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Pennsylvania natives charter flight to help loved ones escape Hurricane Irma

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, 1:12 p.m.
A display board shows flights cancelled due to Hurricane Irma at the airport of Pointe-a-Pitre, on the French overseas island of Guadeloupe on Sept. 5, 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
A display board shows flights cancelled due to Hurricane Irma at the airport of Pointe-a-Pitre, on the French overseas island of Guadeloupe on Sept. 5, 2017.
Motorists head north of Key Largo, Fla., on US 1, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.  Keys officials announced a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for visitors, with residents being told to leave the next day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Motorists head north of Key Largo, Fla., on US 1, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Keys officials announced a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for visitors, with residents being told to leave the next day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

As Hurricane Irma barreled toward Puerto Rico earlier this week, a family of former Hempfield residents desperately tried to get their vacationing mother and stepfather off the island.

Barbara Rodriguez and her husband, Daniel, a former New York and Tampa police officer, started making plans to return to Florida shortly after they arrived in Puerto Rico on Saturday to visit Daniel's family. But as Irma gathered intensity, flights off the island quickly filled up and soon no airline tickets were left.

“It was really scary. People were panicking,” said Rodriguez, 60, who moved to Florida five years ago and now lives in Ruskin, about 25 miles south of Tampa. “My son and daughter were scrambling to find us something.”

Irma was still classified as a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of up to 185 mph, when it made landfall early Wednesday on the Caribbean island of Barbuda. It was projected to skirt the northeast corner of Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon, and could reach southern Florida this weekend. Other Pittsburgh-area transplants to Florida described a state that was uncertain and tense as forecasts were being updated, stores sold out of supplies and gas stations backed up.

Rodriguez's daughter, Julia Anthony of Apollo Beach, Fla., said she spent two sleepless nights trying to find an earlier commercial or charter flight for her parents, while she and her husband, Steven, simultaneously tried to prepare to evacuate with their twin 16-month-olds and 5-year-old son. Finally, she connected with a flight instructor who'd taught her brother. He was able to take a copilot and a small jet to Puerto Rico and pick up Barbara and Daniel on Tuesday. They took off from a private airport in the four-seat jet and landed back in Tampa Tuesday night.

“I stayed up all night searching for flights out of Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, to Florida, to Boise, anywhere,” said Anthony, 40.

Barbara Rodriguez said Daniel's family in Puerto Rico had insisted on staying, but they had since been out of contact.

“We can't reach his family there, now ... I think we should have talked them into going on that plane,” she said. The hotel where they stayed had mostly emptied by the time they left, though the handful who remained were promised enough food, water and entertainment to endure the storm.

Once the family reunited in Florida, they started worrying about the next leg of their journey: getting back to Pennsylvania.

They planned to drive back to stay with family in the Greensburg area rather than ride out the storm in Florida.

Although it was still unclear whether the hurricane would affect the Gulf or Atlantic coasts more, Anthony was especially worried about the storm surge flooding their houses. Vital records and their most precious possessions would go north with them, other belongings and photos were being moved to the second floor and put in plastic totes to protect them from floodwaters, moisture and mold.

What really convinced them to evacuate were her neighbors: longtime, unflappable Floridians who normally wouldn't even bother to learn the names of the weaker tropical storms passing through, but were growing alarmed by Irma's record-setting strength .

Anthony, her brother and her mother planned to caravan north with the children late Wednesday or early Thursday in the hope of avoiding some of the highway gridlock already being reported, with their husbands set to finish hurricane preparations and follow later.

“Our 5-year-old is asking a lot of questions. ... You have to tell him that he can't bring every Ninja Turtle, he has to pick his favorite turtle, his favorite leg from Voltron,” Anthony said. “You don't want to leave unnecessarily, but you don't want to leave at the last minute.”

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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