By Julie Gates
Businesses began shutting down. The Weather Channel ran during all waking hours. Fear was everywhere. Everyone’s first question was if I would stay or go. Neighbors called to give me their plans for the evacuation. Would I be staying home? Could I watch out for their home, too?
There is no fear like the fear of an incoming hurricane. Gas stations suddenly had lines for blocks. Grocery stores filled with shoppers and then emptied of basic supplies like water, bread, milk and canned goods. Irma was a big storm. Huge by many standards. I had never seen a storm so large that it would almost cover Florida in size. As the hours ticked away and Irma edged closer to Savannah, my home, I was nowhere near a gas station, grocery store, or any evacuation route. I spent hours and hours in Home Goods, Walmart and Target. I drove to the warehouse club and filled my husband’s truck with mattresses. As I watched everyone else move in harmony, I grimly swam against the flow as if it was just another day. Just shopping for the cutest sheets! Where do you keep the toasters? Don’t mind me as you plan for survival, I’ve got to find a bath mat.
That was a very weird day.
As Irma turned its course towards the West Coast of Florida, I had been an AirBNB host for exactly 2 months. I loved it. Within a few weeks of being a host, I was walking through a historic, Henry Ford era home with no running water due to multiple pipe breaks. It needed a new bathroom, kitchen countertops, furnishings, paint and running water. It was perfect.
As September approached, the home had a name: Starfish House. I had begun to work out the decor. The ceilings and walls were painted, furniture was slowly arriving, and my contractor was scheduled to put in a new bathroom in just a few days. My husband had ripped out the kitchen countertop and sink in anticipation of the custom surface we had on order.
And then Irma turned towards Florida. My one and only AirBNB filled up immediately with a family of 4 and 2 dogs. Within hours they had asked if their grandparents come come, too and bring their 3 cats. I was not yet a Superhost, but I couldn’t bring myself to say no with such a scary storm on the way. My two bedroom, 900 square foot short term rental house filled with people and pets and I gazed at Starfish House and knew that it was needed, too.
Several thousand dollars later, I was frantically moving mattresses in and taking pictures with my cell phone. I had a love seat in the living room, no dining room table, no dressers, maybe a few lamps. But it was a roof and it had running water by then. I knew that there would be a need. Florida was panicking driving north.
With a few minutes spent on my phone, I had my second AirBNB listing online. The photos were awful. I really can’t believe anyone even clicked on the listing, but they did. I was extremely honest in my description. “I am putting this home up as a shelter for a family evacuating for Irma. It is under construction, but very safe. There is no kitchen sink, but there is a fridge, microwave and working bathroom.” My nightly rate for a 3 bedroom home that would sleep 9 people was $135. I hoped it was low enough. I didn’t want to over sell what I had.
Within minutes I had a booking. I called the gentleman who booked immediately. Did you read the listing? Are you aware there is no kitchen sink? He stated that he had read it. He and another family needed a place and there was nothing left. It would be 11 people. Could they bring all of their pets? Gulp. Yes. I wished him safe travels and told him repeatedly that the grocery stores here would be closing at 8 pm. No exceptions. Stop there before you come to the house. I was worried, but very sure I had made the right choice in listing the sad little excuse for a house. Two families now had shelter.
And then the hurricane hit. Since this was not our first hurricane, we were as prepared as we could be. We knew from experience that trees and branches would fall constantly. All vehicles were moved into the open pasture in the center of our property, away from any trees. The wind blew constantly for hours. Savannah was well on the outskirts of the storm, but the tenacity and length of the storm were exhausting. As the tentacles of the storm were overhead, there was nothing we could do for our guests. We all had to sit and wait. I prayed fervently for safety, the weight of having 4 extra families in my care wore heavily on me.
Within hours the electricity went out. With the storm overhead, there is nothing to do but wait. The only break in the monotony comes when one can get enough cell signal to tell friends and family that you are ok via social media.
The day after the storm passed, we went into full host mode again. Don, my husband, worked to get our generator going and spread it between houses to fill up water tanks and keep the fridges cool. We cleared branches and answered questions. People were all over the yard, looking at the devastation and also trying to just have something to do. My son, Josh runs a squirrel rescue and took 4 babies down to the Starfish House to entertain the children. It was truly a group effort.
A few days later as Florida opened back up, our guests were gone. Anxious to see their homes and check on the damage in their neighborhoods, they set out at the crack of dawn. Electricity had been restored, and my family and I were finally able to relax. Everyone was safe. Our guests had been gracious and appreciative of our meager offerings, and I was completely hooked on hosting. There was no turning back. I was in love.
The crazy few days that were Hurricane Irma were capped off with a 5 star review for the Starfish House. I cried when I read it the first time. It meant so much to me. Two wonderful families had trusted me to care for them during a horrible time and they actually took the time to say thank you publicly, even though they were cleaning up their home and community when they wrote it. They stayed in a home that was not up to my very high standards. We lost power for almost two days. They washed their dishes in a bucket on the floor of the kitchen. But they recognized that I really cared about them, and it meant a lot. That review is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It is truly better to give, than to receive.