Suburban transplants' dilemma: Flee Florida, or stay?
Rainy Payne and Kim Becker planned to ride out Hurricane Irma in their Fort Myers townhouse, even after the mayor declared a state of emergency.
Then, the women - who moved from Cary to Florida in June - tried to buy water to get them through the hurricane and its aftermath. They tried Walmart, then Costco. Both were completely cleaned out.
As they went home to put up storm shutters on their home about 8 miles off the coast, neighbors who've lived through some of Florida's strong storms encouraged them to evacuate.
So the two packed belongings and their collie mix Hailey into their SUV and left town at 7 a.m. Wednesday, crawling up I-95 through Florida and Georgia and eventually to Tennessee.
"Gas stations are shut down. If you find one that's servicing, a lot of the pumps will be already bagged off," Payne said. "There's a tremendous amount of people operating out of fear."
The storm, considered to be the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history, struck the Caribbean Wednesday and could hit Florida over the weekend.
A hurricane, let alone a Category 5 storm like Irma, is a new challenge for recent transplants from the suburbs to Florida, and they're handling it in a variety of ways.
Lora Schaus, a former Itasca resident who teaches elementary school in Orlando, told Facebook friends she was planning to stay put. Unable to find bottled water to buy, she froze water in containers and plastic bags to use for ice and a drinking supply.
"We have plenty of food and drinks here. Propane tank is good, and now have to wait and see," Schaus wrote. "Tis the season!"
Mundelein native Annie McGrath began her freshman year at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton just weeks ago. While college life in Florida at first "felt like paradise," things changed abruptly in recent days.
"My relatives started blowing up my phone and telling me to leave the state immediately," McGrath said, adding she'd intended to stay through Friday for her classes, until university officials announced cancellations beginning Wednesday.
Logging on to buy a ticket home, McGrath watched airline ticket prices "go up literally hundreds of dollars every 15 minutes." She secured a one-way flight from Orlando to Milwaukee at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, which required several hours on a bus from Boca Raton Wednesday morning. McGrath arrived at Orlando International Airport with plenty of time to spare, fearing nightmarish security lines.
On Wednesday, JetBlue, American and Delta announced price caps on tickets out of Florida.
Living in a suite with three other women, McGrath said all of them have left campus - some for their out-of-state hometowns and one for a local shelter.
"On move-in day they had us fill out a form that asked us for our plans if a hurricane hit," McGrath said. "I had no idea one would come two weeks from moving in." She hopes to head back to Florida on Monday, if classes resume.
Payne says she and Becker, who will stay with Becker's father in Tennessee, have no real idea when they'll be able to return home. Becker, a recruiter for MBX Systems, says her employer has been accommodating.
"They told her to do what she needed to do," Payne said Wednesday from the road. "Our car is pretty well-packed. We tried to bring whatever we thought for clothes and, however much, you really don't know how much you need."