ST. PETERSBURG — We bought our house in the fall of 2016 after searching for months. Several things about it appealed to us: sidewalks throughout the neighborhood, which matter a lot when your kids are small. Vintage 1950s tile in the kitchen and bathroom. And the elevation: The house sits along the highest point in St. Petersburg, the 49th Street Ridge, I’ve heard some people call it.
That meant no flood insurance and no mandatory evacuation in the event of a storm. I’m not sure I even realized that existed anywhere on the sandbar of Pinellas County. But that’s what I kept reminding myself of throughout the anxious hurricane season of 2017. We were happily settled in our house by then, my husband, our 2-year-old son and the new baby boy we welcomed in early July.
2018 TAMPA BAY TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: FIVE LESSONS FROM IRMA
He was nine weeks old when Hurricane Irma came barreling toward Tampa Bay in September. I remember waking up that doomsday morning and reading on my phone while nursing my tiny baby that it was St. Petersburg specifically in the crosshairs.
I can admit that the "hunker down" mentality we Floridians stubbornly cling to factored into our decision to stay. But we were also heeding the advice of emergency planners, who urge you not to clog the roads, consume fuel and take up space in hotels and shelters if you’re not ordered to evacuate.
My dad was in a nursing home that was evacuated to a church. My mom and sister, both in flood zone apartments, had decamped to a friend’s house on high ground. We were all where we were supposed to be.
For a week I had pondered packing us all up and leaving. But it’s extraordinarily difficult to travel with small children. Newborns are vulnerable. Toddlers are squirmy. By the time my real panic set in, flights were scarce and the interstate was at a standstill. We took comfort in the fact that many of our neighbors stayed, too.
That Saturday night, as the storm approached, the baby and I settled in one bedroom, my husband and toddler in the other, with a plan to grab a kid and duck into a closet if calamity ensued. I tried to fall asleep under the morbid certainty that being in a non-evacuation zone mattered zilch if a tree crashed through the roof.
• • •
I recently spoke with Joe Borries, operations manager for Pinellas County Emergency Management, about our experience and asked him outright if we had done the right thing.
He ran down the checklist with me:
• We’d packed a hurricane kit, food, water, first aid supplies, bug repellent and flashlights.
• We had boarded up the windows, but Borries docked us a few points for failing to secure our older garage door, which should be braced against wind.
• We also didn’t have a battery-powered or hand-crank radio to keep us up to date on emergency alerts such as tornado warnings after the storm. (I mistakenly thought a cell phone, which could be re-charged in the car, was adequate. But if the cell towers went down, we would have been out of luck.)
• As for my fear of an oak limb crashing onto my baby, Borries said, sure, it’s a concern. But falling trees don’t all do severe damage, and if there’s a large, old tree over one part of the house, he suggested moving to the interior for the period the storm is passing over.
His conclusion: Nothing about our situation says we should have evacuated.
In fact, we’d have been in the way. Borries said some 3.6 million people evacuated for Irma who were not under evacuation orders. That only makes it harder to get people out of the real danger zones — and to get them back home once it’s over.
"We like that people are taking the precautions that you took by being prepared," Borries told me. "Evacuation orders are for those in the storm surge-vulnerable areas. The water does so much damage and that’s where most of the deaths occur.
"You were fine."
2018 TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: GET READY FOR STORM SEASON
So many people suffered after Hurricane Irma. I woke up that Sunday grateful and relieved, along with the rest of Tampa Bay, that we had been spared. Our power was out, but we hosted a fun, sweaty lunch on the grill with our neighbors, who returned the favor that evening at dinner.
This hurricane season my kids will be 3½ and 1, no less vulnerable to the ravages of a major hurricane. But I’m confident our house will hold up, and I’m going to keep doing what the experts advise, even if that means enduring a long power outage with two cranky toddlers.
Contact Molly Moorhead at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @mollymoorhead.