Dread was rising with each passing hour Friday as the unabated fury of Hurricane Irma continued its course toward Florida.
The storm was not losing power. It was not blowing out to sea. Each new report from forecasters seemed more dire than the last as Florida’s date with the historic storm grew closer.
Sam Bennett, who will celebrate his 38th birthday on Sunday, was in Sarasota on Friday night after he and his wife were forced to leave the Tampa area.
Bennett said he chose to hunker down in a community six miles east of the Gulf of Mexico rather than take his chances on the road.
“Whether that was a good decision or not, I guess we’ll find out,” he said around 8 p.m. Friday.
Bennett said the grocery store near him was closing up Friday night for the weekend. The mood in the community, he said, was solemn.
“Everyone is kind of quiet,” he said. “It’s not a bad mood, necessarily. I think it’s just that nobody wants to talk about it. It’s eerie.”
A real estate agent who helps Mainers move to Florida, Bennett said that even people who have lived through hurricanes before were wary about the coming wrath of Irma.
“No one has seen one like this before,” he said. “It’s 500 miles wide. It’s huge and it’s kind of in your face. It’s going to be crazy.”
Helen Brown, originally from South Paris now living in Englewood, Florida, is planning to shelter in place when Irma makes her arrival this weekend. On Friday, Brown said she’d seen a variety of emotion among those preparing for the storm.
“The mood here varies from blithely oblivious to highly anxious. I tend to be in the middle of the scale,” Brown said. “In my area, 60 to 80 mph winds projected. I’m three miles inland so will not be affected by storm surge. I am, however, on a lake so will be watching rising waters closely.”
Brown said she had buttoned down her home as much as possible. By Friday afternoon, it was time to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
“I’m in a good, solid concrete-stucco home, which hopefully will hold up well,” she said. “I have window and door protection up in place, but many neighbors do not. Many of them are snowbirds so are not here to take care of business. I’m hoping that their pool and patio furniture doesn’t come flying through my property.”
“When the storm hits we will likely lose power, perhaps for an extended period,” Brown said. “That’s the biggest concern for me and for many here on the west coast. Gets a bit warm around here without air conditioning, and of course there is the issue of preserving fresh food.”
Earlier in the week, the people of Florida reported that basic items like water, canned good and gas, were becoming scarce. By Friday, those items were nearly nonexistent in some areas.
“I went out this morning and found many stations without gas. There are no gas grills or even propane to be had,” Brown said. “Very long lines of cars for sandbags. The local Publix is out of water, and almost out of canned goods.”
For Mainers stranded in Florida, the coming weekend looks catastrophic at worst, uncomfortable at best.
Tim Gilbert and his girlfriend, both Lewiston High School graduates, were due to fly out of Miami on Saturday direct to Boston. But by Friday it was clear that flying was not an option, as flights were sold out and airports shut down.
For Gilbert and his girlfriend Jenni Lynn, trying to drive north was also not an option, so they were hunkering down at a condo complex several miles inland from the Miami coastline.
“It’s nine stories high, so it’s not one of those big high- rises,” Gilbert said of the condo. “It’s about 12 miles inland from the coast, so we feel pretty good that it’s out of the reach of any dramatic storm surge. The complex is brand new. It’s reinforced to withstand hurricanes. We feel safer here than we would getting stranded trying to drive somewhere.”
Gilbert, who moved to Florida in July to take a job with a pharmaceutical company, said he was anxious about the coming storm.
But not everybody was in that frame of mind. At a store called Fresh Market across the street, Gilbert said, shelves were fully stocked and the shoppers were by and large in good spirits.
“You wouldn’t even know that there’s a hurricane coming,” Gilbert said. “All these people who look like locals, they’re all like smiling, joking, shopping, acting normal. It’s very odd. Here we are 24 hours away from the biggest hurricane in history.”
Gilbert said he was confident that the condo would withstand the storm. It’s what comes next that had him concerned.
“I think we’ll withstand the winds and we’ll be fine as far as destruction,” he said. “It’s the having no power after that we’re a little worried about. That’s why we stocked up on enough stuff for a month.”
By the supper hour, Gilbert was preparing to settle in for what could be the last normal evening for some time.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “it’s going to start getting real.”
Johnny Condon from Buckfield moved to Clearwater in 2013. On Friday, he was monitoring the storm’s progress and adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Among the essentials in their arsenal was plenty of beer.
“My wife and I stocked up on nonperishables and essential liquids – water and Bud Light – before the shelves were emptied and a full tank of gas is in the SUV just in case,” Condon wrote. “Amazing how many people were in the stores and in line for gas. Chips, beer, and refrigerated goods are about all that was left when the stores closed last night, before they received more shipments today – some didn’t. Mandatory evacuation is in effect for flood zone A of the Tampa Bay area, excluding where we live fortunately as we are in zone B.”
On Friday afternoon, weather models showed Irma tracking slightly west. The exact location of its landfall was still unknown, but that new forecast caused a degree of unease in Condon’s neighborhood.
“Folks in the Tampa Bay area are more nervous today about the current state with the westward shift toward us,”Condon said, “so the panic hype is increasing.”
Talk about dubious timing: Miranda Sepulveda and her family from Lewiston were on vacation in Orlando this week. They arrived Sept. 3 and are scheduled to leave on Saturday, just ahead of the hurricane.
“The airport has said they are shutting down at 5 p.m. on Saturday and our flight is at 2:27 p.m. We’re obviously hoping we make it out of Florida on time.”
By Friday afternoon, Sepulveda said, there was tension in the area, but not outright panic. Mostly people were making last-minute tweaks and arrangements as the threat of Irma loomed.
“The area we are in has not been evacuated yet so people here aren’t quite as frantic yet,” she said. “We did go out to Bass Pro shops today and they were boarding up. I’m guessing about 50 percent of the stores are closed – hasn’t started raining or wind or anything but my husband says perhaps the employees are getting to their homes to board up.”
Tanisha Elston, like others, was making a last-ditch grab for some life-saving items. The former Poland woman had moved to Tampa just two weeks ago.
“Finally after going to three different Publixs – the local grocery store like Hannaford – I was able to find water at a Sam’s club,” the 24-year-old said Friday. “Most stores are hectic and full of people trying to grab anything they can – I couldn’t find bread for two days. I filled up my gas tank in case of emergency, although prices haven’t risen too much. Many places are out of gas and it took me 15 minutes to reach the pump.”
Elston said conflicting reports about the storm made it difficult to know the best course of action. By late Friday afternoon, options were limited for those still without a plan.
“There is a mixture of panic and calmness,” she said. “It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen and the storm’s path until it’s kind of too late to do anything but stay. Different news outlets are giving different information it seems. I know some people who have left on flights or driving and are panicked like we are getting hit by a category 4 while others are acting like it’s a regular storm so it’s hard to decide what to do.
“You honestly never know until you’re in the situation,” Elston said. “I know I’ve watched the news before while home in Maine – Katrina for example – and said ‘why didn’t they leave? They knew it was coming.’ Now that I’m in the situation myself it’s a lot harder to leave than many people – myself included – thought.”
Chad Dagget, formerly of Standish, had been staying at the Fort Wilderness Campground at Disney until he and the others were moved to the Art of Animation resort to ride out the hurricane. While waiting for Irma, Daggett noticed an interesting contrast.
“People who are checking out and leaving were frantic and irritable,” he said Friday afternoon. “Guests staying to weather the storm seem almost excited.”
Jessica Lynn Gilberto of South Paris said she and her husband moved to Florida to escape Maine’s harsh winters. Even with a hurricane bearing down on them, they didn’t regret the move.
“We live in the Ocala National Forest in a small town called Ocklawaha,” Gilberto wrote in a Facebook post. “My husband and I lived in Maine most our lives. We wanted something different – no more snow! We have prepared for this storm and will tough it out cause we love this state and will continue to live here for the rest of our lives!”
“Born and raised in Auburn, Maine, but living in Naples, Florida, for the past 20 plus years,” wrote Laurie Nadeau Mellor. “Planning to ride it out at home but certainly stressed. It looks like we might be safer since it seemed to be targeting the east coast but it did make a shift to the west a bit today. Yikes.”
And speaking about Irma’s course of destruction, Brown, the South Paris woman hunkering down in Englewood on Friday, had an interesting observation about the path of the hurricane.
“I’m not a religious sort,” she said, “but perhaps enough east coast worshippers prayed enough to move Irma west, while a corresponding number of west coast folks prayed for an easterly move, that now it’s going right up the middle. Food for thought.”
Tolls were suspended as Florida residents raced to retreat from Hurricane Irma.
A line at Disney’s Art of Animation resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Most of these folks checking out and heading out before the storm,” said Mainer Chad Daggett.