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Science & Environment

Hurricane Irma Evacuations Force Difficult Decisions


Now let's turn to NPR's Leila Fadel, who is in Tampa right now. Many residents there have evacuated, but some are staying in their homes to ride out the storm. Leila, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: So can you just describe what it's like there? Does it feel as though the city is emptied out?

FADEL: It does. We're in Ybor City. And, really, the streets are pretty empty. When we first got in, we went to a gas station where people were making their last-minute efforts to get gas, get water. The woman who worked inside that station said, actually, people were fighting over the supplies. They were rationing them out.

Now, Tampa is a place where a lot of people had been fleeing to from other parts of Florida, thinking that it wouldn't be as directly hit. But now that it's shifted west, a lot of people are worried that the storm that they were escaping from - now they're right smack dab in the middle of it. We saw hotel workers also super exhausted - phones ringing off the hook. People fleeing to hotels, shelters, anywhere where it will be safe where there's brick and mortar. They're worried about the high winds and the flooding.

MARTIN: So we're going to hear a story from you in a minute about tourists in Orlando. Many people know this is a very popular tourist destination - the home of Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios.

FADEL: Yeah. We just drove from Orlando to Tampa. And Orlando is a really different scene. As you said, it's a city of tourists. And we were seeing - we met people going to SeaWorld. We were seeing people playing mini golf. They weren't going to let this storm get in the way of their holiday. But, you know, most places are shutting down this evening. Hotels in the city are advising people to get inside by this evening and not to leave at all tomorrow. And so I start this next story with Julie Wells as she was leaving her hotel in Orlando. She's on vacation with her family.

JULIE WELLS: We're on our way to SeaWorld now. Still got lots of rides and lots of shows to do at SeaWorld so that will be good fun.

FADEL: Inside, the manager of the chain hotel briefs the guests on the impending hurricane. More than half are tourists like Wells. The other half are evacuees from southern Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, so we're going to ride the storm out together.

FADEL: A concerned guest walks up to ask if his room on the fifth floor will be safe when the storm hits.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We've been through a few hurricanes, and we didn't lose the roof. So I'm going to say, you know, let's just keep our fingers crossed that that's the same thing now. Yeah, but don't be worried. We're prepared.

FADEL: She asks that we don't use her name or the hotel name because she didn't have permission from the company to speak. But the storm isn't phasing Wells and her family. They came to Orlando for fun and will ride the storm out in a hotel and continue their holiday.

WELLS: Yes. I think - we've got some packs of cards. And we've got biscuits and tea. So we'll be OK.

FADEL: But Orlando residents weren't taking things so lightly. In a large parking lot, people scrape the last of over 200 tons of sand into bags. Some 2,000 people had been through on Thursday to get the bags to stop possible flooding. Hardware stores were out of gasoline cans. And water was gone or running low in most places. And then there were the evacuees like Nathalie Paul. She brought what's most important to her - three of her children, her husband, her Bible and her son's ashes.

NATHALIE PAUL: This is just his ashes right here.

FADEL: He died in a car accident last year.

PAUL: He's with me. I brought his ashes with me just in case.

FADEL: You brought is ashes with you here?

PAUL: Yeah. His ashes are with me and his hair. I have all his stuff with me.

FADEL: She's in a middle school gym in Orlando. She fled the southwestern Florida coast. But one of her sons stayed behind. He wanted to stay in the place his brother died. She's praying that her son and the rest of her family make it through.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for that, Leila. That's very heartbreaking. But I also wanted to say that you've been reporting in Tampa this afternoon talking to people who plan to ride out the storm, and what are they saying?

FADEL: So that's right. We drove from Orlando to Tampa. Obviously, the road to Tampa was pretty empty. We got here quite quickly. The road in the other direction completely packed as people were trying to get away from Tampa and get to somewhere safer. Along the way, we stopped. We talked to people in Lakeland - a woman who was so stressed out, she went to get her nails done because her mobile home will likely be taken away by the storm starting tomorrow.

And we met a man named Don Merritt (ph) who originally was thinking about evacuating into the middle of the state and then decided to come to Tampa because he thought it was - the storm was going to go to the middle of the state. Now he's in the middle of the storm with his family. He's here at the hotel we're at, at the Hampton Inn, and he's got all his supplies. And he's hoping for the best. He even has a video feed to watch his house, which is on an island south of Tampa.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Leila Fadel reporting from Tampa. Thanks so much, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.