For 48 hours, Donna Sobczak Watkins, a former Voorhees resident now living in the Florida panhandle, had been consumed with watching weather reports when she was not working on battening down her home — a 32-foot travel trailer — with metal stakes and steel cable.
What she would do in the next 48 hours would be on a “minute by minute” basis, Watkins said by phone and text message Friday from Niceville as she, like other Floridians, counted down to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma. The precise when, where, and how the expected monster storm will ultimately affect Florida’s six million residents and visitors is yet to be determined, but forecasters say it will likely hit as a dangerous Category 4, with lashing winds of 130 to 156 mph.
Watkins is part of a substantial Philadelphia-area diaspora in Florida. According to a New York Times study of census data in 2014, about 6 percent of New Jersey natives now live in Florida, and 3 percent of those born in Pennsylvania have moved there. Two-thirds of Floridians were born someplace else.
Like others in the possible path of the storm, Watkins was weighing stark options: Stay or go? And go where?
“Unfortunately, we are here,” said Derek Forchic, 44, a Bellmawr, Camden County, native who has lived in Boca Raton for nearly a decade. “Hotels are booked from here to Atlanta, so we decided to stay, and we’re hoping for the best.”
As Irma churned toward the peninsula, Forchic and others said they were as prepared as they could be.
“If you’re east or you’re west, you’re getting something. This thing is so big, you can’t flee it,” Forchic said.
Forchic boarded up his business, Phlorida Pretzel, and was hunkering down in his home with his wife and two children. He lives about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.
“None of us are looking forward to this,” he said “No one wants to be there.”
In Philadelphia, Jason Cruz, fresh out of college and working for AmeriCorps, was anxiously following the news from back home — Davenport, about 20 minutes south of Orlando. His father manages a cleaning crew at a resort and had been asked to stay on during the hurricane.
“They’re totally bunkered up,” he said. “They’re telling me they’ve got water and gas inside, but it’s pretty nerve-racking.”
Cruz moved to Philadelphia in July. His alma mater, Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., was evacuating students on Friday. “It feels like I sort of narrowly escaped something,” he said. “I’m walking around fine, feeling this impending doom for people 1,000 miles away.”
Jackie Moorman is staying put with her husband, Russell, in their one-story house in Orlando despite entreaties from some in her family in New Jersey to leave the area. Moorman, 44, said her sister, a Burlington County resident, lived through Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago while living in Fort Lauderdale.
“My sister has been in a Category 5 storm, and she’s been telling me to stay inside and how to be safe,” Moorman said. “She knows the drill.”
Watkins, 57, said panhandle residents weren’t too concerned about impending doom until the last couple of days, when forecasters began issuing “cone of uncertainty” forecasts that now indicate her area of the state will almost certainly be hit.
The big question for Watkins was where — and when — to go. Her husband, Mike, an emergency management worker, will be required to stay on the job in a nearby command center. Watkins herself was thinking of going to stay with friends in Mississippi. While some of her seven grown children remain in the Philadelphia area, others within driving distance live in Irma’s possible path in Georgia and North Carolina.
She had packed a “go bag” containing a few pieces of clothing, water, a flashlight, and some batteries. And as the weather forecasts change — by midday Friday some models were saying that the panhandle area might again be out of the danger zone — Watkins said she would be prepared to drive out of the area quickly.
“You have to be ready to go,” she said, “maybe at a moment’s notice.”
Others had opted for the airports, paying thousands for the last flights out of the state.
At Carousel B in Philadelphia International Airport, passengers from American Airlines Flight 2097 from Orlando waited for their luggage just after 1:30 p.m. Overhead, televisions flashed images of Irma on CNN, spinning toward the state they had just left.
The airport’s arrivals board showed three flights from Miami had been canceled.
Most of the passengers were families arriving home from Walt Disney World, stuffed animals in tow. Many said that Friday, luckily, was their scheduled return date from Orlando but that there were more than a dozen passengers on standby for the full flight.
Natalie Rougie, 39, of Tampa, drove to Orlando to fly to Philadelphia with her sons and her parents. She was not sure she had parked legally back home and was still in a bit of a shock over what she paid for the last remaining tickets. They were nonrefundable and in first class.
“For five tickets, $10,000,” Rougie said.
Rougie said her husband was traveling on business and everyone felt safer heading north. She plans to stay with her parents in South Jersey. “Better safe than sorry,” she said.
Pete Skiba, a journalist originally from Runnemede, Camden County, said he had stashed away 20 pounds of food for his cat, Moxie, and he’s probably going to move some books from the bottom shelves of his Cocoa Beach apartment to the top.
“It’s too late,” Skiba, 68, said of evacuating on Friday morning. “I was a crime reporter. I don’t let things like this worry me, and besides, I’m from Jersey.”
Skiba said Friday was a typical Florida day, besides the emptiness. Where he is, it rained. The sun came out. Then it rained again.
Lisa Bendorf, a retired Collingswood police officer, decided to evacuate for the sake of her two dogs and was driving from Rotonda on Florida’s west coast to Atlanta. She found a silver lining in her journey when she stopped at one of the Wawas in Florida and posted this on Facebook.
In Volusia County, on Florida’s east coast, Sheriff Michael Chitwood Jr. — a former Philadelphia homicide lieutenant whose father is chief of police in Upper Darby — was preparing for his first hurricane as sheriff.
Last year, when he was chief of police in nearby Daytona Beach, the city weathered Hurricane Matthew — but that hurricane turned out to sea at the last minute, sparing them the worst. This year, with Irma’s “dirty side” — the eastern side of the hurricane, with higher winds — aimed straight for his county, he is worried about storm surges and power losses that could stretch for days.
And when the winds start blowing over 40 mph, he’s prepared to close the county’s bridges and deploy two military-style SWAT vehicles to start rescuing county residents. They’re the only thing that can get through the winds without overturning, he said.
At times like these, he said, he misses the weather back home. “I’ll take a snowstorm or a blizzard any day of the week,” he said.
Staff writer Avalon Zoppo contributed to this article.