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Hurricane Matthew: The Stories Of Those Who Fled West

Topher Forhecz/WGCU
Salvadore Hernandez and his son Angel plan to spend the night in a Hendry County shelter. The left their home of Pahokee ahead of Hurricane Matthew.

Gov. Rick Scott put more than 1.5 million people under evacuation orders on the east coast Thursday in preparation for Hurricane Matthew. Many of them headed to Southwest Florida. Here's their story:  

As winds pick up around the Estero Recreation Center, cars keep pulling in to the parking lot. Some people step out of their vehicles with fast food cups, and others immediately stretch their legs. 

Maria Eujenia and her boyfriend are sitting on a bench just outside the public hurricane shelter. They're from Argentina. They were vacationing on South Beach when they were surprised by Hurricane Matthew.

So they rented a car and drove to Southwest Florida, where they feel safe. But Eujenia said they could not find a hotel room when they got here. 

“There are no hotels. We were looking on the internet,” she said in Spanish.

She said everything was booked, so they came here. The couple hopes to fly back to Argentina on Saturday morning, but they do not know yet if their flight will be canceled or not.

Estero Recreation Center in Lee County is now a public shelter for people and pets during Hurricane Matthew.

Shortly after the couple heads inside, Oscar Diaz of West Palm Beach pulls up to the shelter with his wife, four kids, dog and cat. He also hopes to take his family back home by Saturday.

Diaz said he’s glad he made it to Lee County before the storm.

Hear Oscar Diaz in his own words.

“I'm worried about my home but I feel better because we are here with my family. I feel safer here,” he said.

Some Floridians heading west are not just trying to out run the storm. They’re also concerned heavy rainfall from Hurricane Matthew could cause Lake Okeechobee to flood surrounding communities.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
The view from the LaBelle Middle School gymnasium. The building was used as a shelter during Hurricane Andrew.

It’s quiet at the LaBelle Middle School gymnasium mid-day on Thursday. It’s one of two public shelters in Hendry County.

Sitting under the awning of a nearby school building is Angel Hernandez and his dad, Salvadore.

Hear Angel Hernandez's story reported by Topher Forhecz

They’re from Pahokee, which borders Lake Okeechobee. Hernandez said they left because they were concerned rain might cause the lake to overpower the dike surrounding it.

Federal water managers inspected the dike this week and found no problems. But, Hernandez wanted to be sure.

“We don’t know. They say it’s safe, some say it’s not,” he said. “Just so we won’t have to stress about that certain aspect, that’s what made us move from the area.”

Hernandez said it was an easy choice to leave because they wanted to be safe. He hopes to go home Friday night.

While many are riding out the storm in shelters and hotels, some are hunkering down in parking lots. 

Hear John Litwinka's story reported by Topher Forhecz

Down the road from the LaBelle shelter, 10 RVs sit outside a Walmart.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
John Litwinka and his family drove their RV from West Palm Beach to protect it from Hurricane Andrew.

John Litwinka stands in the parking lot next to his 35-foot-long, gold and white RV.

“Sleeps 10, has five TVs, so it’s kinda like being home,” he said, “a little bit smaller that’s all. It’s a nice place to ride it out.”

He and his family live in West Palm Beach, but they picked up their RV in Juno Beach and traveled west to protect it.

Litwinka said they wanted to head to Fort Myers, but heard there was nowhere to stay. So, they stopped in Hendry County where they plan to wait out the storm.

Litwinka said they plan to head back Saturday. He said he’s worried about what he's left behind.

But before he and the rest of those who've traveled west can go home, they'll first have to wait for Matthew to run its course. 

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.
Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.
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