Key West evacuees load up precious cargo and wait out Irma with family in Macon

Hamster among Key West evacuees who came to Macon because of Hurricane Irma

Stephen Ragusea wasn't planning a trip to visit his son's family. But Hurricane Irma pushed him and his wife from their home near Key West, Florida, to Macon to be with family.
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Stephen Ragusea wasn't planning a trip to visit his son's family. But Hurricane Irma pushed him and his wife from their home near Key West, Florida, to Macon to be with family.

9/13/17 UPDATE: Dr. Stephen and Kathleen Ragusea left Macon on Wednesday morning to start the drive back to Florida. Their daughter-in-law Lynne and granddaughter Hava, 8, made it to Tampa, where they are staying with friends.

The Florida Keys are partially open to traffic now, but not where the Raguseas live, Stephen said. There’s no fuel, water, electricity or hospital access there.

They don’t know when they will be able to go home, but they wanted to be closer when word comes that they can return. Stephen and Kathleen planned to stay with friends in Orlando and were considering stopping in Miami to help the health department with mental health services at shelters.

Stephen is optimistic about the condition of their house after hearing reports from people in the Keys.

“We probably ought to be going to a house that is pretty much in tact but a yard that is destroyed,” he said. “Our boat is still floating. Things look pretty good, by and large. If the boat is there, the house cannot be badly damaged.”

Below is the original version of the story:

As Tropical Storm Irma pounded Georgia with heavy rain and wind Monday, Dr. Stephen Ragusea wondered what kind of damage awaited back home in Florida.

He and wife Kathleen evacuated from Sugarloaf Key, which is a few miles from Key West, and are staying in Macon with their son and daughter-in-law, Adam and Lauren Ragusea. They caravanned with daughter-in-law Lynne Ragusea and her daughter, Hava, 8, from Key West, and arrived in Middle Georgia on Friday.

“It was our belief that it was going to be a category 5 hurricane sitting on top of Key West. Nobody survives a category 5. Virtually everybody in the Keys left,” said Stephen, a clinical psychologist. “When you live in the Florida Keys, you know that at any time there can be a storm, and you just have to be ready to leave.”

Stephen and Kathleen have lived in the the Key West area full time since 2004 and have evacuated many times. Hurricane Wilma, the only storm they didn’t leave for, in 2005 was the only one that left substantial damage. It took them a year and a half to repair their home, and Stephen expected it would take a year or two for them to recover from Irma.

“When you’re on an island where hurricanes happen, you have to be a kind of person for whom things don’t matter very much. It’s the lifestyle that matters. Because at any time, you can lose everything,” he said. “When you evacuate for a hurricane, you load all the things that are most precious to you in the car.”

For the couple, that included their photographs, jewelry, mineral collection, computer and necessities like clothes. Their dog made the trip with them, and Lynne and Hava brought their cat and hamster.

The family has been getting periodic reports from Facebook and weather updates from Lynne’s father, meteorologist Joe Sobel. With Irma, they are most worried about the storm surge. They don’t know how bad it is at their homes, but they’ve heard it’s 10 feet deep in some places, Stephen said.

Lynne and husband Dr. Anthony Ragusea were in the process of selling their Key West home, but now they don’t know if that will happen. Anthony just moved to central Pennsylvania for a new job, and Lynne and Hava planned to join him after the mid-October closing of their Florida home.

Key West officials have said the bridges seem to be intact, but traffic won’t be allowed on them until they are inspected. The Raguseas will return once they know there is water and the roads are safe, so they can start the cleanup process, Stephen said. They expect electricity to be out for some time.

“We have no eyes on the ground, so we’re not sure (of the damage). Key West got away relatively easily. They were far enough away from the eye of the hurricane,” Stephen said. “We’re not as anxious as we were 24 hours ago. We really feared that there would be nothing to go back. As far as we can tell, that is not anywhere near the case.”

While they wait out the storm, the family is enjoying each other’s company. They went shopping and have been doing a lot of cooking and helping take care of the kids. Adam and Lauren have two young children, Leo and Freddie.

“Your stores are full of people just like us,” Stephen said. “There has not been a store that we went to that did not contain people from Florida escaping the hurricane. Everybody has been very nice, very generous. I just want to thank everybody in Macon for their hospitality.”

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea