They thought things out meticulously, taking every conceivable affect into account and making contingency plans.
Concerned about projections of a significant storm surge, they took shelter at a friend’s sturdy, Algonquin Court home with hurricane-rated windows and front doors, rather than their ground-floor unit at the Sands of Marco Condominiums, located across from Residents Beach, off S. Collier Boulevard.This was not the first rodeo, where hurricanes are concerned, for the Hills, who moved to the island in 1999 from Ohio. In 2005, they experienced Category 3 Hurricane Wilma from the home they owned at that time, which was also on Algonquin.
“If it was going to be like Wilma, we would have stayed right there,” Hill said of their condo. “But when they started talking about a 15-foot storm surge, that would have meant water up to the ceiling. We picked the Algonquin house because it has a narrow canal and it’s at the end of that waterway so there would be less storm surge. It’s a long, long way from the Marco River.”
They also took some just-in-case type precautions, such as bringing life vests and ladders to sit on if floodwaters invaded the home, backing their car up against the garage door’s interior to serve as a brace and buttressing the front door with a ladder snuggly placed between it and an interior wall.
And there was a high-water exit strategy, consisting of a hammer to knock out the window above the front door.
Hill described Irma’s initial states as being an impressive wind and rain event, but at its peak, ripping and roaring its way across Marco in mid-afternoon with fierce horizontal sheets of rain, he said Irma was like a wintertime white-out in New York State, where he and his wife were raised.
“You looked out the window and you couldn’t even see the street,” he said.
He said it took about one hour for Irma’s eye to pass over the island. During the calm period that followed the front eye wall’s passage, he stepped outside to check drains and the canal, and found that the canal’s water level was down about five feet.
But the backside of eye brought storm surge.
“The storm surge came back as a wall about three feet high, moving steadily down the street,” said Hill. “I was amazed at how fast it came. Then it slowed down.”
He said that at its height, water came up over the sidewalk, across the front lawn and to within about three feet of the house, but the flooding situation benefitted from the fact the eye’s backside had started to fall apart.
“That saved us,” said Hill. “That surge could have been much higher.”
During the calm afforded by the eye, Henry Hill did three live phone interviews with WINK-TV’s head meteorologist, Jim Farrell, describing, what he and his wife experienced during the storm.
The connection came about because Hill never lost cell phone service during the storm. It was the couple’s daughter, Adrienne Roark, general manager of a Portland, Oregon, television station, who’d also worked in the business in Florida, who contacted WINK to let them know her father would make for a good interview subject. He forwarded videos he’d shot during the storm to the station.
“I sent out little videos so he could see that the National Weather Service predictions of storm surge weren’t happening at the height that was predicted,” said Hill.
The couple had considered several options for hunkering down off-island, including staying in Estero, where there were concerns about flooding, or staying with Sandra Hill’s sister in Stuart, on the East Coast. They also thought about heading to Valdosta, Georgia, near the Florida border, or Nashville. Evacuating to a storm shelter was out because the Hills wanted to be certain their car was adequately protected.
“If you get on the road, you’ve given up your community,” Henry Hill added. “You’ve given up your neighbors, your friends, the local police. If you stop somewhere in rural Florida, somewhere off the interstates, there could be road rage. It’s dangerous out there. So you’re better off sheltering in a solid structure that has a good chance of surviving.”
Sandra Hill said that the projections about major storm surge did cause her some misgivings in the lead up to Irma.
“It was exciting during the storm,” she added. “We had the hurricane window at the front of the house, so we could watch. At times it was a little dicey, but we decided to stay and you make your decision and you live with it. We had family saying ‘go, go,’ but if you prepare; hey, we’ll probably stay through the next one too.”