Michigan ex-pats: ‘Nowhere to hide’ as Irma closes in

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — While Michigan utilities send workers to Florida to prepare to restore power after Hurricane Irma, plenty of former Michiganians who live in the Sunshine State are staying put, hoping to ride out the massive storm that’s poised to strike this weekend.

Hurricane Irma, center, roars by the north coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, with Hurricane Jose lurking behind it in the Atlantic. To the left, Hurricane Katia moves toward the coast of Mexico. Irma may punish Florida’s entire Atlantic coast.

Tomi Zito, 57, a Harrison Township native who moved to Boca Raton, Florida, in 1984, had hoped to fly to Michigan next week to visit relatives but is resigned to staying home through the storm. Traffic was so snarled during a local trip for supplies that “it took us about four hours to drive 30 miles,” she said.

“I really wish I could go. I was planning on visiting to help one of my friends move, but my husband wasn’t feeling good and we didn’t know where the storm was headed,” said Zito, who has been through Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005 — both Category 5 hurricanes like Irma.

“This is the biggest, and right now it could go left, east or up the middle and there’s really nowhere to hide,” she said. “The roads are crazy.”

Zito lives with her husband and dog and said she is terrified because of the aftermath of the last two hurricanes.

Residents fill up sandbags Thursday in Orlando. Long lines of vehicles waited for hours to get a 10 sandbag limit at the City of Orlando Public Works.

“With Andrew, we lost power for a week and with Wilma, we lost power for three weeks,” she said. “The aftermath of Andrew was complete devastation ... I’m terrified. I really am.”

Michigan utilities are sending hundreds of workers to Florida to assist with power restoration. DTE Energy is dispatching roughly 300 line workers plus 100 tree trimmers. Consumers Energy is sending more than 200 employees and contract personnel to assist. Both groups are expected to reach Florida on Friday afternoon.

“We’re energized to go down there, we really want to go down there and help out and hopefully, get the lights back on for (Florida Light & Power’s) customers,” Brian Calka, director of field operations for DTE Energy’s electric division, said in a video the company tweeted Thursday.

The visiting utility workers could end up helping former Metro Detroiters like Danielle Mila, 25, who moved to the Orlando area three years ago. Mila, who grew up in Livonia, works at Disney hotel resorts, lives in an apartment with two roommates in Kissimmee and plans on staying through the storm.

Major theme parks in the tourist hotspot, including Disney, Universal and SeaWorld were operating as normal Thursday, and Mila said the parks have kept their doors open to those unable to make it back home.

A photo taken on September 7, 2017 shows damage in the Concordia area on the French Carribean island of Saint-Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma.

“My parents really want me to come home, but a lot of people in this area, including myself, are still working,” Mila said. “It’s been kind of crazy seeing the number of people still trying to get to Orlando for their theme park vacations.”

Mila said people seemed to be prepared from Hurricane Matthew last year, but essentials are becoming scarce.

“I went to the grocery store on Tuesday, and it was pretty slim pickings and everywhere is out of water,” she said. “(Staying) is a hard decision. It’s too late to book a flight; my roommates and I were debating driving up to their cousins who live in Atlanta, but we are afraid of getting stuck somewhere without gas or a place to stay before the storm hits.”

Some former Michiganians are preparing their families and homes to face a hurricane for the first time.

“I lived in Michigan my whole life ... I have wanted to live here for a long time — we were tired of cold and snow,” said Genevieve Kitchak Kelpin, 41, who moved from Shelby Township to Cape Coral in July with her two sons. “We love it here, and this hurricane is scary, but we have decided to stick it out. We have hurricane shutters and supplies, and most of our neighbors are staying so we can all look out for each other.”

Rachelle Pospishel, 34, originally from St. Clair County, relocated to southwest Florida’s Lee County in June and said this is the first time she has been in the path of a hurricane.

“Much like being used to preparing for tornadoes, as that’s not uncommon in Michigan, it is a scary thought to think everything could be lost in a matter of minutes,” Pospishel said.

“We’ve thought of leaving, however I-75 is completely traffic-jammed and supplies are limited, especially water and gas. It is almost safer to be stuck home than in a car stuck in traffic with the fear you may run out of gas just trying to get out.”

With Florida being a popular retiree migration destination, many are concerned about the safety of seniors in Irma’s path.

Nancy Kowalski, 72, who lived in Grand Blanc before she and her husband retired in Fort Myers 20 years ago, has been through Hurricane Charley in 2004, a Category 4 storm, and Hurricane Wilma.

She said she’s also going to stick it out, though the couple will leave their manufactured home until Irma passes.

“We will have to evacuate to my brother’s (nearby) condo, which will be safe. We have a neighbor who is 96 and in a wheelchair, so we’re going to take her with us,” Kowalski said. “The stores are cleaned out, we got our gas about three days ago, but it’s very stressful. Everyone who is staying is very nervous . . .”

Maureen McNally Boston said she and her 89-year-old mother, Patricia Larocca, both originally from Kalamazoo, managed to score the last two seats on a flight out of Orlando to Michigan on Thursday. McNally Boston said stores and gas stations are sold out where they live in West Palm Beach.

“We couldn’t get flights out of West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale. Made a decision on Tuesday after it really looked like we were going to take a direct hit from a monster killer hurricane,” McNally Boston said. “Traffic from West Palm to Orlando was like bumper cars. It was crazy. What was normally a two and a half hour drive that took us about seven hours.”

Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.