Refugees, triathletes find shelter in Chattanooga as Irma rolls through Southeast

Refugees, triathletes find shelter in Chattanooga as Irma rolls through Southeast

September 12th, 2017 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

The lobby of the the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge, Tenn., fills with those stranded from Hurricane Irma as they get food donated by local churches and businesses Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. About 300 guests were staying in the hotel Monday night after driving from Florida to flee the storm.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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Heavy rain and strong winds — remnants of Hurricane Irma — rolled in to the Chattanooga area early Monday afternoon, with more expected throughout the night and into today.

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport canceled several flights arriving and departing, which caused several Ironman competitors to be stranded.

Triathletes were sitting on benches, luggage piled around, while others walked through the airport to stretch their legs.

Francoise Haudry was one of the competitors stranded. His flight to Charlotte, N.C., was canceled. The next flight wouldn't leave until today at around 5:30 p.m., he said.

"It's OK," Haudry said. "It is a chance to relax. We don't like to rush too much."

He said he had hoped to explore Chattanooga a bit more anyway, and he said the flight cancellation would give him a chance to do that. He wanted to find a good live music venue to enjoy Chattanooga's music scene while he's here.

But other triathletes were more concerned about their flights.

Nicolás Salinas and his parents came to Chattanooga from Chile. Their flight to Atlanta was canceled and they weren't sure how difficult it would be to get to Miami International Airport, which was closed Monday, for their connecting flight back to Chile.

School closings

TENNESSEE
Hamilton County Schools are closed. Bledsoe, Bradley, Cleveland, Grundy, Marion and Rhea schools will be on a two-hour delay on Tuesday.

GEORGIA
Catoosa, Chickamauga, Dade, Dalton, Fannin, Murray, Trion, Walker and Whitfield schools will be closed Tuesday.

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They weren't sure where they'd stay as of late Monday afternoon, but they hoped to do some shopping while they were here.

While some were stuck in Chattanooga, others arrived seeking refuge.

Janet Z. is one of 300 people staying at the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge. She and her family left Immokalee, Fla., after a mandatory evacuation was issued, she said.

"I'm scared to go back because I don't know what I'll find," she said. "It's nerve-wracking."

She added that she was afraid her home could be flooded after seeing photos of a nearby restaurant that had several feet of water in it.

"As adults we can get by, but I'm worried I won't find things for my baby," she said. "The stores are cleared out and I'm not sure if I can get formula or baby food."

Ian Lowery and his friend Kailyn Golub are from Naples, Fla., one of the hardest-hit places in the storm's path.

Lowery said they set out last Thursday with two changes of clothes and their two dogs — a golden retriever and a mutt.

"It's pretty fun, honestly," he said of running from Irma. "It's like a mini vacation. I got to climb mountains."

The two had driven up to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to do some hiking and rock climbing. They will try to head back home within two or three days, Lowery said.

"I just hope we have something to go back to," he said, adding that many houses in Naples had the roofs blown off. They hadn't heard yet if their house had weathered the storm.

The East Ridge hotel, which is undergoing renovations, isn't set to open for another two months, but general manager Casey Steinman got permission from the owners and the fire marshal to open to refugees for seven days. Many of the people helping run the hotel are volunteers, including some of the evacuees.

"We weren't expecting to have guests this weekend," Steinman said, adding that they've been taking donations for toiletries, warmer clothes and food. Most of the refugees don't have warm clothes for Tennessee temperatures, he said.

Deb Jones was one of those refugees.

"In Florida and South Georgia, you know, you wear shorts and flip-flops," she said. "I'm not used to this cold weather. My toes are freezing."

She came with her husband, Jerry Jones, from Kingsland, Ga. She said they didn't have much money and only packed essential items. Personal items had to stay behind.

"Stuff like our high school yearbook and photo albums," she said through tears. "We could only take what fit in our van."

She said they probably won't be able to go back soon because we can't afford it, and they don't want to make the trip and find out that they can't access their home due to damage caused by the hurricane.

But despite not having much money, Deb Jones was outside cooking a large pot of chicken soup on a cooker donated by Home Depot.

"It's food [to] warm and comfort everyone," she said of the soup.

As she was cooking, East Ridge United Methodist Church members pulled up with two vans filled with 300 home-cooked boxed meals.

"Every Monday we make 100 meals to take to the homeless," said Ken Sauer, pastor of the church. "We just cooked 300 extra meals to bring here."

Several refugees thanked the pastor and church members as they finished unloading the boxes. Deb Jones was one of the people overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support.

"Our country is awesome," she exclaimed as everyone unloaded the meals.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

Weather Alerts

Flash Flood Watches
GEORGIA
Catoosa

Dade

Fannin

Gilmer

Gordon

Murray

Walker

Whitfield

Wind Advisories
TENNESSEE
Bledsoe

Bradley

Coffee

Polk

Franklin

Grundy

Hamilton

Marion

McMinn

Meigs

Rhea

Sequatchie

GEORGIA
Catoosa

Chattooga

Dade

Fannin

Gilmer

Gordon

Murray

Walker

Whitfield

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