MERRITT ISLAND, FL — They are supposed to leave the island this afternoon. They are supposed to pack up their belongings and kids and pets, and go to a mainland shelter or house or hotel. County emergency management officials have ordered all of Merritt Island, in central-east Florida, three feet above sea level, to evacuate ahead of one of the most powerful storms the Atlantic has ever seen.
Now a Category 4, Hurricane Irma is barreling toward southern Florida, and expected to reach Merritt island by Sunday night. But as of midday Friday, several hours ahead of evacuation, many people on the island say they plan to hunker down and stay.
On an idyllic street of single-story homes and palm trees, sandwiched between the Indian and Banana rivers, and the open sea, most residents spend Friday bolting boards over windows, buying food and other supplies, and removing any objects that could become projectiles from their yards.
“My house has been here for 53 years, and not blown away yet,” says Chris Quarno, who plans to stay along with his daughters and granddaughters, and boasts that he has lived through six hurricanes on Merritt Island before. “My street’s going to flood. It did in previous storms. But not my house.”
Irma, though, isn’t like previous storms. Irma is “way bigger than Andrew,” Gov. Rick Scott has warned. It is stronger than the last eight Atlantic storms combined. And Merritt Island, though technically today a peninsula, is still surrounded by water on three sides.
“The key word on Merritt Island is island,” says Brevard County Emergency Management’s spokesman Don Walker. “I wouldn’t remotely call this anything other than a dangerous storm system. If [residents] want to stay, they’re taking a big risk.”
Still, Quarno is planning to stay, but he is also a little worried, because his daughter, who lives next door, is almost nine months pregnant. And so, when he drives to the local 7/11 to pick up tobacco dip, he stops a police officer to ask when the bridges to get off the island will close. Just in case.
The officer tells him the bridges will close if they become unsafe, if there are sustained high winds, for example. On Friday, Irma’s winds were at 150 mph.
“She’s due in three weeks,” Quarno explains. “And people go into labor due to the barometric pressure. When Andrew hit, we had seven or eight people in the county go into labor because of the hurricane. A lot of puppies were born.”
Back at home, Quarno’s son-in-law, Blake Ayers, says he plans to evacuate with his pregnant wife, who is still at work. But Quarno insists his daughter will stay right there on the island, in his fortified house, where she’ll be safer, and where his neighbor is a paramedic. Quarno has also bolted boards to his windows, and parked his cars and pontoon boat next to the house to break the wind. And he plans to fire up the generator for electricity in the basement, where he’ll turn on the TV and surround sound for his grandkids, so they can’t hear the wind.
Down the street, John Ward has made the same decision. On the boards over his front window, he’s spray painted a defiant message: “A lot Staying Here Irma! 4 kids 2 adults pets.” On another window, at the request of his son, he’s sprayed eyeballs, looking southeast, in the direction of the storm.
Ward’s wife wants to evacuate. They just moved to Merritt Island from Ohio in December, and have never been in a hurricane before. They have a three-month-old baby. But Ward reminds her that when they lived in Kentucky, they held the windows in place when a tornado tried to blow through their house. That they survived an ice storm in which they listened to the trees fall apart, and which made the fish tank freeze. And that they survived living in downtown Columbus, in a neighborhood that never felt safe.
“We’ve been through more than this,” Ward says, as he stows a lawnmower and a motorcycle inside his garage Friday. “One kid is a little nervous, he’s 14, and remembers the tornado…. But my wife’s at Walmart, getting more bare necessities. We can go weeks in here.”
As they prep on opposite sides of the street Friday, Ward and Quarno walk over to each other’s houses a couple times to confirm that the other is staying. They agree the hurricane can’t hit them too hard, because NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is on the island, just north at Cape Canaveral, and the government would never put a space center in a vulnerable place.
But Quarno also tells Ward to download the app Zello, which should operate like a two-way walkie talkie through the storm. (Editor’s Note: Zello doesn’t work if there is no wifi and no cellular data service.) And he says he has a generator for when the power goes out; Ward plans to hook onto another neighbor’s.
Most people on the street seem to be staying, but not everyone. Ginger Trenta and her sister Micah Hughes, recently transplanted Texans with three children between them, say they’ll evacuate that afternoon for the sake of the kids.
“If I didn’t have any children I would stay and ride it out for the fun of it,” says Trenta, as her daughter sleeps in a side room and her two nephews watch cartoons. “But we don’t want the chance of being without power with them. That’d be really hard.”
Instead, they plan to take the family to a hotel in Panama City, seven hours northwest of Merritt Island, out of the storm’s path. They tell the kids they are going on vacation.
But Hughes’ son Aden, who is four, understands a big storm is on the way. “I don’t like them, they’re scary,” he says, as the street’s gutters begin to flood nearby.
Elsewhere on the island, other residents and shops are hunkering down. The local 7/11, which has just gotten another shipment of gas, has boarded up windows but a big “OPEN” message scrawled on the front. At a nearby gun store, a graffitied message warns opportunists: “YOU LOOT WE SHOOT!” And at an Ace Hardware, which is selling out of soil and concrete anchors, the phone rings off the hook with questions from people who plan to stay.
The clerk says the same thing at the end of every call. “Just stay safe.”
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories reported from Florida during Hurricane Irma. Read more below: