As Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, tore through the Caribbean this week, people from central Maine who now live in South Florida prepared for the worst.

The record-breaking Category 5 system already has brought destruction to several islands, and it could bring a wide range of hazards to the Bahamas and South Florida, including a strong storm surge, fierce wind and flash flooding.

The National Hurricane Center predicts that the storm, with wind speed of up to 175 mph, will remain a Category 4 or 5 hurricane as it heads toward Florida. It could hit the Sunshine State on Saturday or Sunday.

Reached by phone for interviews Wednesday and Thursday, some transplants from Kennebec County said that they have decided to brave the storm and board up their homes. A few of them plan to hunker down despite a mandatory evacuation order by county officials.

Others who live between Key West and Miami heeded the warnings of officials, deciding to pack their things and book it for safer parts of the Southeast.

All of them fear what lies ahead with the threat of historic destruction in the hurricane’s wake.



It was a job offer, along with the promise of warmer weather, that took Liam Beliveau to Miami Beach a couple of years ago. The 30-year-old grew up in Hallowell and now works as a technical writer for a software company.

On Wednesday night, it was the weather that prompted Beliveau and his boyfriend to leave their condominium in South Beach — a part of the barrier islands that make up Miami Beach — and begin driving north. They plan to stay in an AirBnB rental in Savannah, Georgia, then with friends in Asheville, North Carolina.

After that, Beliveau said, he’s not sure when he’ll be able to return to Miami Beach and what will be waiting when he does. He’s heard about the damage from Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category 5 storm that hit South Florida in 1992. He also helped with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a dozen years ago.

Nick Courant, who grew up in Waterville, has stormproofed his home in Big Pine Key, Fla., ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma. Among other things, he placed furniture on cinder blocks to reduce the risk that they’d be damaged in a flood.

“I have this vague apprehension (that it will be like) St. Bernard’s Parish, where the levies broke,” he said. “Stores were boarded up. There were dead dogs in the street. It seemed like I was in a war zone. The shiny facade of South Beach is very glamorous, but a very powerful storm can destroy that in a matter of minutes, so I wasn’t going to take any chances.”

Of particular concern to Beliveau is the fact that a contractor was midway through installing windows on his boyfriend’s condo that are meant to withstand the heavy wind of hurricanes.


“The contractor put one set on, then went on vacation,” he said. “So our situation is a lot more precarious, because we have this exposed set of windows that are neither protected by shutters nor hurricane-grade windows. If we’re in the eye of Irma, there’s no question those windows are going to break, and (at the expected wind speed), the hurricane windows could smash too.”


Meanwhile, Erika Heffernan, 36, who grew up in Augusta, also decided to leave her home in Key West as Hurricane Irma advanced. On Thursday, she was planning to stay at a hotel in the city of Sunrise, which is between Miami and Fort Lauderdale and inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

Erika Heffernan

By Thursday morning, the weather forecasts had been improving, with the originally projected storm surge downgraded to around 9 feet, Heffernan said, but that still would swamp her first-floor apartment.

“I’m kind of assuming there won’t be much to go back to,” she said. “I tried to take as many personal and sentimental items in my car as I could.”

In addition to her own living situation, Heffernan was concerned on Thursday about the well-being of roughly 70 clients she serves as a program manager at the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless.


They were hoping to stay in shelters at Florida International University that were near her hotel, Heffernan said on Thursday, but she learned that the shelter would not be opening until Friday and now was worried that the shelter wouldn’t open at all.

“We have people who need meds, families with young children,” she said.

While the roads were not heavily used Thursday, Heffernan noted that some people had left their cars at the highest points on bridges, presumably hoping to avoid flood damage.

“It’s such a weird experience,” she said. “I lived through four hurricanes in Orlando. This is a totally different animal, being on an island.”


Not all South Florida residents planned to evacuate — even with mandatory evacuation orders in place.


Brian Doe, 45, grew up in Gardiner and moved to Key West three years ago with his wife, after living there part time for almost a decade. He now handles the information technology for the Monroe County school district.

Doe said he planned to ride out the storm in Key West, and he spent much of Wednesday and Thursday securing his windows — with a blend of lumber, screws and Gorilla-brand duct tape — and outdoor furniture.

Brian and Julie Doe

“One of the great worries is that anything that’s not tied down becomes a bullet,” he said.

Monroe County has issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors and residents, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Despite that, Doe said he based his decision to stay in Key West on several factors.

The projected storm track has been shifting, so that its most destructive part was forecast on Thursday to strike Florida farther east of the Keys, near Miami. He also recognized the risks that could come from evacuation, including running out of gas, and reaching an area only to realize that it’s more dangerous than expected.


And his house, which is not inside the flood zones designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, didn’t flood during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Before the hurricane arrives, Doe said, he plans to attend one last happy hour at the local bar. But he also stressed that he wasn’t taking the storm lightly. If he gets a bad feeling before it arrives, he has access to a commercial-grade building in which he, his wife and their pets might stay during the storm.

Brian Doe, who grew up in Gardiner and now lives in Key West, screwed pieces of wood over the windows on his home on Thursday before the expected arrival of Hurricane Irma.

“Right now, I’m so focused on trying to protect my house and keeping my family safe,” he said. He continued, “I might come across as lighthearted, but this is scary (stuff) right now. There’s no doubt about it. It is not a joke.”


Another couple who live in Key West and plan to brave the hurricane are Roxanne and Margo Ellis.

Roxanne grew up in Waterville, and both lived there together until 1993, when they moved to Key West for its warmer weather. Roxanne, 67, used to own a cigar business there. Margo, 66, worked as a teacher until retiring this year.


They plan to spend Hurricane Irma in Key West, in a friend’s house that is rated to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, Margo said, but she didn’t know which agency bestowed that rating.

They, too, have been securing their windows, using metal shutters specifically designed to withstand storms, and stocking up on nonperishable food.

Their home is elevated about 3 feet off the ground, on cinder blocks, and didn’t flood during Hurricane Wilma, Margo said. And like many homeowners in the area, they had to purchase flood insurance in order to secure a mortgage.

“We’re watching the track and hoping for the best,” she said. “We’re worried. We thought about leaving but then didn’t. At this point, it looks like Miami may get worse. It’s not going to be fun. Hurricane parties are fun to think about, but it’s frightening when they’re here.”


Nick Courant, 20, and his two roommates decided to leave the home they rent in Big Pine Key on Wednesday.


Before that, they stormproofed their low-lying house, elevating furniture onto cinder blocks, sandbagging the outside and packing their most important possessions into their cars.

Nick Courant

Courant was born in Waterville and grew up in Topsham. He first moved to South Florida to be near his then-girlfriend, he said. He now works as an auto mechanic.

Like the others who were evacuating, Courant wasn’t sure where he’ll be staying in the days and weeks to come. He said he might try to leave Florida entirely and get a hotel room in Alabama. He also might take up the offer to stay with friends and family.

His greatest concern has been the safety of his roommates and their pets, he said.

But “in all honesty,” he continued, “I’m very worried about some of my friends who decided to stay behind.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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