As Hurricane Irma swept through Florida and into Georgia less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey had dumped up to 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas, it left devastated cities and towns in its wake.
Atmore, located almost in the center of the two mammoth storm paths, received some rain and gusty winds, but was otherwise spared the brunt of the malevolent weather. In fact, the biggest effect the twin hurricanes had on the community was a positive one.
Refugees from Harvey and Irma filled each of the hotels operating in the city, which became a safe haven from those fleeing the hurricanes, and the flood of evacuees kept cash registers ringing at local restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses.
“All our hotels are full,” Mayor Jim Staff said last Friday, September 8. “I talked to each one, and we don’t have any rooms left open. There are folks from all over staying here because of the hurricanes.”
Hotel employees confirmed those statements on Monday.
“We are slammed,” said a desk clerk at Holiday Inn Express as she fielded phone calls, checked in those who had made reservations in advance and politely turned away others. “We don’t have any vacancies. It’s been like this since last Thursday.”
A desk clerk at Fairfield Inn & Suites said the situation was the same there.
“We have been full since before the weekend,” the harried hotel employee said as she explained to a couple from Pennsylvania that there were no more rooms available. “It’s the same at Hampton Inn and at Wind Creek. We’ve had to turn a lot of folks away, and everybody here has been really hopping for the past few days.”
The Pennsylvania family – Hans Jacobs, his wife Mary Ellen and their three children – had traveled south for a Disney World adventure.
“We heard about the hurricane in Texas, but we didn’t think we would have any trouble,” Hans Jacobs said as he unfolded a map of the Gulf Coast in search of another city in which he and his family might seek refuge. “I wish now we had gone on vacation a month ago. We’ve tried to find lodging in the Florida Panhandle area, but it’s the same everywhere we call. There’s no room at the inn, so to speak.”
There were no reports of any local outlets running out of gasoline or diesel, but an increase in traffic did tax each one’s reserves.
“We have been almost non-stop busy with people buying gas, water and snacks,” said April, a clerk at the Diamond Chevron on South Main Street. “We are usually busy, but I’ve never seen it like this before. I know most of our regular customers, but I’ve seen people in here the last few days that I’ve never seen before.”
Jackson Perez, a resident of Port Arthur, Texas, said he and his wife Miranda had traveled almost the entire Gulf Coast in search of a place to ride out the storms.
“We got a double whammy,” Jackson Perez said as he filled his truck, which was towing a small camper, with high-test gas. “Harvey was headed for Texas, so we boarded up the house and headed to Tallahassee to stay with some family. Then Irma hit, and we had to head back west. We have stopped in almost every town we came across, but nobody’s got any rooms. My cousin let us use his camper when we left Florida, but we can’t even find a place to park it.”
The local Walmart also saw an influx of temporary shoppers, some of whom parked their campers and motor homes in the store’s parking lot.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” said Cross City, Fla. resident Randy Pierce as he prepared to lock his motor home and head inside the store for provisions. “We’ve been to every motel and hotel in the area, and nobody has a room. We couldn’t find a place with room for us to park the camper, either. Thankfully, the folks here let us park out on the edge of the lot.”
The mayor agreed that the financial windfall was nice, but quickly pointed out that the spike in sales tax revenues would be a short-lived experience.
“The sales tax numbers are way up here right now,” Staff said as he held his hand above his head. “But when it’s safe for these folks to go back home, it will drop to way down here. It’s nice, but it ain’t going to last long.”
He added that he and other local officials had encountered on Sunday a couple who planned to look for a camping spot at Magnolia Branch.
“They wanted to go out to Magnolia Branch and put up a tent,” Staff said. “We directed them to Robertsdale, to the (Baldwin County Coliseum), which had been opened up for evacuees. We told them that if they were in a tent and the winds got up here, it might blow them back to where they started.”