After Irma, residents and hosts find Wi-Fi, fight boredom outside their homes

After Irma, residents and hosts find Wi-Fi, fight boredom outside their homes

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A Starbucks in Marietta became the office for displaced Florida residents whose Cobb County hosts lost power after Irma. ELLEN ELDRIDGE / ELLEN.ELDRIDGE@AJC.COM

A nearly packed coffee house parking lot in Cobb County hosted local and Florida tags Tuesday afternoon, but many of those people had been inside warming seats since morning.

The scene repeated itself around metro Atlanta, where people had to cope without power and internet, finding ways to work and avoid driving each other crazy at home.

Richard Butti wasn’t expecting to be affected by what became Tropical Storm Irma when he invited his longtime friend, Crystal Smith, to his Marietta home. 

When Irma threatened Smith’s home state of Florida, she packed up her pets and left Brooksville hoping to beat traffic — at midnight Thursday. What would have been about a 7-hour drive took 17 hours and she had a tough time finding gas.

But Irma chased her and 7 million others who’d evacuated to Georgia, and Smith found herself among more than 1 million people without power by Monday evening. 

Butti and Smith had to seek refuge Tuesday at the Starbucks on Sandy Plains Road after they lost power about 4:30 p.m. the day before, Butti said. 

More than 71 trees fell in Cobb County alone, leaving about 3,200 residents without electricity Monday.

Butti’s work as a salesman of “anti money-laundering software” required that he log on to the internet. Usually, he could work from home.

They had been in the shop since morning, catching up and using the free Wi-Fi. Butti said he doesn’t drink coffee, but Smith had two cups and “maybe a few croissants.”

She maintained her levity despite having packed up her family — two cats, a 4-year-old pit bull named Wesson, and a 16-year-old Rat Terrier named Fili. She had to leave the bunny behind on a friend’s farm. She might have stayed to ride out the hurricane if it weren’t for them. Wesson takes medication for cancer and couldn’t risk possible flooding and extended damage from Irma.

“Those are my babies,” she said. 

Richard Butti (left) and Crystal Smith work at a Marietta Starbucks on Tuesday. ELLEN ELDRIDGE / ELLEN.ELDRIDGE@AJC.COM

Butti, too, has pets. Since Friday, they’ve lived among six cats and five dogs. When the power went out Monday afternoon, they played board games and caught up. The friends hadn’t seen each other since a mutual friend’s beach wedding last year.

“That beach probably isn’t there anymore,” Smith joked. 

She said it’s all anyone can do to keep up spirits because the reality is she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return home. Her house wasn’t damaged, her neighbors told her, but the roads were flooded and the utility company had no estimated time to restore power.

“It’s as unpredictable as petting a cat on the belly,” she said. 

Bala Kandoth, an electrical engineer with an office in DeKalb County, sat down next to Butti earlier that morning. He had worked from the Marietta Starbucks on Monday because he was worried about driving in high winds and heavy rain. But after making the drive to Tucker on Tuesday morning, he learned his office was without power and returned with his out-of-school sons. 

Bala Kandoth (right) with his son Arvin (middle) on Tuesday afternoon at a Starbucks in Marietta. ELLEN ELDRIDGE / ELLEN.ELDRIDGE@AJC.COM

Kandoth took his 9-year-old twin boys, Amol and Arvin, to the Starbucks about 10 a.m. Tuesday.

“I thought of grabbing the kids and coming here,” he said, adding that he regularly uses the coffee shop to work on weekends. 

They worked side by side all day, and Butti joked that after that much time with someone you know all about their lives and meet their kids.

Butti’s good mood grew ecstatic after stepping outside and learning his power had returned. He came back inside singing “Human Again” from the “Beauty and the Beast” movie.

“I can read a book in the light!” Butti shouted to Smith, lifting her out of her wooden seat. 

Kandoth said goodbye to the man who had been sitting next to him all day like they’d been friends for years. A man who teaches engineering at Ridgeview Charter School, Samuel Bell, sat down in his place.

He and son Amir Bell, a junior at the Lovett School, saw several trees fall in their yard, but they didn’t lose power.

“Just needed a break from the house,” Samuel Bell said. 

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