University of Michigan alum evacuates as Hurricane Irma hits Florida

ANN ARBOR, MI – It’s a helpless feeling to experience something the magnitude of Hurricane Irma from a smartphone, Khalida Cook said, as she anticipated the storm hitting her hometown of Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 10.

Cook, who was born in Ann Arbor, and raised in Columbus, Ohio, before coming back to attend the University of Michigan, evacuated Fort Myers in Southwest Florida on Friday following a mandatory order from the city.

Her family decided to make the drive to New Orleans to seek refuge, experiencing all of the difficulties associated with traveling while keeping friends and family who opted to stay in Florida in the back of their minds at all times.

What is usually an 11-hour drive from Fort Myers to New Orleans turned out to be 18 hours. Cook estimated that only one out of every four gas stations still had fuel, while many of the rest stations weren’t in service, so there were no places to go to the bathroom on the family’s trip.

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“It makes me want to be back there,” Cook said Sunday afternoon as the nearly 400-mile-wide storm blew ashore in the morning in the mostly cleared-out Florida Keys. “When you’re there, you’re worried about your livelihood and your belongings, but when you’re not there, you’re thinking ‘it’s going down and I’m not there.’ You’re thinking about your family and friends that are still there.”

The hurricane is expected to make a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast, hitting the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area by Monday morning.

By midafternoon, Irma’s winds had dropped to a still-fearsome 120 mph, according to the Associated Press.

Many streets were underwater in downtown Miami and in other cities. Roof damage and floating appliances and furniture were reported in the low-lying Keys, but the full extent of Irma’s wrath was not clear.

While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire state – including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people – was in extreme peril because of the sheer size of the storm.

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Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to evacuate, including 6.4 million in Florida alone, according to the AP.

Cook, who most recently lived in Dearborn while working with MLive Media Group before moving to Fort Myers in May to start her own public relations business, evacuated the area with her husband, Taylor, and children, Connor and Mackenzie. They visited an aquarium in New Orleans on Sunday to take their minds off the hurricane.

At any other moment, she said, many of those who evacuated Florida for New Orleans can be found checking their phones to look at the radar and wonder how family and friends are doing.

“You’re constantly checking ‘Is it a (Category) 3 or 4?'” she said. “You think ‘I want the storm to hit north of me,’ but I’ve also got family and friends in places like Tampa, so no matter what it impacts somebody. The main thing is, I just want it to slow down.”

Despite the constant state of anxiety that comes with awaiting the fate of her home, neighborhood, family and friends, Cook said there have still been some moments of hope during a traumatic time.

“One thing that made me feel better was when we were traveling north and west, there were a lot of power and electric companies that were being escorted by the police to help out,” she said. “It shows that they are doing a lot to prepare for it.”