Finances, family obligations discourage commuters from evacuating

Hurricane Irma interrupted the lives of all UM students but especially commuters, who spent the days leading up to the storm preparing for the worst and the days after recovering.

Junior Jorge Banegas has been working extra hours at his job for the UM Service Desk trying to make up for the nearly two weeks of lost time.

During the storm, Banegas saw the canals near his house full to the brim, reminding him of images of massive flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. However, now it was an imminent threat.

“We were raised here, and commuter students live here, so it hit on more of a personal level,” said Banegas, a computer science major. “Seeing the places you grew up with and you live in day in and day out … Seeing all the damaged property, the streets filled with all the remnants of the storm.”

Many students can recall Hurricane Wilma and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though not in detail. The stories of Hurricane Andrew, a 1992 Category 5 storm that ripped through South Florida and left huge areas flattened and unrecognizable, live on forever in the minds of locals.

The narrative leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall contained comparisons between Andrew and Irma, and the message was clear: this storm is more powerful and much larger than Andrew.

Banegas helped his parents prepare early, stocking up on gasoline and supplies over Labor Day weekend. There were eight people in his home during Irma: his four siblings, grandmother, parents and him. They were in the home for days, causing some cabin fever, he said. His family passed the time playing board games and talking, something Banegas said he wishes would happen more often.

As the storm entered South Florida, Banegas spent a sleepless night listening to the wind whistle against the windows and comforting his 8-year-old sister, who was experiencing a major storm for the first time.

Thalia Garcia, a senior studying software engineering, said she wasn’t worried about the storm at first. She and her family always lost electricity during hurricanes, but past hurricanes failed to cause major damage. She became worried when her friends started evacuating in droves, facing clogged highways to escape the storm. Her anxieties increased even more once her parents, seasoned Floridians, started showing more concern.

“My dad put lots of wood across our front door,” Garcia said. “He hammered it in there, and that’s something we’ve never done before, so it’s like, ‘It’s official we’re trapped in here, this is a big deal.’”

Her family’s impact-resistant windows offered a view to the outside world as the storm tore through her neighborhood, ripping trees from their roots. Branches knocked against her roof with loud thuds, and her family feared that the roof wouldn’t hold.

“The scariest would be when something loud would happen because then it’s not just a visual thing, you could hear the storm affecting your house,” Garcia said.

Garcia spent the day after the storm picking up branches and scooping leaves out of her pool. One side of her street was completely blocked off, a giant tree strewn across the road.

The storm ended up blocking roads, scattering debris and left many without electricity.

Garcia was without electricity for nine days. Her family receives water from a nearby well, and, without electricity, she had to travel to her grandmother’s house to take showers – cold ones.

Rebekah Chung, a junior studying broadcast journalism and political science, stayed with her fiancé, UM student Virgilio Capote, and his parents at their home on Coral Way during the storm.

The week before Irma hit, it had been a scramble to get ready. South Floridians began stocking up on groceries Labor Day weekend, and shelves were soon bare. Locals stood in lines at hardware stores for hours, hoping for some plywood to protect their homes.

Chung said it wasn’t until she saw the chaos around her that she took the storm seriously.

“You don’t necessarily realize how severe it can be until everyone around you starts panicking,” Chung said.

Following the cancelation of classes, Chung saw students leaving in droves, making her question if she should book a flight. It’s not that easy for commuter students, Chung said, as many don’t have the money or resources to leave “at the drop of a hat.” Others worried about leaving family and friends behind.

“You are kind of stuck in this situation; it’s sink or swim,” Chung said. “You don’t have enough money to just drop everything and travel.”

Her parents evacuated to Orlando because they feared what would happen in the flood-prone area of Homestead in which they live. On Coral Way, the fear was not the water but the wind. Irma was most ferocious because of its incredibly fast, sustained winds. Chung saw the effects of that force, even though the storm was on the other side of the peninsula.

“It never occurred for us to evacuate to a shelter because we felt we were safe here, only to find out during the storm, several trees in the backyard started falling and threatening to fall on the house itself,” Chung said. “It was so close. If the wind had hit it in a different direction, it would’ve toppled over the house.”

Chung said she hopes to get back to normal following the storm, and she has been heartened by how people have come together to support one another throughout the whole process. She experienced it firsthand: Capote proposed to her the week after the storm.

Following the storm, few restaurants were open. They were driving around on the roads when he popped the question.

“It was definitely memorable,” Chung said.