How quick thinking (and flight magic) got reporter home before hurricane hit Florida

  • A weeklong Florida vacation, including time at Lido Beach, was cut short for reporter Dave Oberhelman and his wife Laurie because of Hurricane Ian.

      A weeklong Florida vacation, including time at Lido Beach, was cut short for reporter Dave Oberhelman and his wife Laurie because of Hurricane Ian. Dave Oberhelman | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/28/2022 7:16 PM

The main quandary, which involved curtailing our vacation, was one facing many this week in Florida: Should we stay, or should we go?

We settled on leaving and are glad we did.

 

By the time my wife, Laurie, and I arrived on Sept. 24 for our annual Week 39 excursion to Sarasota Sands, the last resort on Lido Key off Sarasota, we already knew we potentially were headed into Hurricane Ian.

At the time, though, schools of thought had the storm deflecting off Cuba onto a more northerly track into the Gulf of Mexico -- or, it was projected to hit Tampa as a Category 4 hurricane and weaken as the eye bellied into the mainland.

Sarasota Sands tops out at five stories. Unlike the folks in the adjacent two-story half of the complex, across a large courtyard a couple hundred yards from the Gulf, our fourth-story perch would be under no threat of flooding.

However, as the projected timeline had Sarasota getting the brunt of Ian late Wednesday or early Thursday, we were concerned about storm surge, clear roads, lack of water and electricity, and about the possibility of boarding a plane Saturday from Sarasota to head home.

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Most everyone in the complex chose to evacuate. Some hardy veterans stocked up on food, received donations from those leaving -- we must have abandoned $200 worth of goods -- and braced for the worst. They even called the local sheriff's office to make sure that, as timeshare owners, they could not legally be forced from their rooms.

As the anticipated diversion over Cuba did not occur and weather reports sounded more dire late Monday, my wife and I took a hard look at leaving. The next morning, my wife worked phone magic to secure two plane fares on an added 10:35 p.m. Tuesday flight out of Orlando. We said our goodbyes and wished good luck to our friends staying behind.

Expecting a rolling parking lot along the main drag, Interstate 75, we took a secondary route to Orlando. Other than a couple bottlenecks on Interstate 4, traffic was smooth. With brief stops for hard-to-find gasoline and fast food, we reached Orlando International Airport three hours later, around 2 p.m.

We returned our rental car, but our flight was canceled when plane fuelers, apparently not notified of the additional 10:35 p.m. departure, did not show.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Again thinking quickly, my wife spoke with an airline attendant to patch together a route to get us back to Illinois. The attendant reserved one seat and one standby slot for a 6:15 a.m. Wednesday flight to Newark, New Jersey, with a crossover flight to O'Hare International Airport. Also, if something funky happened with that flight, she reserved two seats at 9:35 a.m. to Washington, D.C., where we'd catch another plane back to O'Hare.

Since the Tuesday night flight out of Orlando was canceled, the attendant said we could go to the airline check-in desk and receive a hotel voucher. Yet, employees there deemed the cancellation not to be a mechanical failure, which apparently triggers the voucher. So, no hotel.

Unwilling to get another rental car and uncertain about future flights, we went back to pick up our luggage. The baggage attendant checked our flight plans. Due to an error, for that flight to Newark, I actually was Standby No. 33.

That wasn't going to work.

Though every additional hour meant the possibility of cancellation out of Orlando, we settled on the 9:35 a.m. plane to Washington, D.C.

After an essentially sleepless night in a 68-degree airport lobby, reading and watching the clock, hoping the "On Time" notice on the departures board didn't change to "Canceled," we boarded our flight -- one of the last out of Orlando before the airport shut down. From Washington, D.C., we picked up a plane headed back to sunny Chicago.

On the way home we saw the news that Category 4 Hurricane Ian, packing 155 mph winds, made landfall near Fort Myers Beach, soon to impact Sarasota.

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