Hurricane Dorian evacuations: 'The only people on this block who left have the money to do it'

Uncertainty of when and where Hurricane Dorian will hit has left Floridians in evacuation zones frustrated, saying it will cost them a week's worth of wages.
Image: Hurricane Dorian
Sherry Estrada, 54, and her daughter Stasia Ponitowski, 28, watch the latest Hurricane Dorian update with Ponitowski's husband and daughter in Volusia County, Florida on Sept. 2, 2019. The family had decided to ride out the storm together at Estrada's home on a barrier island under a mandatory evacuation order, but they continued to debate whether to depart their homes and livelihood for what could be an unknown period of time.Ed Ou / NBC News

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By Phil McCausland

WILBUR-BY-THE-SEA, Fla. — Typically on Labor Day, Sherry Estrada and her family go boating or relax with a drink on the beach a quarter-mile from their home. But this year, they huddled around the television waiting for the latest updates on Hurricane Dorian and what path it might take.

The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office also provided Estrada an update, driving by her home and announcing over a loudspeaker that this Florida barrier island was considered a mandatory evacuation zone. But with the hurricane only a day out, about a dozen people in this tight-knit neighborhood remained Monday and planned to ride out the storm together and coordinate over walkie-talkies.

Evacuating is easier said than done, Estrada said. The unclear trajectory of the storm has closed businesses and cost people nearly a week’s worth of wages. The expense of evacuating and the missed income made leaving almost impossible for many, including Estrada.

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“The only people on this block who left have the money to do it — a dentist, a pilot, an anesthesiologist,” Estrada said, as her granddaughter tugged on her arm. “I’m a hairdresser and am not going to be able to work this week. My son-in-law owns his own business. My daughter is a nurse, so she’s on call. I have another son who is an electrician, and he’s not working this week. My other daughter is a waitress, so this was supposed to be a big shebang weekend for them — they’re losing that money. My husband’s a machinist, and his work probably won’t be open.”

She said she started getting prepared for the storm nearly a week ago, but a day before slow-moving Dorian was set to arrive, her family had eaten through the food they’d bought for the storm. And though she didn't go into details, she said they also spent a fair amount of capital on storm preparations.

Teenage boys run toward the waves, stirred up by the outer winds of Hurricane Dorian, in Melbourne Beach, Fla., on Monday. Throngs of curious people gathered on the beaches of the state's barrier islands, many of which were considered evacuation zones, as the storm continued to make its way toward the Florida Coast.Ed Ou / NBC News

The cost of evacuation keeps many like Estrada at home — even if that home is in the danger zone. Beyond the travel costs and missed wages, every day they're not at home means they're paying for food and shelter somewhere else.

More than a million people across the Southeast are making the same calculations about getting out of town, and Hurricane Dorian's unclear trajectory and the exasperating slow place has complicated their decisions.

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The storm was expected to hit the Florida coast early this week, but the forecast began to shift over the weekend.

Dorian then stalled over the Bahamas on Sunday and Monday as a Category 5 hurricane, moving no faster than 1 mph. At least five people are dead in what Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis called a “historic tragedy” that left many on the islands homeless.

In Florida, not far from the beach in Port Orange, Bob and Linda Younkins said they thought they had escaped having to make evacuation decisions when they relocated from Panama City after Hurricane Michael — a Category 5 storm that killed dozens of people when it made landfall on the Florida Panhandle almost a year ago.

Linda Younkins, 55, said she had transferred from her job at a TJ Maxx store in Panama City that permanently shuttered to one near Port Orange. When Hurricane Dorian seemed imminent last week, the store closed. Since then, she's called every day, hoping that she could go back to work.

Losing that paycheck was one reason why the couple had already told their friends and family that they wouldn’t evacuate their home on the barrier island. The other issue? They weren’t sure where to go even if they wanted to leave.

“We could drive north or to Tampa, I guess, but we don’t have anywhere to go,” Younkins said, noting that the closet family is in Pittsburgh. “We could sleep in our car if I have to, but I’d rather be here in my home.”

And while some like Younkins were weighing the cost of evacuating, others were trying to capitalize on the storm.

Clay Baldwin, 28, drove a rental truck full of electric generators from his home in South Carolina to a spot on the side of the road in Allandale, Florida. Baldwin said he works for Elite Power, a company that builds generators. On Monday, he sold the gas-powered contraptions to worried Floridians for $650 to $750 a pop, not much more than they would be if they were still available at stores, but said he planned to get out of Dorian’s path in the next day.

“This storm’s only moving 1 mph right now, so we’re checking the updates whenever we can — update, update, update,” he said, sitting on a cooler in the back of the truck.

Many stores between Port Orange to Palm Bay, Fla., were either closed or sold out of generators — as well as other hurricane preparation items. The 90-mile area was under hurricane warning from the National Hurricane Center on Monday.

People along that stretch shared their frustrations and anxieties Monday while searching for last-minute items at gas stations that remained open.

Irving Surdam, 55, is joined by a friend as he fills gas cans Monday, a day before the effects of Hurricane Dorian are supposed to be felt by his home in Melbourne Beach, Fla., which was under a mandatory evacuation order. A construction worker, Surdam said that he planned to leave if things got bad but felt prepared for the storm's current forecast.Ed Ou / NBC News

Irving Surdam, 55, a construction worker, filled up gas cans of various sizes in Melbourne Beach, Florida, as a band of heavy rain and wind lashed his white passenger van.

“If I think it’s gonna hit, I’m gonna get out of here,” he said, noting he was worried about the storm surge hitting his beachside home. “I just want to know what’s going on with my house, but it’s been so damn slow. It’s been almost a week already. This thing has a mind of its own, and nobody really seems to know what's going on.”

But not everyone appeared that conflicted.

On the nearby beach, throngs of people braved the wind and rain to watch as the Atlantic Ocean’s crashing white-capped waves hinted at the strength of Hurricane Dorian, fewer than 100 miles from Florida’s coast.

Bradley Eris, 23, a roofer who lives nearby, eyes popped when he saw a group of teenagers rush into the choppy surf.

“When there’s storm’s like this, the riptides are pretty bad,” he said, as the tropical rain turned his hair into a wet mop. “People need to be careful. They can get sucked out there if they’re not strong enough to swim back. Some of the best surfers I know wouldn’t go out in that.”