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Marion County becomes hurricane haven for Florida evacuees

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By Stevie Lowery

Just days after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas, reportedly killing 70 people and causing billions of dollars in damage, nearly 7 million Florida residents evacuated the Sunshine State, escaping the wrath of Hurricane Irma.
Five of those evacuees, along with four cats, sought refuge in the Heart of Kentucky. A group from Melbourne Beach, Florida, traveled to Marion County on Sept. 9, and stayed at Butch and Kathy Cecil’s guest home in Raywick.
Lori Danks, Kathy Cecil’s sister, along with her sister-in-law, extended family members and a neighbor, originally planned to stay in North Carolina. But, when Irma’s path changed, they re-routed and booked a place in Gulf Shores, Alabama. But, that particular location didn’t allow cats. (Due to a protected field mouse in that area. No joke.) So, the group had to re-route once again and they ended up in Kentucky. The Floridians included Lori (who is in the process of moving to Melbourne Beach from Michigan), Sarah Munkacsy, her husband Al Munkacsy, their 12-year-old grandson Gavin, and their neighbor Lottie Bose Hunter. Lottie is actually a Kentucky native. She grew up in Corbin, but moved to Florida 50 years ago.
“You never lose your accent, though,” Lottie said, with a laugh.
Initially, Hunter said she didn’t plan to evacuate. But, her neighbors insisted that she join them and they left for Kentucky very early on Friday morning, Sept. 8.
Prior to leaving, they boarded up their homes and did as much preparing as they could not knowing how bad the hurricane would actually hit their area.
“A hurricane you can plan for. You know days ahead of time,” Sarah said. “But, I sort of went into denial.”
While they were being inundated with Hurricane Irma warnings, it was still 80 to 90 degrees outside, there was a nice ocean breeze and the sun was shining.
“It’s hard to grasp that there is something nasty coming our way,” Al said.
Last year, they were forced to evacuate during Hurricane Matthew, which was sort of a blessing because it prepared them for Hurricane Irma. Last year, leaving their home and their belongings was a very emotional experience. But, this time, they had an entirely different mindset.
“You get to the point that you realize that things are just things,” Al said. “You just gotta go.”
However, Sarah did pack the $95 filet mignon that was in their freezer.
“I wasn’t going to lose that,” she said, laughing.
Lottie said she doesn’t get overly concerned or worried about hurricanes.
“Part of me thought they [the media] were just blowing it up,” she said. “They get you so wound up about it.”
Butch said he had to quit watching the news coverage about the hurricane because it was causing him so much anxiety. His daughter, Rachel, and two granddaughters, six and eight years old, live in Fort Myers. Rachel works as a general manager at Fort Myers Airport and she refused to leave.
“I can’t tell you how many times we FaceTimed,” Butch said. “I was worried sick.”
The evacuees arrived in Kentucky late Saturday after having to spend the night in Birmingham, Alabama. It took them 18 hours to get to Birmingham, which is normally a nine-hour drive. Traffic was bumper to bumper the entire day.
“It was exhausting,” Lori said.
The group was safe in Kentucky when Irma hit their area. The storm is responsible for the deaths of at least 53 people in the Caribbean and the Southeast, with 20 of those originating in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.The final cost of the storm will take months, if not years, to determine.And, millions in Florida are still without power.
Fortunately, Melbourne Beach didn’t receive much damage. They have a few trees down and some loose roof tiles, but nothing major. Fort Myers and Naples experienced the brunt of Irma’s fury, which hit Fort Myers Sunday morning, Sept. 10. Butch said his daughter played music to try and drown out the sounds of the hurricane in an effort to keep her daughters calm. Fortunately, aside from some tree damage, his daughter and her family didn’t experience much damage and were safe during the storm. But, they could remain without power until late this week.
Melbourne Beach has its power restored already, but Sarah said they aren’t sure when to attempt to head back home. The traffic was so horrible on the way to Kentucky they are afraid of what it might be like going back to Florida. Al said gas stations are limiting people to $15 per person because of limited supply, and there are police standing guard because there have been riots. While they are eager to return home, they aren’t necessarily in a huge hurry to leave the beautiful scenery - and serenity - of Kentucky.
“I feel so honored to be staying here,” Lottie said.
During their stay, they’ve enjoyed a tour of Maker’s Mark Distillery, a meal at Missy’s Out of the Way Café, and Gavin has enjoyed four-wheeling on Butch’s farm. Butch invited Gavin back next summer, saying he would put him to work.
They all have been impressed with how welcoming and kind Kentuckians have been to them during their stay.
“It’s just amazing how people have treated us,” Sarah said. “Butch and Kathy opened up their home to not just us but our animals, too.”
Al said while buying some window wiper blades at an auto parts store on their way to Kentucky, a complete stranger saw their license plate and asked if they needed a place to stay.
“It’s really been amazing,” he said.
And, while they have felt very welcomed in Kentucky, and they know they will have to deal with future hurricanes, Florida is still their home.
“One of the promises we made to each other when we moved there was that we are not going to become numb to what’s around us,” Al said. “Almost every day we find something we look at that makes each one of us smile and think, ‘We’re so happy we’re here.’”
Sarah agreed.
“We wouldn’t change it,” she said. “For us, we can appreciate being here, but Florida is where we’ve made our home. But, we know where to come to during the next hurricane.”