What to do when the Waffle House closes: Advice from an Irma evacuee

Jennifer Rubiello

Friday morning at 5 a.m. The sky is dark, but the roads are clear and I’m just a few miles away from my AirBnb in Murfreesboro, Tennessee—valuables, pup and nourishment in tow. After 18 hours of driving, I’m exhausted but grateful to be out of harm’s way.

Flooding and stormwater pollution are serious concerns on normal days, so I wasn’t about to take a chance with the Atlantic’s most dangerous hurricane on record. Not to mention the wind. While the house I rent is 45 feet above sea level and out of an evacuation zone, there’s no guarantee the wood frame can withstand winds upwards of 100 mph.

My decision to evacuate was easy. I work in the environmental field and have seen the hurricane risk maps for Tampa Bay. Tampa and St. Petersburg are amongst the most vulnerable cities in the world when it comes to sea level rise, flooding, and the impacts of major storms.

Unfortunately, for many, the decision hasn’t been so simple.

Several of my friends in St. Petersburg are mandatory workers: two are nurses, one is a firefighter, and another is part of the Coast Guard Reserve. They have to stay.

Other friends have relatives who don’t feel safe or healthy enough to leave. My boss’s 93-year-old mother-in-law is riding out the storm in West Palm Beach. She says she’s been shopping for hurricane season supplies since July.

Then there’s the cost. Many people can’t afford to leave. Some don’t have a readily accessible car and don’t have the several hundred dollars on hand to rent one. Others have large families that make going far stressful and costly.

With the storm headed directly up the Gulf Coast, preparations are over and it’s time to hope for the best. As of Sunday evening, millions of Floridians are already out of power and the storm is only starting to hit land. Perhaps the most telling sign to hunker down is that the Waffle Houses are closed. Seriously, even FEMA administrators have been known to take their cues from the Waffle House Index to determine the severity of a storm.

Making it alive through the hurricane is the top priority. Once it passes, there will be plenty to tackle. After witnessing friends and colleagues who just experienced Harvey, the threats we’ll need to deal with in the days to come are numerous, but not all get the attention they deserve.

First and foremost, keep an eye on the weather and don’t go out until local officials have given the green light. It may seem safe during the hours after the storm, but dangerous tropical storm winds and even more dangerous storm surges are likely to continue well past the initial hit.

Stay away from and out of the water. While my house is on high ground, flooding and storm surge are likely to overwhelm coastal communities and the many Tampa Bay residents who live in a flood zone. Just 6 inches of water can knock over an adult according to the National Weather Service. Also, stormwater pollution and potential sewage overflows means much of the water pulsing throughout the region could be contaminated and carrying a toxic stew of chemicals. These chemicals can come from our homes and garages, as well as waste and mining sites.

On that note, be aware of local hazardous waste sites.Throughout Florida, neighborhoods may be at risk from damaged or flooded hazardous waste, phosphate mining, and industrial waste sites. Superfund sites are polluted locations requiring a long-term federal response to clean up hazardous material contaminations. Phosphate mines, according to the EPA, involve phosphate rock that can contain radioactive materials including uranium, thorium and radium. Risk Management Plan facilities are sites that use extremely hazardous substances. The Environmental Protection Agency requires them to develop a Risk Management Plan and submit to EPA. The fertilizer plant that exploded, killing 15 people, in 2013 was one such plant. You can find some of the nearest sites in Florida here.

Ideally, sites containing toxic chemicals are secured and have strong emergency plans in place, but we know from Hurricane Harvey that many companies that produce or use toxic chemicals don’t share the information with the public or even first responders. Many of these sites are not currently required to disclose their safety and emergency preparedness plans to the public.​ The government hasn’t always done enough to secure even Superfund sites from storms of this magnitude. What’s worse, these sites are often poorly regulated, and even well-regulated sites can, and do fail.

Make sure you especially keep your kids and pets from wading into the water. In the Harvey aftermath, a researcher from Texas A&M University saw children swimming in retention pools downstream from the Brio Refinery Superfund site. Floridians have certainly been known to venture out and play in flood water. It’s really worth holding off this time. Remember any water still running through our streets, homes and parks is not as clean as the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom. Community members are coming together to help each other out. Neighbors are opening their homes to one another, and local community organizations statewide are already thinking ahead and planning for our state’s most vulnerable members.

As we clean up and, if necessary, rebuild, let’s remember to call on our elected officials to start planning now for the next superstorm. We can’t stop hurricanes, but we can make our communities safer, healthier and more resilient, so there’s more left standing to come back to and less to be afraid of when the next storm comes around.

If you’re out of harm’s way and would like to help, the Miami Foundation, Community Foundation of Sarasota, and a group of Tampa Bay foundations have all set up funds with local partners for relief efforts. For more hurricane resources, updates, and tips for what to do during and after the storm, go to FEMA.gov. Soon enough, the Waffle Houses will be open and running again, and our communities will regroup together to be even stronger and more resilient than before.

This blog was originally posted on Huffington Post and Medium.


Jennifer Rubiello