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Buffalo natives struggle to flee Hurricane Irma — or prepare for the worst

Some Buffalo-area natives waited for hours at Florida airports Friday — catching some of the last flights out as the countdown to Hurricane Irma grew short.

"We're pretty frazzled right now," said Leah Wolf,  a North Tonawanda native, as she was boarding a plane to Buffalo in Fort Lauderdale with her husband on Thursday afternoon.

Others fueled up and stocked up. They prepped their generators — hunkering down for a tough ride.

"We just finished putting up the shutters," said Carrie Ann Perez, an Amherst native who lives with her husband and two children in Boca Raton. "We're making the last little runs today."

Hurricane Irma barrels toward U.S., threatening to engulf Florida

All major airlines were making last-minute adjustments to accommodate passengers trying to flee the state, while canceling thousands of other flights through the weekend. Many airlines have added flights and lowered or capped fares after earlier accusations of price-gouging.

Wolf was seated on a JetBlue flight after an hour-long delay. JetBlue was the first airline to offer reduced fares out of affected areas where airports are expected to shut down over the weekend. Like other airlines, JetBlue was also waiving cancellation and change fees for customers with existing flights.

Since storm preparations began this week, the airline added 62 flights to its regular schedule to help customers and crew members evacuate.

One of those extra flights, carrying 105 passengers, landed in Buffalo late Friday afternoon, said Helen Tederous, spokeswoman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Flying out

Larry Tetewsky, a Kenmore resident, was at the Orlando airport Friday waiting with his wife for a late afternoon Southwest Airlines flight to Buffalo.

He was supposed to leave Orlando on Tuesday, following a seven-day Disney Cruise, but became ill after getting back to Orlando and had to be hospitalized for a couple of days.

Rescheduling his Southwest flight early in the week wasn't a problem, he said, but in recent days, getting any other earlier flight out proved impossible. Fortunately, the Disney resort let them stay in their room for free and provided some free taxi vouchers.

Though Tetewsky encountered no delays getting to the airport, about half the flights leaving Orlando were delayed —  including his.

Southwest was canceling all flights from Orlando as of Saturday afternoon. All flights from Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach were canceled after Friday evening.

Wolf said the Fort Lauderdale airport was increasingly crowded as the day wore on, with so many flights delayed an average of four hours as airline crews struggled to get to the airport in order to fly passengers to outbound destinations. Periodically, she said, applause and cheers would go up as pilots and flight attendants appeared at the gates to fly passengers out of town.

The airport was conspicuously full of dogs, as people brought pets with them as they evacuated, she said.

Before leaving town, Wolf said, she and her husband stayed with his brother, who has a more protected house with hurricane shutters.

Clogged highways, crowded skies as Floridians flee Irma

For a while, she said, she and her husband thought about leaving the airport — and evacuating by car — out of fears the flight to Buffalo would never happen, but a JetBlue agent came out and reassured them all that a plane was coming. Wolf said she was fortunate she had plane tickets because she and her husband were already scheduled to come up to Buffalo for a friend's wedding.

"It just happened to work out that I had booked an early morning flight," said Wolf, who had left for the airport at 5 a.m. and didn't board her flight until 12:30 p.m.

Staying put

Not everyone chose to leave — or could leave.

Perez and her husband, Luis, said their family endured storm damage from Katrina and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Their home in Boca Raton has hurricane-impact windows and doors, and sits four miles inland. They just finished putting up their heavy-duty hurricane shutters Friday.

Former Amherst resident Carrie Ann Perez works with her husband to finish putting up hurricane shutters on their Boca Raton home Friday in preparation for Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Carrie Ann Perez)

They said they talked about evacuating, but they aren't located in an evacuation zone, and worried they'd be in more danger if they attempted to evacuate Friday, when all northbound traffic was gridlocked.

So they decided to hunker down and stock up on water, food, gas and cash. They've taken pictures of their belongings, moved tons of items into plastic bins, and put Ziplock bags of water in the freezer. They fixed their generator, which they purchased after Katrina.

Though Perez said she and her husband have been carefully reading all the hurricane reports and believe they and their two children will be reasonably safe, she admitted her parents and extended family in the Buffalo suburbs were upset at her decision to stay behind.

"They are freaking out," she said.

Carrie Ann Perez posted this picture to Facebook of the items they're stocking up on and storing at their Boca Raton home as they prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Carrie Ann Perez)

Perez said she and her husband have been trying to keep a sense of humor, which comes through on their Facebook posts. One refers to turning the washing machine into a beer cooler.

"You've got to have humor with it, because your stress levels go through the roof," she said.

Former Hamburg resident Kim Fitzgerald, 26, a physiologist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, said she's not sure evacuating her Punta Gorda home on the western coast of Florida is an option for her. She lives in a lower-tier evacuation zone — and is expected to relieve emergency personnel who will be stationed at the hospital during Irma.

"They say your safety is the priority, but at the same time you're expected to relieve the A Team as soon as possible," she said.

It's a tense time, she said, recalling that on a recent visit to Wal-Mart, she saw a woman loading a cart with three kayaks.

Since her home is about 22 feet above sea level, she said, she feels a little optimistic that her house won't be affected by storm surges. But if the latest forecasting models continue to show Irma tracking closer to the state's west coast, she's drawn up contingency plans.

She may wind up driving farther inland to stay with her grandparents, who live 1½ hours east. Or she may relocate to a nearby shelter.

In the meantime, she's been stocking up on everything and fielding a flurry of text messages and advice from her parents back home.

"I'm definitely not underestimating the storm," Fitzgerald said. "I'm doing everything I can to prepare."

The aftermath

One former Buffalo resident already reported how devastating Hurricane Irma can be. Elizabeth Doody, who was living on the U.S. Virgin Islands at Charlotte Amalie as a Marriott employee, reported to Komo News Radio that by the time she tried to fly out of the path of the Category 5 hurricane, all flights were grounded.

The area around her home had been destroyed, she reported, and for a while it was difficult to leave her house, she said. She broke down after seeing all the devastation, and posted pictures to Facebook.

"It's been unbelievable but we are alive," she posted.

It's been unbelievable but we are alive. There is no way out of our home with trees and mudslides and debris boxing us...

Posted by Elizabeth Doody on Thursday, September 7, 2017

She told Komo News that while she had endured a number of severe winter storms as a native Buffalonian, "There was nothing whatsoever that compared to this."

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