind of dream-like. A forced vacation is a strange experience. We wanted to relax, but we were all glued to our phones looking for updates.
We thought it would be fairly simple — the storm would come Friday into Saturday morning, and we would be allowed to come home Sunday. How wrong we were! Interstate 95 was impassable due to downed trees and flooding. No one had power, and trees were across many roads in our area, making them un-drivable. Moreover, our barrier islands were unreachable because causeways had been destroyed.
The re-entry process for a hurricane-touched area is more complicated than the evacuation. Traffic needs to be considered; roadways cleared; and power restored. Those who re-entered the area early ended up having to sleep in their cars on the road because access was not possible.
Our town was cleared for re-entry on Monday at 3 p.m. We waited until Tuesday to return home. We experienced some traffic, but nothing serious. Don’t judge us, but we had left our cat at home, and we three were so relieved when we opened the door and he meowed at us.
Fortunately for us, the power had been restored and our home retained no damage. Trees had fallen behind our house, but thankfully in the opposite direction. Mom and Dad came home to a tree leaning against their house, but no evident damage. I cannot describe the sense of relief we felt coming home to a pristine house.
Slowly, but surely, things are returning to normal. Doctors’ offices have reopened; my husband is back to work. However, schools are out until Monday, as some evacuees are still trying to return or are still cleaning up their homes. More and more businesses are open, but when I went to the grocery store, the usually full bread shelves were pretty sparse. Trees are still being removed and some homes will likely have months of repair ahead of them.
I never thought of it before being in this situation, but it was pointed out that those who decided to “shelter in place,” that is, to stay in their homes, ultimately put first responders in danger. Not only that, but in the aftermath, their driving around neighborhoods inhibited power and tree-removal crews from getting around easily.
Sadly, many people stayed behind because they had nowhere to go — too poor to stay in a hotel; or no relatives to stay with; or no means of finding where shelters were. For these people, my heart breaks.It must have been a traumatic experience to live through the hurricane.
Others, too, stayed. Perhaps not for financial reasons, but for some other motivation — perhaps responsibilities required them to stay put. Part of me thought that we were overreacting by evacuating, but I am so glad we did. If we hadn’t, we could’ve gone days without power; we could have run out of food; we could have been stuck in our neighborhood.
Experiences like these, while tragic, teach valuable lessons. It teaches me respect for the local authorities who made sure it was safe to return home. It makes me even more grateful for first responders, many of whom had to send their families off to evacuate while they stayed behind. It shows me that there are good people in the world, like the owners of a local pizza place delivering pizzas to all the recovery crews; or the neighbors who checked on houses and took pictures of potential damage. And it reminds me to not take life for granted, but to live each moment fully, being the best person I can be.