Longtime Ellis resident Julie Kohl left the Kansas prairie for the warm beaches of Florida in January. Less than a year later, she and her husband, Whitey, are making preparations for their first hurricane.
Hurricane Irma was barreling through the Caribbean on Wednesday evening, and south Florida residents were preparing for the worst. Evacuations have been announced in the Florida Keys, with other residents planning to evacuate or preparing to ride out the storm.
“I told the ladies at work … ‘I’ll take a tornado any day. They come, drop and go,’ ” Kohl said. “This, you’re just watching it get bigger and it gets closer, and you’re just watching it for days, coming your way, and they’re talking about all the devastation.”
Her husband, Whitey, recently retired from the insurance industry but is staying in Ellis until the family’s house sells, but he happened to be in Florida for a visit this week. Kohl moved earlier than anticipated when a job became available at her grandson’s school.
The Kohls now have a residence in Cape Coral, Lee County, which was predicted to be in a possible direct path from Hurricane Irma. Their home has hurricane shutters, and they initially planned to stock up on supplies and ride out the storm.
But as they watched more news coverage of the storm’s predicted strength, they decided that might not be the best idea. If Irma does hit Florida, it won’t be until later this week. But the family knew they had to leave early or possibly never due to the probability of heavy traffic as the storm draws near.
“We live off a freshwater canal that comes in from the ocean, so we were worried about storm surge,” she said Wednesday. “We went ahead and left last night, which was a good thing. Already in Lee County, we had a hard time finding a place to get gas.”
Also in short supply were hotel rooms. The couple is traveling with their son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons and their dog. Despite traveling clear into Georgia, only one hotel room could be found for Tuesday night.
“We’re all one very happy family sleeping in the same room — with a dog,” Kohl said with a chuckle. “But this hotel is full starting Friday. So we spent two hours this morning calling hotels in Georgia and Alabama. And they’re all full.”
They finally found a vacation cabin near the Appalachians in Alabama, and are now hoping to make the best of a bad situation with an impromptu family get-away. They are hoping their property will not sustain significant damage and are thankful they found a safe place to stay, she said.
They’re also learning a lot about hurricanes — something that is foreign to native Kansans. Besides rushes on gas and supplies, they were told to shut off water and utilities in their home, bring in any outside furniture and decor, and run a bathtub full of water in case supply is cut off, she said.
“People like us, we didn’t know what to do,” Kohl said.
From Hays, former south Florida resident Bill Ring also is intently watching Florida weather forecasts. He previously lived near Fort Lauderdale, and still has a son, other relatives and friends in the area.
Ring serves as Ellis County’s public works director, but previously worked in the field of emergency management. As such, he has been sharing preparedness information with loved ones near the coast and telling them to get ready.
One important tip that can go overlooked is to ensure those affected have cash on hand in case of prolonged power outages, which make it impossible to use debit and credit cards, Ring said.
Ring shared a photo on social media that shows the storm could be as wide as 400 miles — that’s approximately the distance between Miami and Tallahassee.
“It’s literally going to cover the state of Florida,” he said.
Ring personally has experienced hurricanes during his time in Florida and said it’s a “unique” experience when the eye of the storm passes over land.
“As the hurricane comes across, especially as the eye comes over, you have this lull period where you can actually go outside and the sun is shining,” Ring said. “Then the other half of the hurricane comes over.”
While Kohl said she would prefer a tornado to a hurricane if she was forced to choose, Ring has a different take on the situation.
“I would take a hurricane over a tornado any day,” he said. “You have time to prepare. We have tornadoes that fall out of the sky. … Tornadoes form so fast out here, sometimes you don’t have time to get to a shelter.”