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Former Pittsburghers brace for Hurricane Irma

Ben Schmitt
| Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, 9:39 a.m.
People line up for supplies outside of a Miami Costco store.
Kaaren Terpack
People line up for supplies outside of a Miami Costco store.
Gas lines outside of a Costco in Miami.
Kaaren Terpack
Gas lines outside of a Costco in Miami.
Photo from the road Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, near Tampa, Fla., as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Christina Gradnik
Photo from the road Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, near Tampa, Fla., as Hurricane Irma approaches.

Pittsburgh native Kaaren Terpack and her family prepared Saturday morning to ride out Hurricane Irma in Miami, hoping their new house with steel shutters would keep them safe and secure.

"I know a lot of friends who left voluntarily, and we have family calling us and pleading with us to leave," Terpack said. "But by the time we considered it, gas was gone and the roads were packed. We haven't been able to get gas since Monday."

Terpack, 36, and her husband, Ramon Montero, have two daughters, ages 1 and 2, and two dogs to take care of.

She told the Tribune-Review they considered driving north to Pittsburgh, but gasoline was scarce and traffic was heavy. Plus, they didn't know how the girls, Sonia and Sofia, would handle a long car ride.

"We're not directly on the coast, which is where all the evacuations happened," she said. "But right now it feels like it's nighttime. It's dark and you can definitely feel something is coming."

Terpack grew up in Highland Park, graduating from Peabody High School and then Penn State University. She moved to Miami in 2007.

Montero, who is Puerto Rican, has weathered hurricanes in the past.

"He's been through this a million times, so we feel like we're ready," Terpack said. "I've been frightened this past week, but I feel good with my husband having been through this."

Many south Florida evacuees headed toward Tampa, and now Irma appears to have taken a bit of a westerly turn toward Florida's Gulf Coast.

That's where John Pilecki, a retired schoolteacher who lived in Pittsburgh's Regent Square neighborhood for seven years, headed from his home on an island off Florida's St. Augustine. His brother-in-law lives in Tampa.

"It may not have been the best move, now that the storm may be headed this way," said Pilecki, who is 68 and traveled with his wife, Laura. "But it's the move we made. We're hoping that the storm weakens."

Pilecki, who permanently relocated to Florida in 2015, said he called hotels and motels in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee and could not find any vacancies.

"We also thought about just driving north as far as we could and sleeping in the car," he said. "But gasoline was an issue. There weren't a lot of good choices."

He said he plans to stay in Tampa and help his relatives clean up after the storm passes.

"The westerly course of the storm is a little bit disconcerting for us now," he said. "But we're just going to deal with it. I think the trees and wind will be the main concern here."

Christina Gradnik, 43, who moved to Tampa from Pittsburgh's South Side four months ago, decided to head north on Interstate 75 on Saturday after learning of Irma's new projected path.

"This morning she was coming more west and back at a Category 5," Gradnik said Saturday about 30 miles outside of Tampa. "We are on the move. There's currently an accident, so traffic is stopped."

She was traveling in a two-car caravan with her husband, sister and 8-year-old daughter headed toward Perry, Ga., where they have friends and family.

The National Weather Service said damaging winds were moving into areas including Key Biscayne and Coral Gables on Saturday morning, while gusts of up to 56 mph were reported on Virginia Key off Miami.

In one of the country's largest evacuations, about 5.6 million people in Florida — more than one-quarter of the state's population — were ordered to leave, and another 540,000 were ordered out on the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.

For those who stayed, Terpack said the lines at grocery stores and Costco were long and full of tense shoppers. She and her family live near the University of Miami.

"People were insane inside Costco, bumping into each other with carts," she said. "I would estimate that half of our neighbors left and half stayed."

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt. The Associated Press contributed.

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