By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
The Sorrells family had two unwelcome guests in the past month – the first named Harvey, followed by Irma.
“Stay away from us, we seem to be jinxed,” Larry Sorrells said on Saturday.
Larry and Janet Sorrells, longtime Bowling Green residents, moved to Punta Gorda, Florida, in April. Their daughter Jennifer and her family live in Houston, Texas. As Hurricane Harvey approached, Jennifer, her spouse and their daughter, went to Austin for safety.
“They were very lucky,” and their home suffered no damage, Larry Sorrells said.
But as Larry and Janet Sorrells were worrying about Harvey’s wrath in Texas, Irma showed up on the radar.
“We saw this thing for a long time,” but forecasters were uncertain where Irma was headed exactly. “We were glued to the TV” waiting for updates, Sorrells said. “We were watching the storm, and it’s a monster,” leveling some Caribbean islands on its way to Florida.
Sorrells is accustomed to preparing for emergencies and public health crises. As the former health commissioner for Wood County, he spent years making sure the public was safe. But this was different.
“This is our first hurricane, and maybe our last. I wouldn’t mind that,” he said.
“I have a lot of training in emergency preparedness,” Sorrells said. So he and Janet planned ahead and made hotel reservations in Atlanta, Georgia, and they prepared their home with storm shutters and other precautionary steps to be battered by Irma.
“There’s a lot of stuff to get ready for these things so you don’t come home to an even bigger mess,” he said.
When the evacuation order was issued, they were ready. “We knew not to stay in a mobile home during a hurricane,” he said. “Homes can be replaced, human lives can’t.”
But their plans changed as it became almost impossible to get gas, and as the highways became blocked with traffic headed the one direction for safety – north. The Sorrells were also wanting to help out other neighbors in their retirement community in Punta Gorda.
So they scrapped the Atlanta plans and instead sought shelter in Red Cross sites set up in Sarasota County. The first shelter they went to was not open. The second one was already full. The third one – an elementary school designed to withstand hurricanes – was just right.
“We were assigned to Mrs. Weaver’s kindergarten classroom,” along with about 22 other people, he said. The entire school took in about 1,000 people seeking shelter. “We felt safe there the whole time.”
Safe, but not exactly comfortable. The Sorrells learned a valuable lesson that many Floridians who have experienced hurricanes already know – bring bedding or sleep on the floor.
“The people who knew what they were doing brought cots or air mattresses,” he said. “I will guarantee you by next spring we will have two air mattresses.”
But as someone with experience planning for disasters, Sorrells said the shelters were run quite well.
“God bless the Red Cross,” he said. “I was very, very impressed with the Red Cross.”
“I know from my work experience that not only are their shelters safe, but they are connected to county the emergency operations center, which is extremely important,” Sorrells said.
When the storm passed and evacuation orders were lifted, the Sorrells and their neighbors returned to their homes. Though many homes in the Punta Gorda community had lost roofs, carports and trees, the Sorrells’ home escaped unharmed.
“We were very blessed,” Sorrells said.
The eye of the storm reportedly went right over Punta Gorda, but by the time it arrived it had dropped to about 74 mph – about half of its speed in the Caribbean.
“That is what saved us,” Sorrells said. If Irma had not reduced in strength, “I’m not sure anything would have been left.”