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    Local and State News...

    The down and out: tales of people trapped in a storm that wrought havoc in Florida

    September 15, 2017
    By: Jack Strickland
    Statewide

    This is the tale of victims of the storm whose struggles went almost unnoticed. They are the ones who were ordered to evacuate and found themselves thrown into situations, some of them life-threatening.

    Hurricane Irma roared across Florida with a fury that spewed destruction, fear, and anxiety from one end of the state to the other. The storm made landfall at Key West and slowly moved up the central part of the state to Jacksonville and points beyond.

    Florida’s major thoroughfare was an escape route for many. The Santa Fe River flowing through Alachua County near Gainesville has risen to unprecedented heights. It threatens to force the closure of I-75.

    The storm was so powerful it reportedly blew the water out of Tampa bay and reversed the flow of rivers. As the storm passed it brought heavy rains and tide surges that that caused the bays, rivers, and creeks to overflow their banks and produce massive floods.

    The St. Johns River in Jacksonville overflowed its barriers and caused destructive flooding that was more severe than anything any of the old timers in the Riverside neighborhood could remember.

    These events of Hurricane Irma were well covered by the media. The nation sat riveted to its chairs before television sets as the destructive category 5 hurricane slowly moved across Florida.

    Trapped on the road she found a parking lot.

    Jane lives in Florida City near Miami. Initial tracking information indicated Irma would hit her neighborhood as a category 5 hurricane. She lives in a manufactured home. Jane and her neighbors were ordered to evacuate. She followed the orders of law enforcement, packed her car, and headed north out of harm’s way.

    She got onto the Florida Turnpike, headed north to I-75, with plans to go somewhere in central Georgia where she could find a motel room to safely ride out the storm. The turnpike and interstate were parking lots with traffic moving at less than 30 MPH when it moved at all. All of the gas stations along the way were sold out. It took her more than 12 hours to travel the 300 plus miles to north Florida where she ran out of gas on the side of I-75.

    A good Samaritan stopped and gave her a gallon of gas so she could get her car off the super highway.

    She rode out the storm in her car in a business parking lot. The eye of the weakened storm passed directly over her. Two days later she was relieved to learn that Irma totally missed Florida City and her home is safe.

    When gas becomes available in an estimated three days she will return home on the now clogged southbound highways. She expects the return trip to take 12 hours. She said, next time, she will take her chances at home and will not heed the Governor’s order to evacuate.

    No home for a person with a label.

    Mark was released from prison four months ago after serving a 10 year sentence. He is convicted sex offender who is labeled a predator. That information is stamped in large letters on his drivers license. He wears an ankle monitor. He encountered a difficult time renting an apartment upon his release from prison. He is prohibited from being within 500 feet of a school, church, playground, or other places where children might gather.

    Sixteen residences he tried to rent turned him away. The only living quarters he could find, that he can qualify for, is a campground on Orange Lake. He lives there in a tent. It is a pop-up camper on wheels he can pull behind his car. As the storm approached he had to evacuate.

    He can not go to a shelter. The only place a “predator” can seek safety in a hurricane is the county jail. He can check himself in and be released when the storm passes.

    Mark chose to take his chances with the storm. He found shelter in the campground laundry room which is a concrete block structure large enough to accommodate a single washer and dryer. He was in the path of the major part of the storm. He survived uninjured. He says he feels like he is a modern day leper who must shout “unclean” as he encounters civilized people. He also thinks he knows how the lady felt when she was required to wear a “Scarlet Letter.”

    Elderly disabled man slept on the floor at shelter.

    Jim is a disabled senior citizen. He is 79. He lives in a low lying area that is vulnerable to floods. He was ordered to evacuate to a shelter in a school. The location is designated as a shelter for the handicapped. No one told him there would be no beds, pillows, or chairs provided for those seeking shelter. Patrons were required to bring their own.

    Jim had none of these.  He endured a miserable 36 hours, sleeping on the floor, before he was allowed to return home. He was thankful that his home was undamaged.

    She needed electricity for breathing machine.

    Marie lives near Hawthorne. She lives in a wooden house. She resides with her son and his family which includes three children under ten years old. They decided to hunker down at home for the storm. They fared well. They had no significant damage. But, there was a loss of power. Marie has been told it may take two weeks or more for power to be restored to her rural home.

    Until power has been restored to the Hawthorne area, the children have been placed with relatives who have electricity and have recovered from the hurricane. Marie suffers from severe COPD. She depends on machines to assist her breathing.

    They require electricity. When motel rooms are available she tries to check in for the electricity and showers. Hawthorne is near Gainesville and rooms are hard to find during football season. She does the best she can. No help from FEMA or the Red Cross has been available for her.

    Those on work release have many stories to tell.

    Faye is on work release in St. Petersburg. She is at the end of a prison sentence which was served at the Florida women’s prison at Lowell. She works at a hotel. People on work release wear civilian clothes. When they are not at work they are required to be at the work release center.

    The Florida Department of Correction’s stated purpose for work release is to allow prisoners to earn money to use to restart their lives upon their release from prison.

    The program is also designed to restore the prisoner’s self image and allow prisoners to transition from the abuses and restraints of confinement into contributing members of free society. The objective is to allow the short-term prisoners to adjust to life in the free world in order to diminish the cultural shock experienced when prisoners walk out the prison’s front gate to freedom. Hurricane Irma nullified most of those objectives.

    As the storm set its bearings on Florida’s Gulf coast, the Department of Corrections evacuated work release inmates. They were ordered to dress in prison blues. They were not allowed to take any of their possessions or hygiene items with them.

    They were boarded on a prison bus built by the Bluebird company. The prisoners have named it “The Blue Bird of Happiness” because it is usually used to take prisoners away from a prison. This time it was transporting almost free inmates back to one of Florida’s harshest prisons. 105 work release inmates were packed onto the bus enroute to a prison that is already overcrowded.

    The DOC is good at finding space for prisoners. These 105 inmates were quartered in the small library at the women’s prison reception center. It is located across Highway 441 from the main Lowell prison. For seven days the prisoners slept on tables and on the floor. There was one small bathroom. During the week they were there they were allowed to take three cold showers that lasted three minutes each.

    They had to wear the same clothes the entire week. They had no soap, shampoo, or deodorant. Faye related, ” we stunk like skunks, but at least we did have plenty of reading material in the library.” She was able to return to work at the hotel the day after her return to St. Petersburg. The hurricane bypassed St. Petersburg and passed directly over Lowell.

    The prisoners were evacuated from a safe place and were moved directly into harm’s way. Faye said the evacuation may have served one constructive purpose. The week long horrific experience reminded her of how bad Lowell is. She says she will do whatever it takes to make sure she never returns to that “Hell Hole.”

    Prisoners want to feel empowered for their own safety.

    Prisoners have a unique perspective on hurricanes. They are not allowed to make decisions concerning their safety during storms. In prison, many of them feel that those authorities in charge have very little concern for their safety and welfare.

    Prisoners tend to long for the freedom to make their own decisions and to be able to face the consequences of their own actions. That approach carries on after their release from prison.

    Calvin spent 57 years in prison and marveled at the wind and the rain..

    Calvin is an example. In April his conviction was overturned after 57 years. He entered prison at the age of 17 and was 75 when he was released in April. In prison he was always inside. He says he lived a life of no sunshine and no rain. Today, he lives in a Christian half way house in Bradenton as he adjusts to a world that is very different from the one he knew back in 1960 when he was sent to prison.

    He is making a miraculous adjustment to today’s world. Bradenton was in the cross hairs of Irma as she barreled towards South Florida as a category 5 storm. Calvan, a devout Christian and strong believer in God, was urged to evacuate to a school in the area that was designated as a shelter. He chose to ride out the storm at his residence. He sat out on the house’s porch as the storm raged.

    He said it was a thing of beauty as the power of God was unleashed and on display in the howling winds and powerful horizontal rains. He said he felt safe. There was minimal damage to his residence.

    Hurricane Irma is history. She left considerable damage in Florida. Many of those who evacuated from areas that were not significantly damaged by the storm feel that the government did more damage in ordering massive evacuations than the storm inflicted. They fault Florida Governor Scott and President Trump for crying wolf and ordering them to evacuate when they were in no real danger.

    The next time there is a hurricane aiming for Florida Millions of people may not heed the government’s warnings to evacuate.