Those who fled now sweat how to get back

Evac­uees face busy or blocked roads, can­celed flights.

The Palm Beach Post - - HURRICANE IRMA - By Leslie Gray Streeter

When Vicki Web­ber left town Wed­nes­day to flee Hur­ri­cane Irma on a hastily booked flight to Min­nesota, with her daugh­ter and grand­kids in tow, she says she had two im­me­di­ate thoughts: how lucky they were to leave, and when they were go­ing to be able to come back.

“It’s very frus­trat­ing,” said Palm Springs res­i­dent Web­ber by phone from Still­wa­ter, a small town about a half-hour out­side of Min­ne­ap­o­lis, where she was stay­ing in a ho­tel close to rel­a­tives who live there. “We were up most of the night, try­ing to get flights home. There’s noth­ing avail­able un­til Thurs­day night, but we’re sup­posed to fly back then into Miami.”

That “sup­posed to” is very sig­nif­i­cant, as both Miami In­ter­na­tional Air­port and Fort Laud­erdale Hol­ly­wood In­ter­na­tional Air­port re­main closed af­ter suf­fer­ing dam­age from the storm. More than 6 mil­lion Florid­i­ans were or­dered to evac­u­ate as Irma ap­proached, and those who man­aged to leave the state, Web­ber among them, are now faced with can­celed flights and blocked or busy roads. And once they get home, they don’t know what they’ll find when they get there.

Denise Riker left Boca Ra­ton with daugh­ter Duree Mel­lion Ross of Davie and her fam­ily to travel to a house that Ross owns in Aspen. It’s been a nice trip, full of pretty views and play­ing games, but Ross’ “stress and some kind of virus” has ham­pered her per­sonal good time. There’s also the knowl­edge “that Fort Laud­erdale is closed, and we can’t get back. (And) we do not have any power at our home.”

Dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, many res­i­dents fled New Or­leans, so Brit­ney Walton knows that it might sound odd to have left West Palm Beach for the Big Easy, where she was raised. So far, her flight back to Laud­erdale is con­firmed to be leav­ing on time, via email, even though the air­port isn’t open yet.

What re­ally has Walton con­cerned is that “Dol­lar Rent A Car was sup­posed to ex­tend my rental till (Mon­day) at noon so I could fig­ure out how much longer I’d be here, and now they’re telling me that I didn’t ex­tend my rental. And that it’s $759 (ex­tra be­cause) of late charges, as if I wouldn’t have called to ex­tend it!” she says. “I’m hav­ing a melt­down that this company is blam­ing me for keep­ing a car four days past its re­turn time and try­ing to charge me right now and won’t put a su­per­vi­sor on the phone at all.”

Michelle Ger­son of Boyn­ton Beach was al­ready plan­ning to visit her daugh­ter in New York when she left Fri­day, but she hadn’t ex­pected to stay so long: “My flight was can­celed for (Tues­day) into West Palm Beach, so I’m com­ing back on Fri­day.”

But in this case, she didn’t mind so much, be­cause she had a chance to spend a few more days with her daugh­ter, and be­cause she knew that her golden re­triever, Chase, was safely boarded at Very Im­por­tant Paws (VIP), a dog day care, spa and ho­tel in West Palm Beach.

“He’s in re­ally good hands. He’s a very chill dog,” Ger­son says. “I saw peo­ple try­ing to get on flights with their pets (ahead of the storm), and they couldn’t be­cause they were too big. He’s huge, so I’d never try to fly with them. He likes the wa­ter any­way. He’d prob­a­bly have liked to go stand out­side.”

VIP co-founder and owner Will Cor­rente says staff posted more than 30 pho­tos of dogs cur­rently in their care, some of “whose par­ents couldn’t get back,” so that they knew “they were in good hands.” He and oth­ers stayed in the build­ing with a to­tal of 100 dogs, run­ning the fa­cil­ity by gen­er­a­tor, “be­cause we weren’t just go­ing to lock the door and leave them.”

That was a great re­lief to Paul Amelchenko, who left Labrador re­triever Milo at West Palm Beach’s VIP when he and his fam­ily were un­der manda­tory evac­u­a­tion from their home in Light­house Point. They booked a ho­tel at Or­lando’s Walt Dis­ney World. Even though they drove to Or­lando, “we as­sumed we were go­ing to come back (Mon­day), but we might try to wait it out prob­a­bly un­til to­mor­row. The traf­fic is a con­cern with two lit­tle kids in the car, and we still don’t have power. Most of the city doesn’t.”

Even those South Florid­i­ans who left home for rel­a­tively pleas­ant places like Dis­ney are now ready to get back home and back to their lives.

“The kids miss their dad, who stayed be­hind, and their cats. We all have stuff to take care of,” Web­ber says. “The weather here is beau­ti­ful. Leaves are fall­ing, and fall is start­ing. But it’s not a va­ca­tion.”

BRIAN BLANCO / GETTY IM­AGES

With no gas sta­tions open nearby, mo­torists low on fuel stop at an on ramp to west­bound In­ter­state 4 to get gas Mon­day from Javier Fran­qui, a Florida De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion Road Ranger, in Lake He­len north­east of Or­lando.

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