Irma chased Vero evacuees to Georgia and North Carolina

Going to the mountains to escape the wrath of a hurricane bearing down on Florida might seem like a good call, but that wasn’t the case for John’s Island resident Mark Morein, who was at his summer home in Cashiers, a popular vacation community in the mountains of western North Carolina, when Irma hit.

“I had more damage to the house here than to my house in Vero,” he said last week.

Morein, a vice president with the George E. Warren Corporation, said Hurricane Irma’s winds exceeded 50 mph and blew constantly for nearly 18 hours in North Carolina, peeling cedar shingles from his roof and knocking out power for 24 hours.

The roof damage from those winds, which were accompanied by monsoon-like rains, caused minor leakage into the house. Water also seeped through the impact-glass windows.

“It was a little hectic,” Morein said. “We had about 25 people and six dogs here.”

Most of the visitors were family members and friends who had decided to evacuate from Vero Beach when Irma still posed a Category 4 threat to Florida’s east coast.

“We’ve been up here since Sept. 1 on vacation, but as soon as we saw the storm was headed toward Vero, we got the kids and grandkids up here, too,” Morein said. “We also had some friends who needed a place to go, and we were able to make it a little more comfortable for them.

“Some of them had dogs and, apparently, a lot of the hotels and motels wouldn’t take pets,” he added. “The only people up here were evacuees from Florida.”

Among the friends who evacuated and made the trek to Cashiers was Sea Grove resident Richard Bradley, his wife, Susan, and their 14-year-old Yellow Lab, Maggie.

Bradley, an accountant and businessman who lives on the ocean side of State Road A1A, said his home was stocked with plenty of food and water. He also had generators. But he refused to take a chance on a monster hurricane making a direct hit on Vero Beach.

So he woke up in the wee hours of Sept. 6, boarded up his Vero Beach home and left town that afternoon.

“I left Wednesday and made it through without a problem,” Bradley said. “If I had waited until Thursday morning, I’d have been in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Just those few hours made all the difference.”

Traffic on all the major, northbound evacuation routes – Interstate 95, Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 75 – slowed to a crawl in the days before the storm.  Making matters worse was a gasoline shortage caused by the rush of people filling up their vehicles and fuel tanks for their generators.

The traffic and uncertainty created panic and spawned frustration as hurricane forecasters were unable to predict when Irma would turn north and where exactly it would make landfall.

As the week progressed and the killer storm churned east, devastating everything in its path, tracking models had it hitting anywhere from Florida’s east coast to the state’s west coast, including one that predicted Irma would split the difference and drive through the middle of the state.

By the time huge storm eventually veered north from Cuba’s north shore, struck Florida’s southwest corner and spun up the gulf coast, many Vero Beach had already evacuated.

In the end, adding insult to injury, many of those who fled to Georgia and the Carolinas ended up squarely in the path of the storm, getting higher winds than Vero in some cases.

Most people who left went by car on the packed highways, but some went by air.

In fact, Elite Airways added a flight from Vero to Asheville on Sept. 7 and changed to a larger aircraft – 70 seats instead of the usual 50 – for its scheduled flight to Newark on Sept. 8. The airline also added a return flight from Asheville last Thursday and sold all seats for $159.

“They did it at the last minute to help people get out and get back, so there wasn’t time to advertise, but the flights were full,” said Vero Beach Regional Airport Director Eric Menger.

“I know people were glad those flights were available,” he added. “I saw a lot of smiling faces getting on those planes.”

Irma left “a trail of flooding, power outages and downed trees in its wake” as it ploughed through Georgia, according to the Atlantic Journal Constitution. “Metro Atlanta – which shut down schools, governments and even mass transit in advance of Irma – was pummeled by rain and wind on Monday that sent stately tulip poplars and oak trees careening into houses [and] . . . ushered in Atlanta’s first-ever tropical storm warning.”

According to other news reports, Irma’s winds blew down trees and power lines throughout western North Carolina, including the Asheville area. There was also some minor flooding as the storm dumped 4 to 6 inches of rain. Schools across the region were closed for several days last week.

North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell – at 6,684 feet, it’s the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River – recorded sustained winds up to 65 mph with wind gusts up to 83 mph as Irma passed through the region Sept. 11-12.

To put that in perspective: A Category 1 hurricane has winds of 74 to 95 mph.

It wasn’t until Monday that the much-traveled Blue Ridge Parkway through the Asheville area was reopened, after downed trees and other storm debris were removed from the scenic roadway.

Traffic on the return trip was heavy to Savannah, Bradley said, “but once we got past Jacksonville, it was fine.” By then, the closed Georgia I-95 exits encountered by returning evacuees earlier in the week had been reopened.

Going to the mountains – even the mountains of western North Carolina – to escape the wrath of a hurricane headed for Florida usually is a good call, isn’t it?

“You’d think so,” Morein said.

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