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Kingsport couple assess damage caused by Hurricane Irma

Matthew Lane • Sep 13, 2017 at 7:30 PM

KINGSPORT — In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Julie and Phil Byers spent 24 hours riding in a Ford Excursion, making their way from their home in Kingsport to a condo they own on Marco Island, Florida.

The journey started off fine. The Byerses left at 6 a.m. on Tuesday heading down Interstate 75 in Georgia since the storm was still coming up I-95 in Florida. Traffic wasn't too bad initially, and under normal conditions the trip would typically take about 13 hours to complete.

However, the estimated time of arrival changed dramatically when the couple hit Atlanta. The City in a Forest was a virtual parking lot full of vehicles sporting Florida plates.

“There were five lanes and every lane we could see there were Florida plates,” Julie said.

After hitting the parking lot that was Atlanta, the Byerses decided to hit the back roads, do a little exploring and find a quicker way to Florida. Julie said every now and then, they would get back on I-75 to check out its status, but as soon as they did, they would stop or literally go 20 to 30 miles an hour due to backed up traffic.

The damage Hurricane Irma did to Georgia surprised Julie the most.

“It looked like a tornado hit the entire state. Every road we were on had huge oak and magnolia trees that were down,” Julie said. “Northern Florida wasn't so bad, but once we got to Tampa there were no billboards. They'd all been blown down. There was standing water everywhere, and street signs were twisted like pieces of rope candy.”

The Byerses finally made it to the Florida-Georgia line after 14 hours on the road.

“We were tired so we stopped at a rest area. It was so full they had brought in 20 porta potties. People were parking on the median, in the picnic area. We slept for about two hours and got back on the road around 1 a.m.,” Julie said. “We headed out, got into traffic and it was bumper to bumper as long as I could see.”

According to estimates by GasBuddy, on Monday at least 60 percent of the gas stations in Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Gainesville were without fuel, while roughly half of the gas stations in Jacksonville, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers were also empty.

Fortunately, the Byerses’ truck is diesel, which was somewhat easier to find in the Sunshine State.

“I was really worried about fuel. A couple of places we went to didn't have power. They had fuel, but couldn't sell it,” Julie said. “Once we got to Tampa the problem was power. All of the gas stations are closed and boarded up.”

Once they got back on I-75 in Florida, vehicles were everywhere, parked on the side of the road, out of fuel. Probably a fifth of the vehicles had multiple gas cans strapped to them, with the drivers knowing beforehand fuel would be in short supply, Julie said.

Finally, around 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, the Byerses arrived at Marco Island.

Marco Island is a small barrier island located just south of Naples. It's about 23 square miles in size with a population of 17,800. It's mostly a tourist destination.

Hurricane Irma hit Marco Island on Sunday as a Category 3 storm, working its way up the western side of Florida and leaving a path of destruction in its wake, though not as much destruction as government officials initially feared.

The Byerses went to Marco Island to check on the condition of their condo and an adjacent unit owned by Julie's mother. They plan to stay on Marco Island a couple of days, cleaning up what they can, boarding up a neighbor's windows and patching whatever needs to be patched.

“Our condo did very well. My mom and I lost lost our storm doors and several neighbors had broken windows. None took on water like we were expecting,” Julie said. “There was a bunch of debris and no tops on any of the palm trees. It looks like a war zone.

“The landscaping is entirely dead. Usually everything is green and lush. Now, everything is brown. A bush in front of my mother's condo is black, like somebody burned it.”

Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage in Barbuda, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Island and was responsible for at least 61 deaths, including 23 in the United States. In the aftermath, more than 5 million residents and businesses were without power in Florida, including hundreds of thousands more in Georgia and the Carolinas.

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