PALMETTO BAY, Fla. — Those who plan to ride out the storm here are living in a strangely dark world. They’ve bolted down and hammered in their steel hurricane shutters, sealing themselves into their houses like canned meat, creating an airtight bunker. Because when a hurricane invades a home, the situation can get explosive.
The low-lying neighborhoods within the evacuation zone of Miami-Dade County — streets that line the shore of Biscayne Bay — have mostly emptied out. But some people say they’ll hunker down. They won’t leave. They’ll meet Hurricane Irma on their own terms, standing their ground.
“Where you gonna go?” said Richard Pollack, 62, an attorney who lives in a two-story house in the Pinecrest neighborhood, about three-quarters of a mile from the water. “The roads are dead stopped. You can’t get out of the state of Florida.”
“I figure if the water gets bad, we’ll go upstairs,” said his wife, Jan Bell Pollack, also 62, a retired attorney, who was walking their standard poodle, Penny, along Old Cutler Road. She’s not as complacent as she sounds, because she and her husband lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
They’d sheltered in a closet during that storm, and when things grew calmer they peeked outside and saw stars. They were in the eye — with no roof.
“We all thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime storm,” she said. “And here we go again.”
Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay are some of the neighborhoods that lie east of U.S. 1 and west of Biscayne Bay, which is open to the Atlantic, unprotected by a barrier island. Everyone here knows, or at least has some inkling of, which Evacuation Zone they’re in. The scale goes A to E, with A the most vulnerable to storm surge.
Glenn Falk, 67, of Palmetto Bay, had planned to leave for a hotel in Clearwater. But then the hotel in Clearwater announced that it was closing and evacuating. He said his daughter already was at the hotel and planned to return to Palmetto Bay to ride out the storm in what the county calls Evacuation Zone B.
Falk wasn’t worried.
“I’m boarded up like a fort, and I got my generator, and I’m good to go,” he said.
Some people can cite their elevation above sea level. To the untrained eye, the neighborhood looks table-flat.
“More than anything, I’m staying here because it got too late,” said Alex Carr, 39, who works in accounting and lives with his wife and two young children near Coral Reef Park, in Zone B.
He’s heard that the storm surge could be 11 feet. His elevation, he said, is 10 feet above sea level, and he figures that will mean a foot of water in the house at worst. (The forecast Friday called for five to 10 feet of storm surge in South Florida, and forecasters point out there will be waves on top of that — and that in Florida, historically, it is the storm surge that has proved most fatal in hurricanes.)
Carr pointed to a neighbor’s house: “He’s 11, I’m 10, and I think the two over there are eight. I’ve got good drainage here.”
Some people are more fatalistic than optimistic.
“If I’d gone, I’d have gone by now,” said Robert Ozunich, an older gentleman walking his dogs. He said there’s nowhere really for him to go, and he has his dogs to think about. He lives in an old coral-rock house that’s been through storms before. “Mother Nature, you’re never going to beat her,” he said.
At the guard booth of the Royal Harbor Yacht Club, Marlene Perez, 53, said she’ll shelter with her daughter near the Dadeland Mall in a third-floor apartment.
“I am a strong woman,” she said. “I pray to God, you know?”
Gas lines are long and glacial, another reason residents at this late stage don’t want to attempt an evacuation up the peninsula on jam-packed highways. And going north might not solve the problem, either, since on Friday the National Hurricane Center said Irma would go that way too, as if trying to evacuate the state alongside the motorists.
Meanwhile, everyone is putting up their hurricane shutters. The darkness is depressing and adds to the dread before the storm.
“I have so much anxiety,” said Daniel Llewellyn, 59, on Friday at a Marathon gas station near the historical Deering Estate.
Llewellyn, who works in cable TV sales, has a wife, two young adult daughters, an 88-year-old mother-in-law, three dogs and a cat. They’re relocating from Evacuation Zone A to Evacuation Zone C. He suggested sending his mother-in-law to a shelter, but his wife vetoed the idea, not wanting her to be with strangers.
He’s scared and not sleeping well. The fear for Llewellyn is based on personal traumatic experience. He and his wife went through Andrew in a development called Country Walk that was destroyed by the storm. Their roof came flying off. They huddled in the bathtub with a mattress on top of them.
He’s trying to put on a brave face for his family. It’s not easy.
“I feel like I’m fainting all the time,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.”
Some people aren’t batting an eye as the storm approaches. They’re the ones who have a lot of machinery for when the power goes out.
“I been through three or four here. I have impact-resistant windows. I go to the second floor if the storm surge comes. I got three generators,” said Jim Perry, 52, a maritime attorney who lives a stone’s throw from the water in the Kings Bay development at the southern end of Coral Gables. “You just have to be self-sufficient.”
When residents woke Friday in the sprawling, affluent southern suburbs of Miami, they found themselves in a typical bright, hot, humid day with no obvious sign of a storm other than the weird emptiness of the streets. No school, no work, many people gone. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden closed, locked tight, no sign of anything other than a stray cat and the occasional colorful lizard.
As the day went on, the wind ticked up a bit. This entire region probably will be dramatically transformed this weekend. And it won’t be like Hurricane Andrew, which raced in from east to west, a tightly wound storm that cut like a buzz saw across the southern suburbs on its way to the Everglades. Irma is on a perpendicular path to Andrew, and the National Hurricane Center said the tropical-storm-force winds will last for 36 hours and the hurricane force winds for 10.
The storm might veer west or east, but Irma’s size means everyone here is likely to experience a hurricane, if not the ferocious storm’s eyewall. And because Irma is going north, possibly straight up the center of the peninsula, South Florida could be hit with the powerful eastern side of the storm.
Jorge Martin, 59, drinking coffee at a Marathon gas station, said he is moving from Kings Bay to his son’s house in the western portion of the county — though that is now projected to be closer to the eye of the storm.
It’s as if there’s no place to hide from Irma. But at least he won’t be alone.
“Nobody wants to ride it out by himself,” he said.