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Sean Kirst: At Florida gas station, pilgrims on long road home

DAPHNE, Ala. – Ross Hayes had no regrets about the choice. He and his wife, Camille, loaded up their Honda Accord last Friday with everything precious in their lives. Their son Seth and daughter Arabel squeezed into the small car, joined by a pit bull named Blitz, two kittens – Willow and Autumn – and a guinea pig called Elliott.

Like Noah, in a tiny way, they found safety on their ark. They put whatever possessions they could fit into every nook and cranny of the Accord, and then they drove 15 hours from their home in Tarpon Springs, on Florida's Gulf Coast, to a hotel in Slidell, La.

The traffic was crushing, with countless anxious nomads inching in the same direction. It was a drive that should have taken maybe nine hours, at most.

Ross and Camille, a graduate student in computer engineering, feared their family would be in the direct path of Hurricane Irma.

By Tuesday, they felt safe enough to describe themselves as fortunate. From what they'd heard in calls from home, they believed their home endured little damage.

The hurricane didn't hit his neighborhood with the kind of force that many forecasters expected, Ross said. He works as a mover, and the five days away cost him both his regular paycheck and about $1,000 in savings to feed and house his family on the road.

Camille Hayes puts out fresh food for her dog Blitz, a pit bull terrier. Hayes was traveling back home to Tarpon Springs, Fla., with her family, the dog, two cats and a guinea pig named Elliot. They stopped for gas in Daphne, Ala. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

With the benefit of hindsight, they probably could have stayed home and rode it out, Ross said. But he saw the result for many who made that decision when Hurricane Harvey pounded Houston. People died. Digging in would have put his wife and kids at risk.

"All I could think about last week was what would happen if we decided to stay, and my family ended up on the roof, shouting for help," he said, during a stop at a Shell service station in Daphne, Ala., near the Florida border.

They had decided on Tuesday it was time to go home. They made the slow, hot and sweaty drive toward Florida on crowded Interstate 10, a kind of 21st century Steinbeck scene. Returning families with possessions and big jugs of gas strapped to their cars fell in line behind rumbling trucks and heavy equipment bringing disaster relief.

Ross Hayes took it in stride. One of the kittens snoozed on his shoulder as he drove. Blitz – a peaceful dog they found in the woods long ago, abandoned and starving – watched the world from the back seat, seemingly unperturbed by all the chaos.

But the power was still out near their home. Ross and Camille Hayes knew they might not be able to get gas for a long time.

The little family joined hundreds – if not thousands – of other refugees, on their way back to Florida, who stopped at the Shell station throughout the day.

They saw it as potentially a last chance opportunity. They filled up on gasoline, squeezing in every last drop, in case the power remained out and gas was impossible to find near their homes.

Those in line by the pumps offered many tales of weary relief. Luis and Viridiana Hernandez fled Clearwater last week with their children and Viridiana's mother. They found refuge with relatives in Texas.

Still in disbelief their misfortune wasn't worse, they were on their way back Tuesday to a house that had suffered little damage.

Luis went to a store to buy containers for extra gasoline. The gas buckets were all gone, claimed by people in similar need. He had to buy some oil change containers to use in a makeshift way for the same purpose.

DeWyna Robinson evacuated her Jacksonville home to spend several days at a La Quinta hotel in Daphne, which was "full of people praying for each other and doing kind things," she said.

DeWyna Robinson, originally of New Orleans, talks about evacuating her home in Florida when she learned Hurricane Irma was coming her way. After losing her uncle during Katrina, she said this time she wasn't taking chances. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

She is a native of New Orleans. She said she lost an uncle in flooding after Hurricane Katrina, after he chose to stay home and tried to care for his dog. His death remains an open wound for the family. She started crying when she recalled the day her aunt learned with certainty that her uncle was dead.

Robinson did not want to repeat his choice.

In the days and hours before Irma arrived, she listened to the dire warnings about the hurricane, and she thought about her uncle ….

And she got out.

It was a wise move. Jacksonville was pounded by Irma. Robinson, an Air Force veteran, settled there following her enlistment. She built a career as a mental health therapist. She bought as much gasoline and bottled water as she could Tuesday and prepared herself for the journey home.

As soon as she's back, she said, she intends to volunteer to help.

The Rev. Jason Hanks, who filled several jugs of gas at the pumps, said his family learned a hard lesson in what a flood can do, long before Irma. He is pastor of the Christian Center Church in Homosassa, Fla.

He knows how much a vehicle can matter when there is no power – not only for transportation, but for charging mobile phones to maintain contact with the world.

With that in mind, he bought as much gas as he could.

Barely a year ago, Hanks, his wife, Leah, and their two children Hudson and Hollynd were living in Baton Rouge when the city was hit by torrential rains that caused flash flooding.

Water poured into the Hanks home. They had maybe 15 minutes of warning. There was no time to save even their most beloved family photos.

The Rev. Jason Hanks from Homosassa, Fla., fills gas cans attached to his vehicle at a service station in Daphne, Ala., as his family, from left, wife, Leah, son Hudson, 11, and daughter Hollynd, 9, holding the family dog, stretch their legs from the long ride home after evacuating for Hurricane Irma. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"We lost everything," said Leah Hanks, who is also an ordained minister.

At the time, members of the Christian Center in Homosassa – a sister parish – offered them shelter. They stayed there for a while. They never forgot the kindness. Jason Hanks, who'd served as an associate pastor in Louisiana, was thrilled when he was eventually offered the chance to serve as pastor in Homosassa.

It seemed as if his family had barely settled in before the warnings came about Hurricane Irma, about potential flooding that made what happened in Baton Rouge seem small.

"This time, I knew to do what I should have done last time," said 11-year-old Hudson Hanks.

He had lost his most precious possessions in Baton Rouge.

Fernando Fuentes, on his way to Bradenton, fuels up at a Shell service station Tuesday. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Last week, before his family left their home, he put the things he cared about the most in a safe, dry place in their house. His saxophone. His laptop. His guitar. His tennis shoes.

His little sister carefully did the same with her collection of hair bows.

There were projections that a storm surge of 6 to 12 feet might engulf their home, Leah Hanks said. After the flooding of a year ago, they had no reason to doubt it.

The Hanks family packed up and drove 600 miles to their old parish in Baton Rouge, where they were given shelter. They were joined by several other families from their community. Yet they learned, over the past few days, that their home was spared heavy damage.

They were on their way back Tuesday. They had no power yet at their house, but Jason worried about how elderly parishioners might be faring without air conditioning or transportation. He and Leah wanted to get started with clearing brush and debris.

In all ways, they wanted to check on their church.

"Bad things happen," Jason said. What you never forget, he'd learned, are friends who show up after the storm.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. He and photographer Robert Kirkham are in Florida to share the tales of former Western New Yorkers affected by the hurricane. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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