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A rifle, a cross and 20 tortoises. What Irma evacuees carried north

BY and   September 9, 2017 at 10:17 PM EDT

POLK CITY, Fla.– Generators packed. Animals stowed. Rifles loaded. Gas cans filled. And sentimental items grabbed last minute. Gas stations and rest stops along Florida’s Interstate 4 were packed with people Saturday as many traveled northward, farther away from Hurricane Irma’s destructive path, in what may end up being one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.

Ten Floridians told the PBS NewsHour why they were on the move and what they left behind — or why they chose not to leave at all.

Joe Cook

Traveling from: Tampa
Traveling to: North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee

I’m transporting eight hot tubs and a 14-foot swim spa. And just trying to get out safely with them. Once I saw the storm was going to come to central Florida, I thought: better instead of staying to get going, try to make it a day ahead of time. If they got ruined it’s about $58,000 worth. I got my house boarded up, the truck is loaded, so I figured why not? People in Indiana want their hot tubs, so I’m going to get them to them hopefully.”


Travis Gordon

Traveling from: Palm Harbor
Traveling to: Orlando

With me I’ve got water, two generators, food, propane, gas, diesel, a water heater, radio, clothes, rifles, ammunition. And socks, a lot of dry socks. Back where we were, people were getting crazy three days ago. It starts verbal, then once there’s no gas, people move on to just taking things, like plywood, tapcon bits. People gotta board up their stuff, so if they see their neighbors have it, they’re gonna tear down their fences. I’m heading to Orlando, hopefully. It seemed safer. Less people. Not as much to fight over.


Christopher Raymond

Traveling from: Polk County
Staying put

We’re gonna hole up at the house with the horses.
We’ve got everything surrounded, [the house and] the horse trailers, to try to block the wind. There’s nowhere else to take them. The horse parks are full all the way up to Georgia. But the horses are set so if something should happen they can get away, they have breakaway halters. We’ve been hauling people’s stuff from South Florida to Augusta, Georgia, all week. It’s been a long week. We were supposed to go get something in Miami but they wouldn’t allow us down south anymore. They’ve got all the roads blocked and everything is headed north. We’ve basically been trying to help everybody, now we’re trying to help ourselves at the last minute.


Tanya Skillman and Mitch Christensen

Traveling from: Key Largo
Traveling to: Cocoa Beach or Orlando

Tanya: Our whole life is in these trucks. We brought everything. Our two parrots. Twenty tortoises, in the car. Forty-plus reptiles, snakes, pythons, racers, bearded dragons, in the boat. And some hatchlings. Otherwise everybody would have died. Animals have been our passion our whole life, something that brought us together.

Mitch: How we fell in love is she brought me a rat for my snakes and I said, ‘That’s my girl.’ (laughs) Growing up in the Keys you’re all about ecology.

Tanya: He’s from the Keys. I’ve been there since I was 10. I don’t think our home will be there after this.

Mitch: We have insurance but it’s a mobile home so it’s citizen’s insurance, it’s only going to cover 30 percent. But after this we’re going to go back. All our money is invested in that property. It’s all we have.


Sharon (and Mark) Sheppard

Traveling from: Lake Juliana Landings
Staying put

We’re from Salisbury, United Kingdom. We’re here primarily on vacation. We have a house at Lake Juliana Landings, we’ve had the house for about 19 years. But this is our second hurricane. We plan to stay put, we’re not going to evacuate, and like everyone else try to stay calm and hope not too much damage. My husband’s going to drink beer the whole time. We have got a shelter in Polk, which, if it gets very bad, I guess we can go to. But we don’t have any friends or relations here really, so apart from the shelter, there’s nowhere we can go. I remember in the last hurricane almost every house had tarpaulins. From the sky everything’s blue, actually. Florida looked completely blue. Every house seemed to have a tarp on the roof. So Florida became blue for awhile. But we have a flight home to the UK on Tuesday. So we’re the lucky ones. We get to go home.


Michael (and Kristy) Crouse

Traveling from: His home in Polk County
Traveling to: His mother-in-law’s home in Polk County

Michael: I can’t leave the county, because I’m on probation. And I couldn’t get a hold of my parole officer (PO) before the storm. I can’t leave if I don’t talk to my PO. I was in prison when Charley came through so I haven’t actually been through a hurricane. My wife has.

Kristy: It was crazy. I had little babies at the time. Wood frame house. We were lucky.

Michael: I’m raised in Polk County. Born and raised. Love it. If we leave, we come back. We were going to stay at home, but my wife didn’t want me to. Our house is a trailer, they didn’t trim the trees, we’re not worried about the flooding, but worried about the trees. If we don’t have a house after this, we don’t. We’ll start over. I’ve started over before. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. I’m used to it.


Sarah Herrera and son

Traveling from: Cape Coral
Traveling to: Orlando

Cape Coral is in the red zone. It’s in the flood area, they said it’s gonna be like nine feet, the water, storm surge. So we decided last minute to come to Orlando. They told us we have to evacuate now. We took necessities, food, water, medicine. We didn’t take [anything sentimental], didn’t have time, just an hour to get ready. During the storm we’ll play games, pray, be with family. We’ve been through Andrew, we’ve been through Charley, but this one I think is gonna be the big one. Because of the floods. This is the first time we’ve evacuated.


Becky Garwood and Kamo the dog

Traveling from: Fort Myers
Traveling to: North Carolina or Virginia

Hopefully it’ll be safe up there. Still got family down in Fort Myers that stayed. I’m worried, will be worried til it’s over. Just this morning we decided to go, because the storm is so big, and I’m afraid like in Houston there will be a lot of water. I don’t like water and I can’t swim, so I better go north. I can remember during Hurricane Donna, [my parents] hiding me under the bed, it was pretty bad. This time I brought knick knacks, statues, these little Moccasin Indian people from my grandmother and my mom, passed down. And a few pictures. And the doggies.


Kathy Wallen

Traveling from: St. Petersburg
Traveling to: Orlando

With the change in the track, the storm surge, we decided late last night, early this morning, to leave. Back in ‘85, we evacuated for Elena, went to Orlando, we didn’t take it seriously at all. We went to a hurricane party after work and stayed too long. And we were actually the last car across the Highway Frankland Bridge. Grabbed my swimsuit and towel, thinking it’s just going to be fun. Luckily we just had rain. But lesson learned. This time I brought a cross that means a lot to me. It was a cross that my friend’s father really liked and he’s passed since and so I just grabbed it.


Sandy Wu

Traveling from: St. Petersburg.
Traveling to: Daytona Beach

I remember sleeping and my friend text messaged me at two in the morning and said, “Wow, it looks like Hurricane Irma is going to hit us head on.” So I decided to pack up everything in the house, tie down my TV, and head to my family’s. We’re going to go to Orlando, and then Daytona Beach, try to book a hotel. I brought homework, because I’m a college student. And pictures of my family, me, and boyfriend. He’s in Indiana, very worried about me. Very unpredictable, this storm is constantly changing. If we don’t find a hotel, we’re most likely going to find a parking lot, a rest area, pretty much just need a toilet.

The above interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Videos by Joshua Barajas

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