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June James had no clue she’d be helping her mother prepare for Hurricane Irma just two weeks after leaving her home in Cordova and relocating to North Port, Fla.
James, former administrative assistant for the Sound Alternatives Behavioral Health Clinic, left Cordova on Aug. 15, and arrived in Florida a day later.
By Sept. 7, James and her mother, Jean Murray, 80, were busy shuttering windows and doors – because, not forced to evacuate, Murray decided to ride out the storm at home, despite warnings that the Category 5 storm would sweep through the area.
James’ father passed away nine years ago. Since then, a few of her mom’s neighbors have helped out with the things Murray needed from time to time, but these neighbors were either out of town as the hurricane approached or busy preparing their own homes for the storm.
“Mom’s pretty independent, but those steel shutters are too much to handle and install alone. Some of them are 12 feet high,” James said.
James said she and her mother had been through worse storms in the past.
“Mom was here for Charley, a Category 3 (in 2004),” she said. “Thankfully, North Port fared very well with Irma, compared to other cities in Florida. Forecasters were expecting a Category 5 hurricane coming right for us. The final forecast had North Port being right where the storm was to make initial landfall.”
The hurricane was downgraded to a Category 2 tropical storm Sept. 10, then a tropical depression by late night Sept. 11.
“At a Category 2, I was walking around outside at the height of the storm,” she said.
Friends from Cordova meanwhile watched James’ social media feed for regular updates.
Cordova residents Jack Reilly and Gayle Groff kept in touch with James via text messages and phone calls. Reilly, now retired, used to work at the Cordova Weather Station at the Mile 13 airport. Groff, his wife, is the principal at Mt. Eccles Elementary School.
Family members were worried about them, too.
“My sister and brother-in-law were making their final pleas with us to leave,” James said. “One message from my sister to me read, ‘Get mom and get out. I am not asking you. I am telling you.’”
In days leading up to Irma’s Florida arrival, the women covered the windows and doors with steel shutters, made sure their car had a full tank of gas, stocked up on water, prepared food ahead of time and made sure they had plenty of non-perishable food too. They backed Murray’s car up very close to the garage door, for more support to the garage door against wind, and carried in any items that could be picked up by the wind.
Waiting out the storm, James crocheted, her mom read, and while they still had electricity, they watched a couple of movies on DVDs.
“At one point, I had a small flashlight in my mouth, pointing at the music, as I played the piano. Several times, I went outside and walked the street. By then, I knew it had been downgraded from a 4/5 to a 2. I wasn’t concerned – I’ve walked in stronger winds before,” she said.
James said they experienced little damage. They lost electricity in the house, but less than 24 hours later their power was restored.
James and her mother were fortunate.
The city of North Port only had a couple of streets impassable on the morning of Sept. 11, but by noon, dozens of city streets were flooded. Not everyone in North Port had power restored and had roof, water damage and flooding.
On Sept. 12, North Port issued a voluntary evacuation notice for residents in some neighborhoods, although not in James’ or Murray’s area.
James is grateful and thankful, she said. She realizes they were lucky and not everyone has been as well-off from Irma’s effects as what she and her mom are.
“We did not get what was expected,” she said. “Others in Florida, however, did not fare as well as we did here in North Port. Having lived in Cordova, the rains and wind we ended up getting here seemed harmless, but I was concerned.”
“I was absolutely very concerned, and, especially early on when I was trying to get mom to leave, I was scared, but level-headed. I spoke calmly to my mom, telling her the particulars of the storm and saying I had a friend 11 hours away, offering us a place to stay. When I knew she was not leaving, I simply turned on task mode and set to preparing. Not that I no longer respected what could be coming, but it was a resignation and a determination.”
“Cordova is forever in my heart and I’ll be there again, someday,” James said. But for now, “Mom and I are fine, and I am so grateful.”