As the remnants of Hurricane Irma hit metro Atlanta, many Florida evacuees were hunkered down in Perimeter Center area hotels and homes where they had arrived days earlier to escape the historically powerful storm’s full destruction.
Some came here because they knew the area. Some simply found it a good place to stop as traffic worsened and fear of gasoline shortages grew. And all of the evacuees wondered whether Irma’s strike on Atlanta would extend their stay in their temporary shelters.
The following are the stories of three Florida families who spoke to Reporter Newspapers while they waited out Irma at Perimeter Center businesses on Sept. 10, the day before the storm followed them to metro Atlanta.
The Shaffners, from Fort Myers
As Irma approached their home in Fort Myers, Fla., the Shaffner family packed two cars and a small U-Haul for their valuables. They drove through the middle of the state, attempting to avoid I-75 because of the evacuation gridlock.
“When [Florida] Gov. Rick Scott said this was the time to leave, we took that seriously,” said Sue Shaffner, whose group included her daughter and grandchild, adding the family had Hurricane Harvey’s recent Texas landfall on their minds. “After Houston we were thinking, we can leave, so we should.
“We have a grandbaby and five animals between us, so we weren’t going to leave them,” she continued. “I don’t want to be rescued off the roof of my house.”
The group averaged 40 mph on the drive into Georgia. “Gas was a problem. Only one out of 10 gas stations probably had gas,” Shaffner said. “We didn’t plan to come here. We were trying to get north of Atlanta, but with the traffic and conditions, and having a child in the car, my daughter was calling from the car to secure a place that was pet-friendly.”
They tried a stop at a pet-friendly hotel in Valdosta, Ga., but found it unpleasant. So they aimed farther north and ended up at the brand new Residence Inn by Marriott in Dunwoody. The hotel, located next to the Spruill Art Gallery on Ashford-Dunwoody Road, just opened on Aug. 30 and has found housing Irma evacuees to be one of its first missions.
The majority of cars in the Residence Inn’s parking lot sported Florida plates, with a few from Texas as well. General Manager Joe Fallis said the hotel placed orders for glow sticks, flashlights and a larger than normal food order. The hotel also froze prices for those needing to extend their stay due to the storm.
Shaffner spoke highly of the hotel for its friendliness to pets, walkability to restaurants, and general hospitality.
“I just want to cry. [We] don’t even know these people, but that aspect of Atlanta has blown us away,” she said, recalling a server at a restaurant who gave the family her business card in case they needed a place to stay.
Shaffner and her family want to get home as soon as possible to assess the damage of their home and various rental properties her sons own across the state. But for now, they have some supplies and are constantly watching the updates.
“Some of my neighbors didn’t leave, and they are posting all this stuff [online], and they are so nervous, and upset they didn’t leave,” Shaffner said. “On the other hand, it turns out it’s not as bad as everyone thought. For us, we made the right decision.”
The Smiths, from Oviedo
For the Smith family of Oviedo, Fla., fleeing to Dunwoody was a natural choice.
“We just decided to leave,” said father Omar Smith. “We used to live here and have family here.”
Mother Christine said the family watched everyone else leave their street in Oviedo, which is near Orlando. The family placed sandbags out to block flooding, then left. It took them 13 hours to drive to Atlanta – more than twice the usual time.
While they are able to stay in that family home in Dunwoody, the evacuation is taking its toll, the Smiths said.
“We would like to leave Tuesday [Sept. 12], get our kids back in school and [get] back to work,” said Omar Smith. “The storm’s playing with everybody’s emotions, but it is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
The Grants, from Naples
It took three cars and 18 hours for the Grant family – seven adults, two young children, three dogs – to flee Naples, Fla., for Perimeter Center. And a good thing, too, as that Florida city took a strong hit from Irma.
Lisa and Scott Grant, the family grandparents, have been watching TV between supply runs to a local Target store, and managed a visit to the Georgia Aquarium to occupy their 2-year-old granddaughter.
“We haven’t even watched the local news, we’re so concerned … and we’re worried about what we are coming home to,” said Lisa Grant.
She did know that their home, eight miles from the Gulf Coast, had already lost power on Sept. 10 after a call to her home phone went straight to an answering machine and a video doorbell security device stopped working. “We could see the wind at 8:30 this morning through the video feed,” she said.
“We’re storm refugees!” exclaimed Scott Grant, who explained the family’s decision to head to metro Atlanta. “It makes sense because it’s the biggest drivable city to get [to] out of Florida. It’s inland. It’s not near water. It’s not going to get a storm surge.”
“It’s vastly populated. It’s not in the boonies,” added Lisa.
The Grants were able to find rooms in another Residence Inn by Marriott on Savoy Road on the Dunwoody/Chamblee border. They originally booked rooms through Tuesday, Sept. 12, but with the storm’s impact, they extended the stay through Friday, Sept. 15. If their son’s apartment in Gainesville, Fla., regains power sooner than that, they may head there.
For Lisa Grant, it means facing her own uncertain future just weeks after she donated to hurricane relief efforts in Texas.
“Ironically, I just gave a lot to Harvey, and now I’m paying for three rooms and food,” she said. “But we gotta do what we gotta do. I’m glad I’m here and safe, but nervous about what we are going back to, or when we’re going back.”