Hurricane Irma didn’t come to Mobile. There was no wind damage or storm surge. No reporters trying to stand in the driving rain. No maps confusing Alabama with Mississippi and no plywood hammered over windows. No rescue. No recovery.
Irma didn’t come to Mobile, but Floridians chased out of every corner of their state did.
People who have never been to Mobile, or even Alabama, navigated gas shortages and drove 13, 18 or 20 hours in crawling traffic to get here.
They came because there was no other choice. Atlanta, or anywhere north, was the first option but Irma was headed that way, too. I-10 West was all they had left and for two days the Bayway was bumper-to-bumper license plates from the Sunshine State. But unlike families driving down for a week at the beach in cars packed from the roof to the trailer hitch, boxes weren’t bungeed to the roof and bikes weren’t hanging from a rack off the back.
People who didn’t know Alabama has cities or beaches booked all of our hotel rooms and came to us with nothing but a change of clothes and their dogs and cats.
Lots of dogs. Labradoodles, pit bulls and terriers. Even a hairless, and temperamental, Chinese Crested. Those four-legged parts of the family that couldn’t be left behind pulled on leashes and sniffed each other from early in the morning along Royal and Dauphin streets.
While the rest of the country watched nonstop coverage of “the biggest evacuation in American history” for the “biggest hurricane ever,” Mobile became a refuge for people who had nothing but uncertainty, life and each other. The evacuation, the warnings, the doomsday predictions overshadowed the emotions of the people affected. But here we got to know the people of Florida, not Irma.
They were artists who took their own work off walls in their apartment, hoping favorite paintings will be there when they go back. People who said goodbye to Orlando, Naples, Tampa — cities they love and want to see unchanged when they return in a few days.
A family who moved to Florida from Colombia three years ago because they want to be safe with a better life for their three kids. A couple who survived typhoons in Hong Kong and the Philippines and said hurricanes here are worse because we don’t have the infrastructure to handle them. Christa, who grew up in Germany and never wants to be cold again, worried about her son-in-law who could not leave because he works for the sheriff’s department in West Palm Beach. He promised to take care of her cat who could not have survived the car ride with three dogs and three grandkids.
Every one of them trying not to think of the worst and preparing for it anyway.
All of them strangers with a hurricane in common and finding comfort and kindness in Mobile. Treating this as an unexpected vacation or feeling a little guilty for enjoying themselves at a time like this. Appreciative of discounts at restaurants and hearing good music at O’Daly’s. Listening to news of home through earbuds while eating burgers from the Bier Garten. Going to Art Walk or watching the Black Jacket Symphony at the Saenger.
“We love Mobile. The people are lovely,” Martha Bandy said. She came here with her husband, R.L., and poodle, Lucie. “Mobile is more progressive than we expected and you can walk downtown. Dogs are allowed so many places. We walked into a bagel place and they had doggie treats so we got to take Lucie in. They have a dog biscotti and we are going to try that tomorrow.
“It’s not just us. We have talked to a lot of people who came for the storm and are liking Mobile,” Bandy said. “We are coming back. Art Walk was so much fun last night. We are pretty happy with our evacuation. You have a gem and I will be preaching it. We are at the Battle House, it is gorgeous. We told friends checking on us that we aren’t having it too rough. Please tell everyone thank you for being so good to all of us coming in.”
Mobile took them in. Homeless men in Bienville Square offered sympathy, directions and recommendations before asking for a cigarette or some change. A family was moved in church to love on strangers and a few hours later took their bunny, roller skates, bikes and jump house to Cathedral Square to give kids something to do. It didn’t matter that the rainbow on the “Welcome Florida Friends” sign hid a misspelling. Kids came and played anyway.
There were offers of help and of places to stay. Invitations to church and “Here is my number, please call me if you need anything.”
As Irma moves north across Florida, signs of recovery are moving east through Mobile. On Sunday a convoy of trucks with flashing blue lights pulling jon boats crossed the Bayway and a fleet of Entergy power trucks from Baton Rouge gassed up on the way to an unknown destination in Florida. A tattered American flag flew from a cable on the back of the truck at pump five.
“We don’t know where we are going, but they told us to pack for two weeks. We have our sleeping bags and beer.”
We bought beer. And bread and water. We wiped out Walmarts like the hurricane was coming for us. Instead, we had the first clear blue sky days of fall. The days that make you thankful to be alive. Someone called our premature panic “reverse-tempting fate. Prepare and the storm turns.”
Houston. Florida. Harvey. Irma. We know our storm is coming and empty shelves of bread and water won’t change our fate. We will grab the dogs, a change of clothes, lock the door, and drive away.
Maybe we will find other cities that bring out bunnies, doggie treats and roller skates and take us in, too.