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Hunkered down for Irma

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, the storm creeps into Orlando, in central Florida. Above, residents of the city brave traffic jams to pick up sand bags to protect their homes. . (Contributed photos) / September 11, 2017
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Hurricane Irma will head north in coming days along a path hundreds of miles from Halifax County. Yet far from the natural disaster, the community has been touched by the storm in countless ways, personal and otherwise.

Local people with Florida connections, former county residents now living in the Sunshine State and others transfixed by Irma’s wrath spent the weekend wondering what havoc lies ahead as the record-breaking hurricane made landfall at the Florida Keys, marking the first time the U.S. has been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year.

With relief efforts still running in high gear for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, local groups have already begun to make preliminary plans to come to Florida’s aid. But first, the storm must run its course.

Former residents of Halifax County living in Florida experienced moments of anxiety and terror Sunday as wind gusts, flooding and tornados threatened the entire state even as Irma hugged the state’s western coast, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Millie Lavaway, a retired infection control manager at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital, moved in May with her husband, Ted, to the Florida city of Wellington, a short distance from West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast. On Sunday, the couple took cover inside closets of their home while the storm raged.

“Tornado cells are springing up every few minutes or so, but we get alerts to take shelter in an interior room or closet until they pass,” reported Lavaway via social media messaging. “Hurricane winds are becoming stronger by the hour and it is unsettling to listen to. Wind gusts are 70 to 90 plus mph and the rain is torrential. Sounds like the walls and roof are going to blow away, but we are still grateful that it [Irma] moved to the west overnight.”

Florida’s west coast avoided a direct hit from the hurricane, but Irma’s power was such that wind gusts tore off a portion of Lavaway’s screened-in porch. “I certainly would not recommend this experience for the faint-of-heart, I can tell you that,” she said as high winds howled outside the confines of her home.

Earl Womack, a former county supervisor and school transportation employee who now lives in Orlando, also was riding out the storm on Sunday with his family. Womack said the central Florida city — home of Disneyworld — was being pelted by rain, flooding and mounting winds by mid-afternoon. He and his family were hunkered down inside their boarded-up home, “preparing for the worst.

“We have taken every precaution to stay safe,” wrote Womack in a cell phone text message. “We weren’t able to get any plane tickets to fly out of Florida. The airlines had been sold out …. The roads have been at a standstill so we chose to bunker in and pray for the best.”

With evacuations ordered for more than five million residents around the state, Florida’s highways and airports have been snarled for days. Womack said his family had hoped to travel to Baltimore and his mother’s house to avoid the storm, but they decided to stay put rather than run the risk of getting stuck in traffic. “My mom is freaking out,” he said.

Lavaway, too, opted not to flee. By the time it was clear that Irma would grind a path through Florida, “it was almost too late for us to evacuate,” she explained. Gas supplies have been scarce, traffic was bumper-to-bumper along Interstate 95, and cars were stranded along the highway, apparently out of gas. “Not a situation we wanted to put ourselves in,” she said.

The fraught nature of evacuation has also been on the minds of Larry and Pam Clark of Halifax, whose son, Richard, and his family reside in St. Augustine, a short distance from the northern Florida city of Jacksonville. Richard Clark, his wife Elizabeth and their three sons got out of town in time to go stay with friends in Waycross, Ga., but now that Georgia city is threatened, too, as Irma pushes northward.

Larry Clark said his son and family are wondering whether they should move once more since the path of the storm has shifted. “They have a Plan B, which includes an offer by a fellow VMI alumni to use a home near Atlanta if Waycross is not a good place to be,” Clark said on Sunday.

Richard Clark and family reside about a block off the Atlantic Ocean in their St. Augustine neighborhood. The last time a major storm came through, their home took on a small amount of water in the basement — just enough to damage some siding. This time, the family has no idea what they’ll find once Irma passes.

“It’s going to be tough getting back, with everyone rushing to get back home,” Richard Clark told his father, as conveyed by the elder Clark. “We don’t know when schools will reopen or if we have power. Right now it’s just a guessing game.”

Irma’s trajectory along the Florida west coast, dotted by low-lying cities — the largest being Tampa and St. Petersburg — already has prompted predictions that this storm could be just as ruinous as Harvey, if not more so. That hurricane flooded Houston, Galveston, Beaumont and other Texas cities; the worst damage from Irma may come from storm surges that were seen washing up into Miami and other metro areas.

Power was out across Florida on Sunday, and officials feared that parts of the state could be uninhabitable for days or weeks once Irma moves on. It was too early on Sunday to tell how many people have been displaced by storm, without any way to return to their homes.

After disaster struck Texas and Louisiana, people around the U.S. and world responded with donations and drives to bolster the relief effort. Numerous individuals and groups in Halifax County joined the effort to help people recover from Harvey. They’ll do the same with Hurricane Irma, said T. Wayne Daniels, administrator of Halifax Christian School, which has been a central collection place for Harvey relief items.

Daniels, whose wife Vicki is from Miami, said the local volunteers are thinking about setting up a second primary location for people to drop off disaster relief essentials — bottled water, non-perishable food items, toiletries, cleaning supplies, even pet food. Items collected at the Christian school have gone to God’s Pit Crew, a disaster relief organization based in Danville.

Daniels, who has ministered in the Miami area in his career, said he and his wife “have lots of friends and family” in Florida who have had to make tough decisions on whether to stay or evacuate. His wife’s aunt and others escaped to Atlanta, arriving Saturday after leaving Thursday, with one overnight stay to break up the tortuous journey.

“It took so long because of the traffic,” said Daniels. “It was so difficult.”

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