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Tuesday November 21st, 2017 6:11PM

After Irma's destruction, stories of escapes, heartbreak

By The Associated Press
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After days of warnings and a devastating trek up Florida, Irma's assault finally ended. Those left in its wake emerged from homes and shelters to see what was left. For many, there was a measure of relief. Others faced questions that would take weeks or months to answer after the powerful storm robbed them of their homes and belongings.

Their stories provide a glimpse into the extensive reach of Irma's wrath:

___

A STRUGGLE TO START THE DAY

Jen Gilreath and Cameron Brainard didn't want to get out of bed Tuesday morning. They tried to keep their eyes closed as long as they could, and avoid confronting the chaos left behind by floodwaters that rushed into their rented house in the San Marco neighborhood of Jacksonville.

"We didn't want to wake up and think about it this morning," Brainard said. "It's too much."

They decided to get up at 9:30 a.m. and start surveying the wreckage: They lost everything on the first floor — furniture, food and a 100-year-old leather-bound Bible from Gilreath's great-grandmother.

"It's devastating, everything's gone," said Gilreath, a 33-year-old bartender.

The water that poured in higher than their knees slowly drained out, and their apartment now smells like sewage and mildew. The flood consumed their Ford Explorer, their only working car, which no longer will start. They have two cats, a young son, a roommate and a pit bull.

"We have no place to go," Brainard, 34, said.

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ESCAPING A SAILBOAT

David and Andrea Jewell planned to ride out Hurricane Irma in the sailboat they live in, docked at a marina in Jacksonville. They expected the storm would peter out by the time it made it all the way north to Jacksonville.

But around 3 a.m. Monday, the boat started listing badly. David ran to the deck and saw water pouring over the dock. He grabbed his cellphone, his wife's epilepsy medication, and his 13-year-old calico cat named Tiffany. They fled their sailboat with only the clothes on their backs. David was wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt; he didn't even have on shoes.

He was at a city shelter in Jacksonville on Tuesday with dozens of others who fled their homes. They have no idea if their boat — and everything the own inside it — survived the storm.

"It's my home," he said. "If it's gone, then we've just lost everything. I just don't even know how to think about that. There is no place to go, no place."

___

DON'T LAUGH AT THAT

Laura Keeney, of Key West, had her pet bird with her in a hotel lobby in Miami.

"He has been making so much noise in the room," said Keeney, who works as a concierge at the Hyatt in Key West.

She said that her apartment manager told her that her unit had flooded, but she didn't know the extent of the damage.

"They told me 'there is definitely water in the downstairs apartment,' which is me," she said.

Her pet bird, a blue macaw named Odie, chuckled.

"He is laughing at the most inopportune moments," she said.

___

HOWLING WINDS AND FLOODED HOUSES

Donne Spielman and her brother Jeff Storey listened to Hurricane Irma's wind howl and the shutters clatter and watched as the water was sucked out from Florida Bay for almost a mile. They worried whether its return might gush into their Key Largo house, which is 11 feet above sea level.

Across U.S. 1, fronting the Atlantic, the storm surge flooded homes. But they were lucky.

They've been spending time since cleaning up the downed trees in their driveway. They have enough food and water and are getting ice from a friend. They know many others were much worse off.

They put up a sign outside the home: "Family of Five, no power, no generator."

___

'I'M NOT LEAVING MY BABY'

Paul Johnson and Shonda Brecheen were working late Sunday night at a house they're remodeling in the San Marco neighborhood of Jacksonville. Bridges were closing and the wind started blowing so hard it was bending trees, so they decided to stay the night on the second floor of the empty house.

The sound of the wind kept them up late.

"My God, she was howling," Brecheen said.

When Johnson woke up Monday and looked out the window, he saw waters from the St. Johns River and its tributaries that jumped its banks and consumed the streets for blocks around the home. Boats passed by where cars once drove.

Johnson thought of his green 1994 Ford Ranger that he calls Fiona, after the cartoon ogre in the Shrek movies, because she's "not the prettiest but she gets the job done." It's the only thing of any value he owns, and it was parked in the carport.

"My truck, my truck, my truck, that's all that I have in this world," he remembers moaning.

When he made it outside to check on it, the water had reached the door handles and panic set in. He hopped inside and started it up. He tried to drive it out of the flood — a split-second decision he now deeply regrets. He made it out of the driveway and about 25 yards before it sputtered and died with water rushing up nearly to the windows. He and Brecheen pushed it in to a parking lot and he tried to start it periodically all day.

"I'm not leaving my baby," he said.

___

'THIS IS NOT SAFE'

Aide Valadares packed up her belongings Monday after Hurricane Irma ripped the roof off of her apartment complex in Miami.

She said water leaked into the top-floor apartments and the ceiling sagged in her one-bedroom unit below.

The walls bowed and cracked in the living room, where she had hung prints of her favorite paintings from Colombian painter Fernando Botero, and Spanish artist Diego de Velazquez.

"You come home. You see this. It's devastating," she said. "The fire department came and said that structurally this is not safe," she said. "It will collapse."

___

WAITING ON THE BRIDGE

Robert Hickok, a 51-year-old commercial fisherman, spent hours stranded in his truck on a bridge amid fast-rising waters as he tried to leave Plantation Island.

He decided to ride out the storm on the island, where he's lived for about four years, and sat tight through hours of rain and wind and flying debris. He was relieved when things became calm in the wee hours of Monday morning.

"It got real calm, you know," he said in a phone interview. "The rain let up and it quit blowing and I was still on the island and I thought it was all over."

But when he looked out the window 30 or 45 minutes later, the road was covered with water. As he watched, it began rising fast. He immediately got in his truck, but by the time he'd driven roughly a mile to the bridge, it was too late. Everglades City, on the other side of the bridge, was flooded and there was nowhere to go.

"Thank God the bridge was there," he said. "If the bridge wasn't there, it'd have been bad."

He hunkered down in his truck and hoped the water wouldn't rise any higher. At daybreak, the water began to recede and he was able to drive off the island.

He returned to his home around midday Monday to find it destroyed.

"It's all gone. It's a total loss," he said. "The trailer, boat, car, everything."

___

Associated Press writers Claire Galofaro and Doug Ferguson in Jacksonville, and Freida Frisaro and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.___

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