We felt like storm chasers, driving down the coast trying to dodge the hurricane that was still holding on to its last rotations of wind and rain. It was almost surreal- to be driving through the same blankets of wind and rain that had devastated so much of Florida. By now of course it was little more than sheeting rain. So we drove, careful to avoid sharp turns in such a fully laden vehicle. Our last stop before leaving Pennsylvania had been to a truck stop with a scale. We asked the attendant if we could weigh the truck- just to see exactly how loaded up we were. The truck had weighed around 12,000 pounds. With that much gear, and the three of us, we continued to make our way to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
Sleeping at truck stops and brushing our teeth in Walmart bathrooms, subsisting on very little sleep and McDonald's coffee, we made it to Jacksonville just as the last bands of Hurricane Irma made their way north into Georgia. As we passed over the bridge to downtown Jacksonville, the sun was just coming up and we could see standing water filling the streets and neighborhoods below. We pulled over to the side of the bridge and surveyed the damage that we could see. Just then a Coast Guard helicopter swooped low over the bridge heading for the flooded neighborhoods below. We turned on our VHF radio and made contact with the Coast Guard helicopter. They informed us that they were searching for the source of a reported red flare that had gone up from one of the roofs in the area. So far, no follow up flare or call had been made. Excited to help, we offered to launch the boat and commence a search by water in the area. The coast guard was beginning to think that the 'red flare' had simply been a firework or a prank since there was no sign of distress or people signalling from the roofs. They asked us to keep our radios on as we searched for a place to launch the boat in case we were needed. By the time we found a launch site, the Coast Guard had ended their search.
We continued to seek out people that needed help in Jacksonville, but aside from that first interaction with the Coast Guard, no one seemed willing to work with us or even tell us what was needed. We began feeling dejected. We had travelled all this way, had all this equipment, and had finally reached an area that needed our help- yet we were being turned away. Would we be able to help at all or had all this work been for nothing? After some consideration, we decided to press on and travel further south to the areas that were worse off. We were tired and disheartened, but we were determined to keep going and not give up.
The next day we found ourselves in the Ft. Meyers area following up on a wellness check. A woman with some health issues and her young daughter had weathered the storm alone and a relative from further away hadn't been able to reach them since the storm. Worried, she had contacted CrowdSource Rescue looking for someone who could check on them. We were in the area when the request came through and decided to take the call. All was well with both of them, and we were able to let the family know they were safe. Finally, we felt like we had begun to do what we came here to do. And then we got the call that there were no more open tickets in Ft. Meyers. We found ourselves again trying to help but with nothing to do. This process was going to be more difficult than we originally thought. It was time to keep going.
We next headed across Alligator Alley and towards Homestead, FL and the Keys. This area was supposed to be the worst hit of anywhere. We arrived in Homestead and learned that there was a blockade preventing anyone except law enforcement and rescue/relief personnel from getting to the Keys at all. After explaining to the officers at the blockade why we were there, they directed us to wait with the other official vehicles for the bridges to be cleared.
As we sat there, waiting for an escort to take us across the bridge into the keys, the truck began to overheat. Realising we were out of coolant, Ian got out and began to fill the tank with cold water. The electrician in front of us immediately jumped out of his vehicle and gave us a spare bottle of coolant with a second thought. Even here, this close to the devastation of Irma, people were lending a hand and making sure that everyone had what they needed. The flashing lights arrived and we followed a line of police, first responders, and electricians over the bridge and into the Florida Keys. What awaited us on the other side of that bridge is another story altogether. Driving over that bridge in the dark, not knowing was to come, was the moment our adventure truly began. We had arrived.