From left, Luis Rojas, Noemy Estevez and Paul DePani Photo by: Photos by Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Left to right: Ariel Torres, his wife, Noemy Estevez; Yamile Coto DePani, her husband, Paul DePani; and her parents, Blanca Coto and Miguel Coto were all part of a four-car caravan of 11 people total who evacuated their homes in south Florida in wake of Hurricane Irma. They arrived at The Courtyard Marriott Saturday and spent several days in Columbus to shelter from the storm.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
September 13, 2017 10:56:59 AM
Editor's Note: A few of the hundreds of Hurricane Irma evacuees from Florida who came to Columbus shared their stories with The Dispatch.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Luis Rojas made a last-minute decision Friday to leave his apartment in Fort Lauderdale and drive west away from Hurricane Irma.
"We wanted to stay," Rojas said. "(But) we saw it was a Category 5 and didn't want to take the risk."
He, his wife and his 2-year-old son joined his brother, sister-in-law and their two children and drove west until they found an available hotel room at the Fairfield Hotel in Columbus.
What was normally a 12-hour trip turned into 20 because of all the other evacuees leaving the state, Rojas said in the hotel lobby Tuesday while he enjoyed a free lunch a local sandwich shop had prepared for hotel guests who fled Irma. He's liked Columbus, he said -- everyone, from the hotel staff to the people he's met out in the community has been friendly and hospitable.
Over the last couple of days, Rojas has checked out some of the local tourist attractions, like Catfish Alley, and let his son take carriage rides outside the Tennessee Williams Home with his brother's children.
Meanwhile, his neighbors who stayed in Fort Lauderdale have reported to him that his own home hasn't had any damage from the hurricane.
"We're lucky that the hurricane changed last-minute," Rojas said. "It changed direction. It went west."
Noemy Estevez, her three children and her 1-year-old puppy joined Paul DePani's family Friday as they fled Hurricane Irma. Estevez's husband, Ariel Torres, caught up with them at the Red Cross shelter that night.
All she brought was a picture, clothing, half her jewels and a Rosary, she said.
Unlike DePani, her home was damaged, she said Tuesday in the hotel lobby of the Courtyard Marriott. She pulled out her phone and began watching video that showed pine trees on the roof of her house, a yard mostly underwater and empty space where her shed once stood.
"It's gone," she said of the shed. "We'll find it eventually. It's got to be down the street."
She's glad they evacuated -- even without the physical danger, being in the house during the storm would have been traumatizing for her younger children, she said, particularly given the trees hitting the roof.
"Had we been in it, it would have (sounded like) bombs going off on the roof," she said.
They plan to head back with DePani's family today. They'll travel in a caravan again, she said -- it'll be safer that way if any of them end up running out of gas on the way back.
"We're just anxious to get back," Torres said.
Paul DePani was part of a four-car caravan of 11 evacuees from West Browder County in Florida -- including children and his 98-year-old grandfather-in-law who is on oxygen. It took the entire group two days to make it to The Courtyard Marriott in Columbus due to other evacuee traffic.
He, his family and friends left Friday, spent the night at a Red Cross shelter in north Florida that night and then kept driving west the next day.
After seeing destruction Hurricane Andrew caused his town in 1992, DePani wasn't taking any chances with his family.
"Expect that you would have nothing behind you," he said. "That was my fear. You had to make your peace that everything was gone."
He took family photos, computers, clothes, food and important papers, he said. The most valuable thing, of course, was his family, he said.
"If you have to start all over, what's more important?" he said.
Luckily he's learned his house survived with minimal damage and local grocery stores should be operational when he returns.
He's not sure whether convenience stores back home have fuel. He plans to head back home today either way.
Reporter Alex Holloway contributed to these articles.
1. Inmate dies at Lowndes County jail COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. One dead after downtown Columbus shooting COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Slimantics: 110-year-old poster a memento of legendary MSU-Ole Miss game COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Restaurant tax: CVB offers compromise on 2-percent tax COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. A truly multi-purpose playground COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY