Irma pushes Floridians north; they are anxious to go home

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Irma pushes Floridians north; they are anxious to go home

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ERIC STIRGUS
Josh Sparato, 18, loads the family car as his mother, Laurie, prepares to drive back to Florida. The family lives near West Palm Beach and stayed at a hotel in Gwinnett County to avoid Hurricane Irma. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

They’re safe. They’re thankful for the hospitality. But the Floridians here want to go home, or to what had been their homes, as soon as they can.

The question is, when?

Many of the Sunshine State residents who fled what was then Hurricane Irma to metro Atlanta were planning already Monday to drive south, back into the storm’s path.

“We might as well start heading in that direction,” said Laurie Sparato, 51, on Monday morning.

She lives near West Palm Beach and was in a Gwinnett County hotel with her son, Josh, 18, two developmentally disabled daughters and two dogs. She wanted to get on the road before traffic heading back built up. Coming to Atlanta took 19 hours.

“It was a long trip,” she said as Josh packed their belongings in their bronze-colored Lexus.

Matt Conover, who lives north of Tampa, also wanted to return, but he was less certain if it was safe.

“My biggest concern is driving through a tropical storm,” said Conover, 32, who was staying with his girlfriend at a Marriott near I-85 in Gwinnett County.

There have been warnings that more than 60 percent of gas stations in parts of Florida have no gas, and some authorities are counseling people who have packed into Georgia hotels not to rush back until infrastructure is restored.

Conover was hoping to get any information before making his decision. He called a friend; no answer. Many evacuees were having trouble contacting family and friends because of power outages back home.

Key West resident Lynn Clark couldn’t contact her husband, a property manager who stayed to take care of some buildings before the storm.

“There was a lot of boarding up to do,” said Clark, 68. “Time was running out and by the time it was time to evacuate he couldn’t leave.”

Clark, at a Hyatt Place in Duluth, was unsure when she’d be able to return.

“It’s just a question of when I can get back and see what I can do,” she said.

Others have taken the disaster as a chance to reconnect with friends and family.

Bryant Johnson and his sons, Finn, 17, and Graham, 15, are making the best of a friend’s hospitality in the Jefferson Park area of Southwest Atlanta. On Saturday, they went to the Georgia Tech football game. The rest of the time has been spent finding swimming pools and places to run to stay in shape.

“The first couple of days, the weather here was perfect, so we were able to see friends and see some of the old landmarks,” said Johnson, a former Atlanta resident and a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Handball team. Johnson worked for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games in in the 1990s, before moving to Tampa in 1999 to work on its 2012 Olympic bid.

His former Atlanta neighbor Shean Atkins opened his home to them.

“I felt silly packing and closing the house with it sunny outside. But with the images of Houston fresh in mind, we decided it was best to leave,” Johnson said, adding that the normally seven-hour drive to Atlanta took 13 hours.

As soon as they get word that there is power in their Tampa neighborhood, they plan to return. Meanwhile, Atkins, who works from home, said having his friends share his home has been awesome.

“Finn is in the kitchen making bacon now. We have gone through pounds of bacon,” Atkins said. “And a lot of milk. And lots of ice cream.”

Families, rejoined thanks to Irma, are facing anxieties about houses and jobs.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, now living in Lawrenceville, Jamie Clarke and his family got used to hurricanes. They got equally familiar with false alarms — storms that fizzled out and became inconveniences rather than tragedies.

“But this one sounded bad,” he said. “We have never evacuated before. But I begged my family to get out of that mentality and come up here.”

Nine nieces, nephews and friends came up from St. Petersburg to Clarke’s tiny apartment. Across town in Alpharetta, his sister Tammy Greelish is hosting seven more family members.

“I am not sure if the storm was as bad as predicted for St. Pete, but I am glad they are here with us,” Clarke said. “It has actually been a great experience. There has been a lot of bonding and a lot of laughing.”

Jacksonville, which didn’t bear the brunt of Hurricane Irma, is suffering a different fate — storm surges have flooded downtown and several neighborhoods.

Beth Radtke’s mother drove 11 hours Thursday from Jacksonville, and Beth has been following social media and trying to reach out to old high school friends to see how bad the damage is. Meanwhile, the Radtke’s Lake Claire home is filled with smells of her childhood. Her mother was in the kitchen Monday making a roast. It was chicken noodle soup on Sunday.

“We knew that it was looking like she was going to have to evacuate,” Radtke said. “We have plenty of space and I have a young daughter, who was happy to see her grandmother.”

As the storm began to build in Atlanta, she said: “It is strange to have someone evacuate one place to go to another area that might get hit.”

Jonathan Baker, a Columbus native living in Clearwater, Fla., had other problems on his mind.

He didn’t wait for the governor’s evacuation order to hit the road with his wife and 17-month-old boy. The family set out for Georgia Wednesday.

By Thursday, after 10 hours on the road, Baker was back in Columbus filing for a business license to run video game tournaments, something he did on the side in Clearwater. By Friday night, he was waiting tables at Samurai, a Japanese restaurant in the city’s old downtown area.

“One thing people don’t take into account with an evacuation is you’re out of work for like three weeks,” he said. “Your budget suffers.”

Florence and John Worsham from Palm Bay took the forced evacuation as a chance to make new business connections, after an exhausting 24 hour drive to Atlanta.

Florence, a gospel singer, was able to deliver her latest single, “Protected,” to a leading gospel radio station here.

“The title means so much right now. People are afraid. They don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “Because of our strong Christian background, we know that we are protected …. We don’t want people to be stupid and not listen to authorities, but we know everything is going to be alright.”

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