As Irma gets closer, Philadelphians in Florida brace - or escape

Mark Schellenger, a lifelong Pennsylvanian and former Radnor High School principal, prepares for Hurricane Irma outside of a friend’s house in Fort Meyers on Saturday, by “attempting to get coconuts down so they don’t become cannonballs,” he said.

As Hurricane Irma swirled toward Florida, now aiming for the Tampa Bay region and the Gulf Coast, some Floridians were fleeing to Philadelphia, some Philadelphians in Florida were hunkering down, and many in the City of Brotherly Love were worrying for family members, posting well-wishes on social media and donating supplies.

As Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas prepared for the storm, some seven million people had been ordered to evacuate. The storm has left death and wide destruction in the Caribbean.

The National Hurricane Center in a late Saturday morning update said Irma would continue to bring “life-threatening” weather to parts of the Bahamas and the north coast of Cuba through Saturday night. Though the eye of the storm is now set to miss Miami, the hurricane center warned Irma’s landfall in Florida would bring “life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center.”

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service out of Mount Holly warned of a high risk for dangerous rip currents at the Jersey Shore and Delaware beaches.

Getting out

Many have evacuated on flights to Philadelphia. One person posted a photo Friday of a boarding pass from Orlando to Philadelphia, saying in hashtags, “It was a hard decision” to leave and “My heart is in Orlando.”

Another man tweeted that flights were “pretty much sold out,” but that he got a flight from Tampa to Philly.

Members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 went toward the storm, deploying Wednesday in preparation for Hurricane Irma and planning to meet up with members of the task force who had been in Texas helping with Harvey recovery efforts. About 80 members total were deployed, around half of whom are firefighters in the Philadelphia Fire Department. The department said Friday the team was staged in Georgia with other FEMA search-and-rescue teams.

Staying put

Former Radnor High School principal Mark Schellenger was preparing Saturday to hunker down at a friend’s house in Fort Myers, Fla., about 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. When Irma had been forecast to move east, they had decided not to evacuate — and when the hurricane changed course Saturday, they thought it was too late to get out.

“We’re going to be in, probably, a concrete-reinforced closet inside a home here to try to ride it out. At this point there’s no point in leaving. There’s not really any gas,” Schellenger said by phone just before noon Saturday. A friend of his had heard of other friends who tried to drive out and couldn’t get out of the state. “It’s kind of going from the frying pan into the fire to leave.”

Schellenger’s group of about a half dozen was outside the storm-surge area, but he said emergency officials were warning residents not about the wind but about the potential flooding. The neighborhood where he was staying was about half deserted, and though those remaining were nervous, people were helping one another out, he said.

“Everybody’s doing the best they can and just being kind to one another.”

Camera icon Mark Schellenger
Mark Schellenger, who moved to Florida from Pennsylvania less than three years ago, plans to weather the storm at the house of a friend who works for a Philadelphia-area company and also lives in Florida. On Saturday, he tried to get coconuts down from a tree outside her house in anticipation of Irma’s fierce winds.

His group had a stash of nonperishables, food to grill while they’re still able, and Ensure shakes and Clif bars to eat in the coming days “if we have nothing.” Even days ago, it was a struggle to find water in grocery stores, he said; they have about six cases. They’ve filled the bathtubs with water, too.

Schellenger, 59, a principal for eight years, and an athletic director and teacher before that, moved to Florida less than three years ago. He was staying with Cheryl Ennen, a friend who lives in Florida but works for the Wayne company Radius Health. He still has family around Philly — nervous family.

“They’re all in the Philadelphia suburbs and they’re all calling me, and they’ve all chastised me that I should’ve left here days ago, but it’s too late for that now,” he said.

He got his condo in Naples after retiring from Radnor High.

“I wanted to come down to the beautiful weather — and,” he said with a dark chuckle, “that’s what I got.”

Hoping to help

Others worked on aid donations Saturday.

PSE&G planned to dispatch 154 employees Sunday morning to help Florida Power & Light restore electricity.

Unidos PA’ Puerto Rico, a group formed to help the island in the aftermath of the storm by Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez and state lawmakers Angel Cruz and Emilio Vasquez, both Philadelphia Democrats, said Saturday it would take financial donations.

The Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha for Everyone has also begun collecting donations for Irma relief in Puerto Rico.


Sending prayers from Philly

The National Weather Service’s Key West office tweeted early Saturday morning it could be the last chance to evacuate the Keys, posting pleading tweets with exclamation marks urging residents to flee. “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS,” the account tweeted. “NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE.”