Richard Turen
Richard Turen
I've never been one to go somewhere to sit on a deck chair with my feet in the sand. Relaxation is something I seek at home, never in my travels.

I always imagine I am going to fit in some relaxation. I bring along a copy of John Grisham's or Lee Child's latest book, but truth be told, most of those books return home unopened. There's just so much to explore and so little time.

But my most recent trip was a totally different kind of experience, and I want to share it with you. I was not traveling to relax or to explore. I was traveling to escape. I was running away, with my family and our two dogs, from a woman named Irma. She was after me, and she wanted to destroy my home and much that I hold dear. I had to get away as she barreled her way northwest from the Caribbean, tearing apart the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas, knocking out several hotels on St. Barts and St. Martin and battering parts of Cuba along the way.

Irma played no favorites. She went after tin-roofed hovels on Barbuda, then made a turn to destroy Richard Branson's Little Necker Island.
Escaping from my home in Naples, Fla., a destination many work much of their lives to reach, might seem odd. But it was the prudent thing to do. This was the biggest, baddest, widest, most powerful storm we might ever see. Best to avoid direct contact.

It was Thursday, Sept. 7, and we had to get out. We would likely suffer flooding and possible structural damage. What was certain was that we would lose power and internet, and temperatures would be in the mid-90s after the storm surge. Nothing would work. No one would sleep. I wouldn't be able to reach my clients or you.

Years ago, as she suffered through the early stages of a divorce, a dear friend told me, "If you're ever in real trouble, check into the nearest Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons." I wish I could say that my father gave me that advice, but he never stayed at either brand, and if he had, he would have sued after discovering what he was being charged for breakfast.

We decided we couldn't make it out of Florida because the roads would be clogged. Airline seats were sold out in all classes. Carriers were pulling planes out of the path of the storm.

I called the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando. It was full, but a group canceled hours later, and they got me a suite. I had found my sanctuary.

I didn't want to drive my own car through 150 mph winds, so I needed a rental car, and fast. Enterprise had a Lincoln that had just come in from California. I was about to drive off when I heard, "Oh, Mr. Turen, one thing I should mention: We can't locate any gas. Your tank is about an eighth full. You'll have to locate your own gas. Every station we've checked is out."

Of the 30 or so stations I passed, many looked abandoned; others had paper bags tied around the pump nozzles. Nada.

Finally, my gauge showing empty, I found a two-block-long line outside a Rally station. Two hours later, I pulled up to the pump and fed the starving Lincoln. We would make it to Orlando. We would escape.

We decided to depart at 3:30 in the morning to get a jump on the exodus from southwest Florida. Gov. Rick Scott was all over TV telling Floridians to leave quickly. We were sure everyone would be awakening at 2:30 to get on the road as quickly as possible. But strangely, folks were sleeping in. We made it to Orlando without stopping.

On the long drive up Interstate 75, my mind started wandering. I thought about the millions of refugees who each year travel to escape far more serious threats than flooding. One aspect of such travel that is debilitating, I realized, is that it is a path into the vortex of the unknown. Where would it end? Would we come home to find our private and professional lives under water?

The Ritz was welcoming, and we found an eclectic group of fellow escapees, mainly families. About a quarter of the new guests arrived on four legs. Like the guests, they came in all sizes and breeds.

Once in our room, we found everything working, though dining facilities would soon be limited. I was told that the hotel planned to go on lockdown when the storm neared, and all exit doors would be locked. This was a shelter, but I had to pony up $599 to use it.

Then I did something I had never done before: I turned on the Weather Channel. My wife, my daughter and the dogs seemed to cling to every word these rain-sotted weather geeks uttered. I soon became addicted. A friend back in Naples told me to tune in and then tune out until Bryan Norcross, the chief meteorologist, pronounced the path of the storm.

Norcross is the weather voice on the mountaintop. He said the storm would inundate Miami, then move along the east coast of Florida northward. But it would also hit Naples and Fort Myers on the west coast. Irma was fatter than the entire state.

I have flown economy plus, but that's about as much roughing it as I can handle. So I thought it would be good to get some supplies for our hiding place in Orlando.

Lo and behold, the shelves of a nearby pharmacy were stocked with bottles of Fiji and Evian. I asked the cashier why she had water when TV reports were saying every store in Irma's path was out of water.

"We are sold out of water," she said. "Nobody wants this fancy California stuff."

The folks from Fiji would not be happy.

I returned to the Ritz with water and Advil. The storm was a Category 5, and the Weather Channel reporters were wading out into the flood waters and bending their bodies into the wind. I wondered how they kept their baseball caps on in hurricane-force winds.

After a nice dinner, I started meeting my fellow inmates.

One guy I met at the salad bar had a tattooed neck. He'd served some hard time in Georgia, was now working construction and was traveling with his entire family. His employer was footing the bill. I met a couple from Miami whose home was on the water. They were worried about their artwork, some of it "irreplaceable."

I spoke with a former cruise line CEO, also from the Miami area, and I met a couple from Naples who had arrived in a Porsche SUV with two prized white bichons.

Then I sat down with a family of landscapers who had gone to a local shelter, couldn't stand it, and negotiated with an uncle to borrow enough for two nights at the Ritz with their 11-month-old baby.

Back in our room, the news wasn't good. Irma was shifting from an east coast trajectory and heading straight for my driveway.

Things were starting to deteriorate at the Ritz. Housekeeping would be limited, all of the ping-pong balls were dented, and the dogs were no longer being allowed in the restaurants. The security team came on the PA system to review emergency procedures. We might have to spend the night with our fellow guests in the main ballroom.

I switched on the Weather Channel, where there was this great air of excitement. The trackers had determined that virtually all of the storm projections were wrong: Irma would be hitting the west coast shortly instead of a direct hit on Miami. The new epicenter was Naples.

The next morning, after eating breakfast, I tuned back to the Weather Channel. Except for Norcross in his tie, they were all soaking wet as they showed video of wind gusts on Naples' Main Street. There could be a 15-foot storm surge, they said. That's enough water to reach my home's second floor, if it had a second floor. Since it's a one-story house, the surge would do great damage.

Then something miraculous happened: The winds hitting Naples slowed, the surge never developed. Our city for the most part had been spared.

As I write from my room at the Ritz, the power is out in Naples and might not be restored for several weeks. The hotels I've contacted there are all trying to make do with generator power. Tree limbs litter the streets.

But this morning, the sun is shining in Orlando. Our escape route was effective, if expensive. We are well, and our thoughts turn to those who are not.

Whenever and wherever I travel in the future, I will be more mindful of those who, sadly, must associate travel with escape. It isn't always about relaxation or exploration. Sometimes it's desperate. It isn't always fun.
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