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SEEKING SHELTER: Traffic congested, hotels sold out ahead of Irma

As Hurricane Irma approaches the southern tip of Florida, it has been not rain but people that have flooded Troy and the surrounding areas.

The Troy Police Department had to set up at every stoplight on U.S. Highway 231 Friday to help direct traffic with the northbound lane facing heavy congestion.

“I’ve been out on the road all day dealing with traffic,” said Troy Police Chief Randall Barr. “We’re telling people trying to turn out into the southbound lane to go into the northbound lane and make a U turn. It’s just too busy for them to cut across and we don’t want to delay that flow of traffic.”

Barr said the heavy traffic began Thursday and is expected to continue throughout the weekend, complicating an already busy weekend due to Troy University’s football home opener against Alabama State.

Irma ripped through he Caribbean through the back half of the week and is expected to make landfall at the southern tip of Florida sometime today. One of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded, Irma has now dropped down to a Category 4 hurricane but still poses the threat of serious damage and fatalities to most of the state of Florida and could also cause storms in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.

The evacuees fleeing from various parts of Florida and even Georgia aren’t just passing through Troy– many of them have booked rooms here in the city– so much that there are seemingly no hotels left with availability.

“We have referred people as far as Birmingham and Mississippi,” said Stan Rutter, general manager at the Courtyard Marriott. “We’re normally booked on home weekends, but we’ve sold out today (Thursday), Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, which isn’t normal.”

Rutter said calls for rooms started coming in around Tuesday and the phone’s been ringing off the hook ever since.

“These people are scared to death,” Rutter said. “They don’t know if they’re going to have a home to come back to or when they’ll be able to get back in.”

Anthony Willhelm was one of those evacuees. As Wilhelm pulled the door to his Miami home closed, he paused.

“I had to look stop and look back,” Wilhelm said. “I had to get one more look at our home. But I didn’t cry. My wife cried enough for both of us.”

Wilhelm has lived in Miami for three years, but, with Hurricane Irma “eyeing” Miami, Wilhelm didn’t hesitate to herd his family to safer grounds.

Wilhelm and 21 members of his family left Miami on Thursday afternoon; 20 hours later they were unpacking their cars at the Days Inn in Troy.

“With a hurricane like this, somethin’s gonna happen. You don’t know what. but you know somethin’ and maybe it’s a good thing that you don’t know,” Wilhelm said. “When a hurricane that big and strong is coming right toward you – you just don’t know what to expect.”

Wilhelm said it was a family decision to leave – for safety’s sake.

“We knew the danger we were in. We all knew. We took only the clothes we need, our computers and photographs. Everything else was left behind.

“Our children are playing but they know that this is not a happy time,” he said. “So much could be lost — will be lost. We just hope lives will be spared.”

The Wilhelm family has reservations for one night at Days Inn and then they will be back on the road again to find refuge from an angry Irma.

Maryland natives Matt Acquard and Sadie Lockhart are also seeking refuge from the storm. They made an overnight stop at Troy’s Hampton Inn but were on the road again Friday afternoon with their destination the home of a family friend in Arkansas.

Acquard and Lockhart are actors with the American Stage Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We’re not like a lot of people who have regular jobs,” Lockhart said. “We are more flexible. So instead of hunkering down, we packed up and got out of town. We decided it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

And, it was not for Bryon Middlekauff to say what his daughter and her husband should do, but he understands why it was important for them to stay.

His daughter works for the city of Sanibel on Sanibel Island and was involved in making certain that the city’s recreation center was storm worthy and also involved in the evacuation efforts.

“Their home is storm shuttered and they know what to do to be and stay as safe as possible in a hurricane,” Middlekauff said, adding that many people – those is law enforcement, first responders and medical personnel — remain in harm’s way to be ready to assist others in times of need.

“We don’t know how Fort Myers will be affected,” Middlekauff said. “We had recent flooding from rain so we realize that any effects of Irma could be devastating.”

Middlekauff and his wife began their evacuation on Tuesday and inched their way into Alabama.

“It took us this long, Friday, to get to Troy,” he said. “All along the way stations were giving out of gas,” he said. “We stopped any time there was a station that had gas and got what we could. If you saw a station without any cars lined up, you knew there was no gas.”

Middlekauff said motorists who were in dire need of gas would sometimes get in each other’s face.

“We saw people that were out of gas and were just stuck because there was no gas for them to get,” he said. “They had no gas and nowhere to go. Their situations were serious.”

The Middlekauffs have a granddaughter who works at Disney World. She lives in Orlando and will be riding out the storm there. The couple is fortunate that they have hotel accommodations in Troy through Wednesday. Their prayers and hopes are that their family members will be safe as well as the many thousands who are facing the ire of Irma.

Rutter said some local people have been offering assistance to these people in need as they take shelter in the community.

“A number of our regular Trojan fans have given up their reservations to make extra rooms available to evacuees,” Rutter said. “One of our platinum members, which is the highest membership you can have, donated 3,000 points for us to spend on evacuees that we feel need it the most.” The 3,000 points would cover three nights at the hotel.

Troy Athletics also freed up rooms by letting go of a block of rooms that they typically hold for home games.

“Obviously there are some people that needed those a lot more than we do,” said Athletic Director Jeremy McClain. “We’re also working with the City getting tickets for the Alabama State game distributed to hotels, local churches and campgrounds to get to the evacuees. If it’s a distraction for people dealing with the storm while they’re displaced, that’s a win.”

Bob and Joanne Ash, who are originally form Wisconsin, said the hospitality they have seen in Alabama and the South in general as they’ve fled from their new home in Venice, Florida has been “extremely refreshing.”

“The spirit of the people here in the South has been so very supportive,” Joanne Ash said. “You don’ feel like a stranger– people look at you like a friend; we’re all in this together.”

The Ashes drove 12 hours on what is normally a 5-hour trip to get to Troy from their home in Venice, which is in the major impact zone at the southern tip of Florida.

Troy is projected to be a relatively safe place from the wrath of Irma, but it can still not be ruled out that the hurricane will shift further west than expected and elevate the risk of storms.

As it stands now, Troy is projected to only get wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour and 1.5 to 2 inches of rain according to meteorologist Gary Doggins with the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

“Confidence is high it will make that turn north this weekend,” Doggins said. “It doesn’t look like it should get any further west than the Florida Keys.”

Despite the local forecast being moderate, Troy University made a proactive decision Friday to cancel Monday and Tuesday classes at its Alabama campuses as well as closing other locations in Florida and Georgia.

“Recent forecasts indicate that severe conditions related to Hurricane Irma will begin to impact Alabama starting Sunday evening,” Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins said in a statement. “The safety of the University community is our highest priority; therefore, we have made the decision to cancel classes at all Alabama campuses on Monday and Tuesday to allow students to safely travel home, or make other preparations for the approach of this storm.”

Pike County Schools, Troy City Schools and Pike Liberal Arts School have not made any decision at this time to close schools, but could make a decision this weekend if the forecast turns more volatile.

 

 

 

 

 

Barr working switches or manning intersections. Light wouldn’t handle it. Finally about 6 pm it eased up and back to typical Friday night traffic. 3 vehicles one local GA evacuee- one transported minor injuries.”

 

Bazzell: we’ll make a call on Sunday mid-day if it becomes obvious before then that we need to cancel we will but we are going to try to make a call at midday on Sunday.

 

Kathy Sauer/Sheila: What we’re saying is be courteous kind be knowledgeable that we do have evacuees in city right now reach out and help them to have a good experience. Positive experience here under stressful circumstances. We have seen evacuees here in our hotels and motels some from SoFLA lucky to be here utilizing our. Even though it has added to our today there were police at the intersections because of the traffic backup so we know that it’s going to impact us in different ways. Any questions they can call our chamber of commerce and help point them in the right direction. We will try to get them the assistance they need. Some are here through Tuesday. The main thing is we’re asking our businesses and citizens t reach out and make these people feel welcome and to assist them in any way we can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arden and Jane Miller have made their home in central Florida for 20-something years. They know that the sun does not always shine in the Sunshine State so they didn’t hesitate to leave.

“You can replace property but you can’t replace lives,” Miller said. “We know what a hurricane can do so we got on the road. You don’t ever know where a hurricane will go. You think it’s going one way and it will go another way. But Irma looks like she is going right straight through Florida. I don’t know any place that you could say will be safe. We won’t know what Irma can do until she does it.”

Miller said he realizes there are those who want to ride out a hurricane.

“Some people have elderly relatives that can’t physically leave and they want to be with them,” he said. “Some just can’t walk away from everything they have worked for, away from everything they own. I guess they think if they stay they can keep their lives from being blow away. But by staying, they could lose their lives. But what other people do. Well, it’s not for me to say.”

And, it was not for Bryon Middlekauff to say what his daughter and her husband should do, but he understands why it was important for them to stay.

His daughter works for the city of Sanibel on Sanibel Island and was involved in making certain that the city’s recreation center was storm worthy and also involved in the evacuation efforts.

“Their home is storm shuttered and they know what to do to be and stay as safe as possible in a hurricane,” Middlekauff said, adding that many people – those is law enforcement, first responders and medical personnel — remain in harm’s way to be ready to assist others in times of need.

“We don’t know how Fort Myers will be affected,” Middlekauff said. “We had recent flooding from rain so we realize that any effects of Irma could be devastating.”

Middlekauff and his wife began their evacuation on Tuesday and inched their way into Alabama.

“It took us this long, Friday, to get to Troy,” he said. “All along the way stations were giving out of gas,” he said. “We stopped any time there was a station that had gas and got what we could. If you saw a station without any cars lined up, you knew there was no gas.”

Middlekauff said motorists who were in dire need of gas would sometimes get in each other’s face.

“We saw people that out of gas and were just stuck because there was no gas for them to get,” he said. “They had no gas and nowhere to go. Their situations were serious.”

The Middlekauffs have a granddaughter who works at Disney World. She lives in Orlando and will be riding out the storm there. The couple is fortunate that they have hotel accommodations in Troy through Wednesday. Their prayers and hopes are that their family members will be safe as well as the many thousands who are facing the ire of Irma.