Irma evacuees come to Golden Triangle

September 9, 2017 10:05:19 PM



The 100-year-old house Eleni Papanou lives in with her two daughters withstood the last serious hurricane to hit Tarpon Springs, Florida, back in 1921. She's hoping it survives Hurricane Irma, as well. 


Outer bands of Irma -- a storm predicted to wallop most of Florida with devastating winds, heavy rains and flooding -- arrived Saturday evening to the state's southern coast. Forecasts Saturday predicted Irma's eyewall will reach land by early today as a Category 3 or 4 storm, with sustained winds exceeding 140 mph. 


Papanou, a musician and personal trainer, left Florida at 3 a.m. Friday with her daughters, Daphne and Phoebe Muller; their cat, Koukla; and Papanou's fellow musician and friend, Gianni Koglis. The only other things they could fit in their car were clothing.  


"My drum kit is going to be destroyed," said Phoebe, who just joined jazz band at school. 


She perked up upon learning of Mississippi's music heritage though. The four arrived in Columbus Friday afternoon after not finding any available hotel rooms in Alabama.  


Papanou was encouraged by the city's history and the downtown area's tourist-like feel. It reminds her of Tarpon Springs, part of the Tampa Bay area that was settled by Greek fishermen in the early 1800s and, like Columbus, has an abundance of 19th century homes. On Saturday she, her daughters and Koglis wandered around downtown Columbus, taking in the Tennessee Williams home. She is considering visiting Clarksdale before they leave Tuesday. 


"At least we're in a positive environment," she said. "It's sunny and there's things to look at." 


Still, it doesn't ease her worries that Hurricane Irma may destroy the history in her own town, to say nothing of her home. 


"You'll never replace what's lost," she said. 


Despite the severity of Irma, Papanou is hopeful. Her house is elevated, and she knows plenty of other buildings in the area have lasted more than a century. Being around the old houses in Columbus gives her hope too, she said. 


"It's enduring," she said. "This lasts. We can last, too." 




Hotels booked 


Papanou's family is one family out of approximately 1,000 people from Florida and Georgia already in Columbus fleeing Irma, said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.  


"I've talked to almost every hotel and if they're not already filled up, they're expecting to be," Carpenter said. 


The evacuees have been filling up local restaurants in addition to hotels, she said. She has been delivering informational guides to hotels in the area. 


"It's more about taking care of our neighbors than making money at this point," she said. 


Starkville hotels also are filling up with Irma evacuees.  


The Holiday Inn and Suites reported about 50 percent of its current customers are those who evacuated from the storm. The hotel is offering discounted room rates and waiving the pet fee.  


Of the other hotels The Dispatch contacted in Starkville, the Comfort Inn and Suites and Days Inn both confirmed seeing an influx of evacuees, as well. 




Coming home 


Not everyone who evacuated to the Golden Triangle were strangers. Brad Maynard, for instance, grew up in Starkville. 


Now living in Jacksonville, Florida, he and his wife Vanessa are waiting out the storm in the home of Brad's parents, Scott and Sandy Maynard. They also brought along Vanessa's parents, Jeff and Eglee Barnes, who evacuated from Coral Springs, Florida. 


Brad said some relatives and friends did not evacuate. 


"We have not been through anything as serious as this," he said. "And it just continues to cause more problems because people that thought they were fine (Friday) could now be directly impacted because of how quickly it is changing. You know, my wife's brother lives in Tampa, and we have a lot of co-workers there, too. And just knowing they are still in the path to be hit makes it even worse." 


Coral Springs sits just 20 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, a city expecting a near direct hit from Irma. 


For the Barneses, the hardest part is the uncertainty of what will happen and how it will impact those left behind.  


"We just hope that communication won't be cut off, and that power, food and supplies will sustain through the unknown," Eglee Barnes said.