US & World

Why some people ignore evacuation orders and choose to see Irma through

Bobby Huffstutler moves furniture from his late grandmother's home into his parents' house, which sits at a higher elevation.
Bobby Huffstutler moves furniture from his late grandmother's home into his parents' house, which sits at a higher elevation.
Meredith Rizzo/NPR

As Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida's west coast, some residents are tracking its trajectory from safer cities hours away from the projected path. Some are listening to the winds from shelters not far from their homes. But others are riding it out right underneath the storm.

The state of Florida ordered more than 6.5 million residents to evacuate large swaths of the southern part of the state and the Keys, underscoring Irma's enormous size and its deadly force, which already tore apart several Caribbean islands.

Yet in a state that has seen many hurricanes, some Floridians are taking their chances at home rather than a shelter.

In Bradenton, near the banks of the Manatee River, the Huffstutlers spent five days moving their late grandmother's possessions from one house to another.

Both homes lie within the mandatory evacuation zone, close to the edge of the Manatee River. But one house is several feet higher than the other.

"After seeing the storm in Texas, I think it's got everybody a little bit on fright," Tommy Huffstutler said Saturday, watching his father and brothers unload a giant trailer and carry furniture indoors.

"Normally, we'd ride everything out and we don't care about putting things up — but after seeing the flooding going on in other places, it's like, 'Whoa, we've got to do what we need to do to save this stuff,' " he said.

But the Huffstutlers still weren't ready to follow the evacuation order. At least, not all of them. Janet Huffstutler, Tommy's mother, was researching their shelter options. The closest one was full, but there was a middle school with space.

"I want to go," she said, looking at her husband, Tim.

"All our neighbors over there are all staying," Tim Huffstutler said. "We may stay here."

Their son's mind was made up.

"We were supposed to be evacuated but we're going to ride it out," Tommy Huffstutler said. "They've already came around and told us with the siren and the cop car saying, 'Hey, you guys need to evacuate' ... pretty much saying, 'If you guys get in trouble, we're not going to come and rescue you because we told you, we warned you.' So we got the warning. We definitely got the warning."

Government officials have been adamant that residents in evacuation zones needed to leave before Irma arrived.

On Saturday night, Florida's governor told everyone under evacuation orders that it was now or never.

"This is your last chance to make a good decision," Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference in Tallahassee on Saturday. "We can rebuild your house. We can get your possessions again," he told reluctant residents earlier on Saturday. "We can't rebuild your life and we can't rebuild your family."

The Huffstutlers said they were afraid of the risk of looting, and hoped that if they stayed with their houses they could protect them.

But they know they can't protect from everything.

"I'm just hoping that the tree falls this way," Tim Huffstutler says with a tense chuckle, pointing away from the pink, two-story house. His mother designed the house, and he built it. And "no insurance," he says.

Farther down the coast, in a low-lying region of Sarasota County, Judy Brown was less concerned.

She sat on her lawn in a chair on Saturday afternoon, reading Janet Evanovich's Finger Lickin' Fifteen, while her neighbors across the street got ready to follow the evacuation order and move to higher ground.

"My grandparents built that house here back in '56 and it's never been boarded up," Brown said, pointing to the plywood now placed over the windows across the street. Then, she pointed to the house next door. "My parents built this house and it's never been boarded up either — and they're still standing."

Brown's own house was boarded up behind her — for the second time ever. She can't remember which other hurricane prompted that measure. But she does know that, over six decades, she never joined an evacuation on that street.

"And I don't intend to," she said. "We're going to stay here and be fine. I may have to learn to swim, but ... "

Even if she did want to evacuate, it was too late, she said. Many gas stations ran out of fuel or lines were hours long. The interstates were packed.

"You can't get out of here now," she said.

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