Editor’s Note: There are many personal connections to the recent devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but sitting directly in the path of Irma were former Switzerland County residents Leon and Lisa York, who now reside in Big Pine Key, Florida, which is an island in the Florida keys near Key West.
Vevay Media Group spoke with Lisa York by phone earlier this week as the couple made their way back to their home to begin the process of cleaning up following the hurricane’s devastation.
The journey of getting through Hurricane Irma began with the Yorks joining tens of thousands of Floridians in evacuating and heading north in front of the hurricane’s path.
“We evacuated on Wednesday, which was technically three days before it hit,” Lisa said. “We started driving up the west coast of Florida, because at that time the forecast was saying that it was going to basically hammer Miami and then go up the east coast, so we thought we were okay on the west coast. But then when we got into Naples, then we saw that it had changed and was now going to go up the center of the state; so we took off driving again.”
The Yorks ended up in Homosassa Springs, which, while still near the west coast, was more towards the center of the state. After staying there for a night, they continued north.
“We ended up in Albany, Georgia,” Lisa said. “The further north in Florida that we went, there was zero gas and no places to pull over. We were traveling in our small motor home, so all we needed was to find somebody who wouldn’t mind us parking, but there wasn’t. There were just thousands and thousands of people trying to get gas and trying to get out of the state.”
Lisa said that once they got into Albany, Georgia; and noted that Leon was calling campgrounds all over the area, and they weren’t answering their phones, either because they were full or had also evacuated the area.
“Finally there was one man who told us that they wanted everyone to go to Albany, Georgia, and there was a fairground that they had opened up for everybody,” Lisa said. ‘We went there and spent the night. It was just amazing, it was just like going into a family’s house. They were just so kind and comforting.”
Seeing that Albany could possibly be one of the main targets as the storm advanced, the Yorks headed out again, this time heading to Mobile, Alabama, where the family of a little girl who Lisa teaches in Sunday School had evacuated. The family was following the Yorks progress on Facebook, and reached out and offered to let them come there, where the family had other family members. A Jaycees organization had opened a campground there, providing full hookups for those fleeing the storm.
“It was really nice to be able to just stop moving,” Lisa said.
The Yorks started back driving into Florida on Monday, September 11th, and arrived in Homestead, Florida, a checkpoint for the Keys, staying their on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – September 14th-16th. Emergency officials were limiting access to the Keys and other areas, so they had to show that they were residents and were trying to return home.
“We went to the checkpoint on Sunday morning early (September 17th), we sat at the checkpoint – we were calling it ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – we waited in line and drove right in. We were just ecstatic that we were going to be able to drive back in,” Lisa said. “At first it was just the ‘yellow zone’, which was Key Largo down to Marathon; and they were allowed to go in on Friday and Saturday; and then Saturday afternoon they announced that the ‘red zone’, which was our zone, that we were going to be allowed to go in on Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. We had everything ready. We had all kinds of food and water and gasoline.”
Although Big Pine Key took a major blow from Hurricane Irma, Lisa said that their home escaped major damage due to building codes put in place after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“Fortunately, from a structure standpoint, the only thing that we had was some soffit damage, it ripped it out,” Lisa said. “Our house was built in 2009, so it was built according to all of the Dade County construction codes that basically came after Hurricane Andrew; so there’s a lot of hurricane straps and special windows, and all of the things that obviously made a big, big difference, because the structure itself stayed. We have a metal roof, and that was a big blessing, too; because most everybody who had the clay tiles, as well as the regular shingles, pretty much had roof damage. The metal roof was the best choice.”
Lisa said that the storm did do its damage, however, wiping out pretty much everything outside of the home, including trees, bushes, and landscaping.
Now back at their home, Lisa said that they now have water, which she called, “A huge blessing”, allowing them to take cold showers (“better than no shower,” she said) as well as beginning the process of washing things down.
“They want us to limit our water usage because they are still trying to maintain the pressure,” Lisa said. “It’s just been wonderful. Electricity -no, but we have linemen from Michigan who showed up last night, and they came by and said hello. We guaranteed them that if they needed anything, to eat, drink, whatever – that we would make sure they were comfortable because we wanted them to stay here. They are really nice men. It’s just been phenomenal the number of linemen that are down here from all over the United States. It’s just really amazing.”
Lisa said that everything is still very quiet there, because there are still many homeowners who are waiting until electricity and other services are restored before returning. She and Leon and other residents who have returned are securing their properties while looking out for their neighbors.
“Our first two days here, we basically walked through all of the homes that folks told us where their keys were. We called them because we have cell phone service,” Lisa said. “We were going in and Leon was walking through their homes on the cell phone explaining to them what the damage was and taking pictures. Unfortunately, most everybody had food in their refrigerators, and it’s been over a week and it’s like 110-degrees in the house when it’s all locked up; so my job was to clean out the nasty food. We went from house to house. We’ve done probably 15-20 houses since we’ve been back. We’re turning off all of the power to everything, because there’s going to be a lot of surging in the system; and we’ve also been shutting off everybody’s water, to prevent blowouts, too, because there’s going to be a lot of pressure surges through the water systems.”
As they do that for others, the Yorks are also trying to work on their own home, so that they can maneuver through the aftermath.
“But we didn’t have any construction damage,” Lisa said. “It’s definitely lifting us up to be able to help others who can’t get down here right away.”