After Irma, Shelter Residents Weigh Whether To Brave The Roads — Or Wait It Out

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 2:50 pm

Stephen Ward arrived at the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., at 4 in the morning on Saturday as Hurricane Irma was making its approach.

On Monday morning, after the storm had passed, the elderly Fort Myers resident was unhappily looking out over the parking lot at the arena where some 5,000 people had sought shelter.

"I have to get home and see if I still have a house," he said. But the lot was covered in water, spilling from a nearby pond and rising over the hubcaps of the smaller cars. And both roads out of the parking lot were underwater, too.

"It's over. We made it out," Ward said, with an unhappy laugh that verged on tears. "But we can't get out."

A few minutes later, he climbed in his Lincoln Town Car and slowly drove out to try his luck.

It's a decision that scores of residents in other storm-tossed parts of Florida were likely having to make.

Germain Arena was secure during Irma, though not comfortable. The hockey rink was chilly, and the roof sprang a leak when the eyewall passed over late Sunday night. But after two nights in the shelter, people were eager to leave, even though county officials hadn't cleared the roads to travel.

"They're going out right now on their own accord," Staff Sgt. Shawn Pennick of the Deep Florida Army National Guard said as he watched cars leave. He said the National Guard was warning people on their way out. "If you feel that you want to do that, then you're able to go out, and if you get stuck — it happened," he says.

It happened to Lidia Makarova. She pointed back at a row of six cars stranded on one road out of the arena. Her car was now on dry land, but the engine wouldn't start.

Police told her to walk back to the shelter, she said. She pointed at her legs, soaked to the knee. "It's very terrible. It's impossible."

"You call AAA, it's not working today," Makarova said. "You call a garage to deliver my car home, it's not working. What [must I] do?"

A sheriff's deputy told her to wait and that someone would come along to help eventually. Five and a half hours later, she was still standing by her stranded car.

In general, authorities in Lee County were urging residents to stay off the roads and be patient. The county's Department of Transportation said crews were working to clear culverts and catch basins, which "should help with many standing-water issues."

By the wall of the arena, three women, two men, three kids and a dog were resigned to wait it out.

Teandra Evans of Fort Myers said she already had a good guess what she'd be going back to find.

"I know for a fact my apartment will probably be flooded," she said. "When Harvey came and we just got that little rain, I was flooded. So just having this hurricane, I know it's flooded out there."

And none of them were eager to risk the roads.

"It's a waiting game," said Veronica Smith.

Curtis Christmas looked out over the parking lot, filled with indecisive drivers trying to gauge their odds.

"Ain't no reason to go out there and get stuck," he said.

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