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Running From a Hurricane in an RV

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life. He shares his experiences along with valuable tips for RV owners.

Fiesta Key campsite set up for the daily Keys lifestyle.

Fiesta Key campsite set up for the daily Keys lifestyle.

Camping and Working in the Florida Keys

This is an account of what we had to do to get away from Hurricane Irma as campers working in the Florida Keys.

By now, everyone has heard about this amazing act of nature called Irma that hit Florida. It was touted for days by the press as “the worst ever.” Thankfully, for most of us on the mainland of the U.S. at least, it turned out to be a bit less than what the news media warned us of.

Oh sure, don't get me wrong, it was horribly devastating to so many tens of thousands of people that I hesitate to mention our personal good luck, but lucky we were. All I’m saying is that my wife and I, along with so many other people in Florida, were spared serious injury and most people were even spared the heavy damage to their homes that was expected.

Well, other than in the Keys, that is.

We live in Ruskin, Florida, just south of Tampa, but we really enjoy traveling around the country in our motorhome, and to make a few bucks to cover our expenses we are what our fellow campers call Work Campers.

What that means is, we take jobs at campgrounds in exchange for reduced rents for our campsite and a little money. Typically these jobs involve simple low-impact work: clerks, receptionists, lawn maintenance, garbage pickup, housekeeping, and such.

Watching Irma Form and Head Towards Florida

Anyway, we were working at one of the popular RV resorts in the middle Keys, called Fiesta Key, when nature generated the now-infamous Hurricane Irma.

We, and most of the people in the southeastern United States, watched expectantly as Irma tore through the islands of the Caribbean and approached the Keys.

And as we expected, everyone was eventually told to evacuate the campgrounds, hotels, and homes in the Lower Keys, then the Middle Keys, and finally the Upper Keys.

Being a respectful observer of the damage Irma had already wreaked on the islands, my wife and I did as we were told—we ran.

At this point our escape goal was simple, we just wanted to stay away from this ferocious storm; and as it was predicted to head up the East Coast of Florida, we ran back to our home near Tampa, on the West Coast.

As we left the Keys for the mainland, we realized that when a hurricane is coming towards you in Florida, the shape of the state itself becomes a problem.

You see, this state is a very long and narrow strip of land that only provides two major paths of escape to the North or South: one is I-95 and the other is I-75.

Oh, sure there are a lot of small town-hopping roads that you can use for escape, but typically they cannot handle much traffic before they bog down from the overload of vehicles and people.

Basically, this is what Floridians do when a hurricane is coming; if it’s predicted to hit the East Coast, everyone goes to the West Coast, or they do the opposite, run west to east if the prediction is for a West Coast hit.

Well, we got safely to our house, on the West Coast, stocked up on provisions, and plugged our RV up to the house to keep the batteries charged and the RV fridge cold. We loaded our fridge with food, and feeling we had two good places to stay in, we “hunkered down” for some strong winds and rain, at the worst; or so we figured.

The Fallacy of the Perfection of Hurricane Prediction Technology

Of course, as we all know now, Irma changed her mind, crossed the Keys, and headed up the West Coast of Florida, eventually hitting the Naples coastline as a Cat-3 hurricane.

By this time though, most of the Floridians who felt safe on the west side of Florida were trapped by their own trust in the science of weather forecasts.

The interstate highways in Florida were essentially parking lots filled with the last waves of scared residents wanting to leave, along with the few remaining tourists.

My wife and I?

Our RV was loaded with fuel, food, and provisions to last us a couple of weeks, and it was plugged into our house in Ruskin, Florida, ready for us to leave again if necessary.

Once this was done, we were continually watching the hurricane's eye’s movement on TV and although we felt a certain level of safety in our house, we were also prepared to go over to one of the nearby public shelters, if necessary.

It was a harrowing night for us, of course, just sitting and waiting for the next forecast update on Irma's path.

As we watched, Irma slowly moved north, and luckily for my wife and I, she shifted a few more miles towards the center of Florida and away from the West coast.

To our relief, as Irma drew closer, she also dropped first to a Cat-2 and then to a Cat-1 hurricane, and as she came closer, she went down to Tropical Storm level winds, and the eye missed our community.

Literally, within minutes of the eye passing us, our community lost power, so we were in the dark about anything that might happen next, but seeing as there was nothing else we could do, we went to bed and got a restless night's sleep.

The next morning, we got up from our bed, fired up the generator in our RV, and had a nice breakfast as we talked to our fellow neighbors who had also stayed to “ride out the storm.”

Happily, as we were talking with one couple, our neighborhood power came back on and we finally caught up on the devastation Irma had wrought on so many others.

Getting Out of Florida Takes Time and Gas

As we spent the next few days in our house—which had surprisingly very little damage, by the way—we were glued to the TV and saw the tens of thousands of people still trapped on the interstate highways trying to get out of the state.

And, once the storm had passed from the state, the southbound lanes began to become clogged with the anxious residents who had run away from danger and now wanted to see if their homes had survived.

Simply said, at this point in time, the whole interstate transportation system of Florida had collapsed under the demand put on it by refugees.

As I talked to more people, I heard that the combination of two northbound lanes filled with refugees and two southbound lanes filled with returnees was actually made worse by yet another group of travelers.

Many of these other people were the ones who at one point or another, had projected to be safe from Irma’s projected path, and yet just had to go somewhere.

Of course, there were the tens of thousands who had relatives to stay with in Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and other points north.

But there were some who ran to the north of Florida, and when weather predictions changed on them, they had to run to Louisiana, Alabama, or Georgia, just hoping for an open hotel room or condo, even though most were already deemed safe.

And many RV owners also ran to the panhandle and other points to the north and stayed in a campground, or maybe in a hotel or condo themselves. But after getting settled in, they would get scared yet again as the weather reports changed, and off they would go to get even further away from Florida.

I think this would be a good analysis for someone to do: What happened with this traffic problem and how much gasoline was wasted by how many people?

How Much of the Fear Was Driven by the Media?

It seemed that certain people, the ones I started calling “Rabbits,” were just so scared that with every reported change in Irma’s path, they felt they had to jump to another place that they thought would be safer than wherever they happened to be.

Many of their decisions didn’t seem to be based on logic, but rather on some ever-changing level of fear they were getting from the news media.

And the news media were not helping the situation.

OK, I understand that they have to report the facts of such dangerous situations as a hurricane like Irma to the population.

I also understand that their ratings are based on their audience size, so the more sensational the dangers and damages being reported from something like a hurricane, then the better job they were doing.

I don’t believe I saw one newscaster who said; Sure this is a big and very dangerous storm, but get real folks, everyone is not going to die and every house will not be damaged. So get smart and do the things you must do that are right to protect yourselves and your families, and we will all get through this.

And honestly, we the public should be used to this kind of reporting.

Instead, we get media reports where the extreme is shown to us on our home TV screen and very little time is spent providing us with not only how much damage could be expected, but also some level of perspective about how many of us would be spared such extreme damage with just a little preparation.

Once Irma Had Left Town

So, Irma, like all extreme examples of nature's wrath, eventually beat itself to death as it progressed up the center of Florida, and once it was gone, we all came crawling out of our rabbit holes to check things out.

Sure, sad to say, there were some deaths and injuries to people and animals, and property. I have read numbers of the many billions of dollars that will need to be spent to repair or replace: homes, businesses, churches, and infrastructure.

And, I’m sure you have seen the pictures of the damaged property in Miami, the Keys, and other parts of Florida.

There are so many examples of homes and businesses damaged or totally destroyed by Irma. So many once manicured and landscaped sites are either empty of any sign of a building having existed there at all, or there are only skeletons of structures remaining.

In the Keys, the streets of the Overseas Highway had to be worked on for days just to remove the debris so they could open just one lane for rescue personnel to get through to Key West.

And the debris? Remnants of trees, plants, and seaweed piled up high, five to ten feet and more.

And mixed into this detritus of nature were so many refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, beds, mattresses, sofas, TVs, and even the occasional vehicle or boat. Before Irma, you never would have thought so many appliances and pieces of furniture would have existed in the Keys.

And the tropical trees, that once provided lush landscaping to hide everyone’s homes, condos, and hotels from the eyes of the people driving on the Overseas Highway, were now either snapped into pieces, blown away to some other location or as with most, stripped of every leaf, leaving stark bare tree trunks.

Anyway, after the storm, my wife and I already had our RV loaded, so we took advantage of the situation to hop around Florida to a few of our favorite nearby campgrounds that were open.

Now, as we watch the resurrection of Florida and wait for our technology-driven society to get back onto its feet, I still realize that Irma or no Irma, we still love the great feeling we get living here.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.