It's the toughest question a Floridian has when facing an approaching hurricane:
Do I stay or do I go? If I go, where do I go? When do I leave? And how do I get there?
I've lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., for 22 years and faced the possibility of at least six hurricanes making landfall in the state. Until Irma, I never seriously considered evacuating. But Irma's massive size and record wind speed, threatened to turn my home — just a block from a picturesque canal — into a wading pool.
I'll admit, some of my pre-Irma attitude might have been complacency. As cable news anchors repeated over the past week, St. Petersburg, Tampa and the surrounding metro area haven't been directly hit by a hurricane since the 1920s.
That means that if you boarded up your home and fled the area when Charley or Jeanne approached in 2004 or when Katrina or Wilma approached in 2005, you felt a little foolish when those storms passed on by. You may have felt even worse if you went to Orlando or Winter Haven to get away from Charley, only to see the storm bypass the projected path into Tampa Bay and head straight for where you had relocated.
This led me to balance competing priorities last week. Area hotels were filling up, water and plywood were vanishing from stores, and hotels as far away as Atlanta were booking up fast, too. So, with some projections predicting Irma might be a Category 5 hurricane, I booked a flight out of Tampa to Chicago for early Saturday morning, I reserved a hotel near Atlanta for one of my daughters who goes to college in Jacksonville, and I made sure my youngest daughter would be safe with her mother elsewhere in Florida.
Despite some reports of price gouging, my plane ticket was about $250 and the hotel was $214 for three days — not bad. My plan was set; get on the plane if things looked hairy and sit tight if Irma jogged far enough east or west.
But planning for a hurricane is often like writing a message on a sandy shore. It never lasts long.
Changing plans on the fly
I talked with my editors about staying to cover the storm, but I'm a TV critic — I haven't had any of NPR's training on reporting from dangerous areas. So we decided I should leave if my neighborhood was ordered to evacuate.
On Friday at about 6 p.m., American Airlines canceled most flights out of Tampa on Saturday and couldn't rebook me. The county where I live had ordered a mandatory evacuation for parts of the area, and sure enough, my neighborhood was eventually included. My plan was out the window. I could ride out the storm alone in my home (nope!), bunk in a local shelter or make the eight-hour drive to the hotel I had booked for my daughter in Atlanta. Local gas stations were already running out of fuel, so I had to calculate if my car could make the state line on three-quarters of a tank of gas and two containers with 4 gallons more. I wanted to hit the road before any more mandatory evacuations were called, which would put even more traffic on the two interstates leading out of Florida.
It's odd to set out on a long trip, running from a hurricane, with only a vague idea of whether you have enough gas to reach your destination. Traffic out of the state Friday night wasn't as bad as some predicted — it moved steadily during my trip. That was in part because Florida police allowed motorists to use the left shoulder as a driving lane (a decision I would regret when I got to Atlanta and noticed my car had a flat tire and a nail in another tire, likely from driving over debris.) I didn't pass a gas station with fuel until I hit the Georgia state line. There is no anxiety like looking at a dipping gas gauge while passing station after station with plastic bags taped around empty fuel nozzles.
Once in Atlanta, there were more decisions. Keep going to get out of Irma's path entirely? Hop on a plane to Chicago like I originally planned? I eventually rode out Irma in Atlanta, where it had weakened to a tropical storm (my daughter in college had decided to hunker down at her school when Irma was downgraded, leaving the room free). But my hotel lost power for 12 hours and I learned how dumb it can feel to evacuate to an area where you're hit by the same storm you were running from.
Fortunately, this mess of a week had something of a happy ending for me.
I used the GasBuddy app to find the rare filling stations with power and fuel while driving back to St. Petersburg on Tuesday. The trip only took two hours longer than usual. Once I arrived home, my house was fine except for a lot of small branches in the yard and no electricity.
I finally had the kind of evacuation experience that would make handling any future crises much easier. When you're trying to decide how to best protect your home and family from a massive, approaching storm, it helps to have a little practical knowledge under your belt.
Given the widespread destruction in the Florida Keys and elsewhere, it feels like the Tampa Bay area did more than dodge a bullet — we were lucky beyond imagining.