Editor’s Note: David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at the University of Tampa. Follow him on Twitter @WheelerWorkshop. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
More than 1,000 people move to Florida every day. That means there are a lot of new Floridians who haven’t experienced a hurricane evacuation yet.
As a relatively new Floridian myself, I have a story for my new neighbors living in the Panhandle, getting ready to experience the wrath of Hurricane Michael.
Last year, when Hurricane Irma hit Tampa Bay, I was a hurricane dummy. Well, maybe not a dummy, but definitely a rookie. I hadn’t yet experienced my first tropical storm evacuation. All that changed when Irma churned its way up the Gulf Coast of Florida in September, and the eye of the storm passed right over my adopted city of Tampa.
From my first evacuation experience, which involved driving 600 miles in 14 hours, I’ve learned the following lessons, which I gladly share with my fellow Floridians and others who live in coastal areas.
Tip #1: Fill your tank early – and often
My fellow Floridians drilled this mantra into my head from my very first few days in the Sunshine State, and I’m glad I took their advice. I had a full tank of gas well in advance of leaving town. If I had waited until the last minute, I might have been out of luck. As the storm was approaching, lots of gas stations had those telltale plastic bags over the pump. Remember: If a gas station has gas, pull over and get some immediately.
Tip #2: Have food and water for your road trip
Again, this was advice I’m glad I took. I had plenty of granola bars, chips, bottles of water and other assorted snacks for my journey. It’s a good thing, too, because I was on the road literally all night long, from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next day.
Tip #3: Leave town super early
Although I left town days before Irma hit the Tampa Bay area, it wasn’t early enough. I thought I could make up for lost time by taking a less-traveled state road instead of the congested interstate. It didn’t matter. I still ran into traffic jams. Likewise, I thought I could find a hotel vacancy by driving northwest into Alabama instead of due north into Georgia (where most people were headed). That didn’t matter, either. Nothing beats leaving earlier than everybody else.
Which leads me to my next point…
Tip #4: Book a hotel while you still can
As I drove through rural north Florida, my thoughtful sister and brother-in-law called me from safe-and-dry Cincinnati with some news: “We found a hotel vacancy for you in Alabama!” I should have heeded their advice to book a place. But I wasn’t completely sure I could make it to Alabama. What if traffic came to a complete standstill for hours at a time? What if I ran out of gas before I got to Alabama?
I should have stopped “what iffing” myself. It turned out that hotel rooms were in even shorter supply than gas. Which is why I drove for 14 straight hours before I found a vacancy. Six hundred miles later – in Birmingham. So, book that hotel room – or that “vacancy” at the home of your long-lost friend from high school or college. Or, if you’re not sure how far you can get, book multiple places. One of the most dramatic things I saw on my long journey was the sight of hundreds of people sleeping in their cars at rest areas. With their kids. And their pets.
As it happened, Tampa was luckily spared yet again from the kind of damage other Florida cities have had to endure. But it could have played out differently. Millions lost power and faced flooding. If you’re physically capable, and your local authorities have recommended it, you should evacuate. This is something the residents of the Carolinas, where Florence’s death toll has climbed to 51, know all too well.