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Voices from Florida as Irma moves in

COOPER CITY, Fla. — On Friday night, we learned Hurricane Irma was shifting west, an unanticipated move that sent the coast scrambling.

Charles Ewing couldn’t find sandbags, so he spent much of Saturday pouring kitty litter into socks.

Lori Mazan lives in a flood zone and had to evacuate.

Julie Nedelko’s patio furniture is in her living room.

Even those who were no longer in the storm's direct path stayed wary.

Cindy Teeto, a Niagara Falls native living in Broward County, brought her family to a friend’s bunker-like office. The party inside kept Teeto distracted from the growing winds.

I live near Teeto in Cooper City, a suburb 30 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale.

For almost a week my family prepared for “the worst storm” recorded, with winds of 185 mph barreling toward our one-story home.

We covered the windows with shutters, ordered extra water and bought out Trader Joe's, filling the pantry with comforting snacks.

Public schools closed here Thursday, but with a looming magazine deadline I worked through Friday, thankful I found an active gas station on my way home.

The lanterns and extra batteries my mom ordered from Amazon were set to arrive Thursday but never made it. I wasn’t concerned; we have flashlights, but when the power went out during my phone call with Ewing in Naples on Sunday morning, I realized lanterns would have been nice.

Next time, we joked.

Home alone

Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist who also practiced law, is still on the faculty of the University at Buffalo School of Law, although he and his wife, Sharon, moved from Clarence last summer to Naples, a beach town on the west coast of Florida. He planned to join his family in the Washington, D.C., area before the storm, calling Southwest Airlines and reserving the last seat on the last plane leaving Saturday morning. The flight was cancelled shortly after.

“I was anticipating not being here, so I kind of had to scramble to weather the storm, so to speak,” Ewing said.

His daughter had a baby in June in D.C., and Ewing and his wife had been alternating their visits there. Sharon Ewing left last Sunday for D.C., and if he had known for sure that Irma was coming, he said, he would have gone with her.

“It’s a little weary because I’m by myself, and also because there are just no people around,” he said.

But he has been getting calls and emails with advice and even offers for places to evacuate to.

Instead, he replaced old corroded batteries. It took a few days, but he filled up his cars with gas. A vegetarian, he stocked up on protein bars and nuts.

He will fill his bathtub with water to flush the toilet in case water pressure drops.

He determined that his closet was his safe place, the only room in the house without external doors.

He said he’s concerned about flooding – his home backs up to a lake – so he filled socks with kitty litter he bought at Petco to use as makeshift sandbags.

“From what I understand, the real serious threat to life is water, not wind. I would say I’m frightened. It’s a good lesson for me – there are just some things in life that you can’t control. I’m fearful, but I feel like I’ve done everything that I can do to protect my home and myself.”

A piece of advice he wasn’t given: don’t watch television.

“It’s so distressing,” he said. “I’m a psychologist – I should know better. It’s hard not to turn it on and, then, ‘Oh I’m just going to turn it on and see what the latest is.’ Then 15 minutes later they’re droning on and on about how it’s the worst storm in the world, showing horrifying images of other storms.”

He stayed up until about 1 a.m. Sunday watching the news and was surprised he slept well through 8 a.m. Sunday.

“It’s a good strategy,” he said. “Wake me up when it’s over.”

And on Sunday morning he made eggs, which he anticipates will be his last hot meal for a while.

Mandatory evacuees

On Sunday afternoon, the weather was starting to pick up outside Lori Mazan’s parent’s home in Cape Coral.

“Power is flickering. We’re preparing for the worst to come,” she wrote in a text message.

Mazan grew up Allegany and went to SUNY at Fredonia before moving in 1996 to Cape Coral, where she is a fourth-grade teacher at Trafalgar Elementary School.

Her home is in Flood Zone A, about a mile away from the Gulf of Mexico and under mandatory evacuation.

Mazan’s parents are in Ellicottville right now, so evacuating to their Cape Coral House in Flood Zone C (which is higher above sea level and will not be evacuated), was a clear choice for Mazan and her family.

“I was actually pretty calm about it until about the last day,” she said on the phone Saturday. “There are so many storms that appear to be coming your way, but then they only hit once in a while. I guess this is our once in a while.”

Mazan said she thought about taking her family to her sister’s home in Savannah, but she didn’t want to risk getting stuck in traffic with little prospects for gas.

“At least we have each other,” she said of her husband and two children, ages 15 and 18, and their Rhodesian hound mix, Sophie. “That’s the most important thing. I did bring along my kids’ baby books and some pictures, documents.”

They also brought board games and cards to pass the time Sunday, and Mazan loaded her Kindle with books.

“At least I’ll be able to see it,” she said.

Go Bills

Julie Nedelko was taking advantage of the electricity she still had 2 p.m. Sunday.

“We are fine, just watching the Bills game now. Luckily, Bucs and Dolphins game was postponed so we can see the Bills today,” she wrote in a text message.

The Lockport native now lives in the Odessa neighborhood of Tampa, and said she was expecting tropical storm winds within the next few hours.

She and her family don’t live in an evacuation area, so they decided to stay.

Nedelko said she is more worried about the day care center she runs, which sits in a flood zone. They plan to reopen Tuesday, she said, but “I don’t know what I’m going to get back to on Monday.”

Her biggest project was bringing everything inside that could be a projectile. Her windows aren’t boarded up, so they picked up patio furniture, landscape rocks and garbage cans.

Everyone is waiting for it to be over, she said.

“It’s taking so long to get here,” she said. “Even though it gives you a lot of time to prepare, it gives you more time to worry."

“If my roof stays on my house, I’ll consider myself lucky,” she continued. “If my windows stay intact, I’ll consider myself really lucky.”

The Florida native

I was born and raised in Florida, and hurricanes didn’t scare me – until this one.

I was born the year after Hurricane Andrew, and like Mazan and Nedelko, I don't remember being fazed by Hurricanes Charlie in 2004 and Wilma in 2005.

Despite the news reports, despite the concerns of friends, I was in denial about Irma’s strength until Friday.

Can our roof sustain Category 5 winds? Where was it even heading?

The unknown was terrifying.

I’m writing now from my neighbor’s house, powered by a generator. I took my last hot shower, zipped up my windbreaker and stuck my phone into a plastic bag. My father anxiously followed, wary of flying debris.

“The tree of life fell down. Be careful coming back,” he said in a text message a few hours later at 3:30 p.m., referring to the large tree shading the front of our home.

Alyssa Fisher is a former intern at The Buffalo News. She is now an assistant editor at Lifestyle Media Group in Fort Lauderdale.

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