By Saturday morning, nearly six million Florida residents had been ordered to leave their homes to escape Hurricane Irma. Millions of those people headed north, many to our area.
A representative of the Hampton Inn in Ringgold said Saturday morning that they had no free rooms. "You have no idea how many people we've had to turn away," they said. "It's just heartbreaking."
The Hampton Inn representative said they normally don't accept pets except for service animals, but they've made some exceptions for the hurricane situation, because so many people were arriving with their dogs and cats.
"We've also set up a shelter area," said the representative. "It's not the same as having a room, but it's someplace to stay, and we're not charging people for that area."
Super 8 Motel in Fort Oglethorpe said they still had rooms available late Saturday morning, but they were seeing refugees from the hurricane starting to show up. Super 8 accepts pets in certain rooms without carpet, but those rooms had already been taken.
EconoLodge, formerly Best Western, in Fort Oglethorpe said Saturday afternoon that all its rooms were booked for a week, and the Holiday Inn Express in Ringgold said that as of Saturday afternoon its 59 rooms were booked for at least three days.
Shopping for Irma
A Fort Oglethorpe Walmart employee said that when he came in to start his shift at 2 p.m. Sunday, he could hardly get in the store. "It was crazy," he said. "For a couple of hours, I couldn't even stock in one aisle because it was so crowded with people."
By 10 p.m., the selection of groceries in the store was diminishing greatly. The shelves one usually expects were nearing empty – bread, eggs, potato chips, but it was interesting to see some of the other items that disappeared first.
When you think you might not be able to get to the store or you might be out of power for a couple of days, it seems the things to stock up on include pancake mix and syrup, large bags of cereal, and on the boxed cereal side, Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes and Honey Nut Cheerios. Lunchmeat, cheese, peanut butter, Kool Aid, Poptarts, crackers and juice were also popular items that Monday's shoppers were likely to find in short supply.
Toilet tissue and paper plates were moving at a brisk pace, as was an early stock of Halloween candy corn.
On the animal musthave list of items, kitty litter and pet food were flying off the shelves, too.
Possibly the oddest item that was disappearing was reams of copy paper.
It was not only local shoppers cleaning out supplies. Area motels and hotels were full to capacity, producing an additional community of consumers.
Paradise comes with a price
Four family members from the east coast of Florida shopped Friday at Walmart in Fort Oglethorpe for items they forgot when they fled Hurricane Irma the day before, including a leash for one of the four dogs they brought along.
"We had to leave our chickens behind," said Brian Andrews, a transplant from California to Florida. Also left behind were most of the group's earthly possessions. This makes the fifth time they've come to the Chattanooga area to escape a hurricane, but they also come other times just to visit.
"We love this area," said Eddie Lebron, who is originally from Puerto Rico. "The people are friendly, it's beautiful, and we like the pizza and beer at Big River Grill."
Lee Ann Pfister, an "honorary" member of the family who grew up in New Mexico, said that forecasters were predicting a Category 4 hurricane for their area. "If it had been a Cat 1 or Cat 2, we wouldn't have left. Maybe even not for a Cat 3, but this is more serious."
Andrews and Lebron both said they had protected their property as much as possible but that they expected damage and would deal with it as they always do. "It's a part of life in Florida," said Andrews. "You file your insurance, fix the damage and move on."
So why, one might ask, do people live someplace they have to keep running away from to safeguard their lives while wind and water destroy their homes?
"There are a lot of reasons to live in Florida," said Lebron. "Good jobs – the Air Force, NASA; it's a great place to retire."
"Beautiful beaches, amazing winters," added Pfister.
But maybe Lebron's Costa Rican-born wife, Lidia, summed it up best, "It's the price of living in paradise."