Road tech: How I left Florida to escape Irma, and never went back

Now that David Gewirtz is finally settling into his new digs in Oregon, he can tell the story of how a hurricane evacuation resulted in a cross-country adventure -- and the tech that made it all possible.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Video: Apps to help with disaster preparation

At the crack of dawn on September 4, I left my home in Central Florida. At the time, I had no idea that I'd never return.

Unlike earthquakes, there is usually time to prepare for a hurricane. I lived through the Loma Prieda earthquake in the San Francisco area. One minute everything was fine. Then, the entire world shook for 15 seconds. There was no warning. It just happened.

Hurricanes are different. Because of satellites, we get warnings. We get weeks of dread. The National Hurricane Center was aware of Hurricane Irma in late August. By September 3, it was still far away from Florida, but the track map indicated it was going to make a hard landfall in a week.


We were on the target line.

That night, a Sunday, the Irma track map updated to show that the Category 5 storm was aimed directly at my town. The National Hurricane Center's little black dot for 2AM on the following Monday (seven days later) was right over where we live. The governor was recommending evacuation and preparation. Everyone was scared.

When Matthew hit last year, my wife and I didn't leave. The night Matthew came was one of the scariest nights I've ever spent. The winds were insane. You know it's bad when your wife asks, "Are we going to die tonight?" and your answer has to be, "I don't know."

Matthew never actually scored a direct hit on our area. It passed about 20 miles offshore. Even so, power was out for three days, during which I rented a hotel room so I could use their power and Wi-Fi to do my job.

Matthew, by the time it reached us, was a Category 2. Irma was being described by scientists as one of the largest storms ever recorded. With Irma, it seemed foolish to stay at home. Evacuation made the most sense.

I wanted to wait four more days, until Thursday. Track maps, that early in a hurricane's travel, aren't always accurate. I didn't want to lose that much time from work. I figured that if the storm shifted, we'd have wasted all that time and money on hotels.

As I've noticed over and over again since I first met her, my wife is smarter than I am. My wife suggested we leave immediately, so there would be open roads and available gas, supplies, and hotel rooms. There are really only two main highways leaving Florida, so the potential for congestion at the last minute is very real. The idea of being stuck in a traffic jam when the hurricane hit seemed like a very bad idea. We thought about flying, but didn't like the idea of subjecting our dog to a flight, or the other passengers to our barky, scared little guy.

My wife pointed out that getting an early start made even more sense because the limited number of dog-friendly hotels reduced our options. I made a few phone calls and it turned out she was right. We needed to book a room and get out right away. We spent all of Sunday night packing, lowering the hurricane shutters, and securing the house. Early Monday morning, September 4, we left.

After driving for most of the day, we made it to the La Quinta in Macon, Georgia. As we checked in, the clerk told us we were lucky we had made reservations, because throughout the day, others from Florida had been booking rooms. Every hotel in Macon was now booked for the entire week. We had only booked a room for that night, because the track map seemed to indicate that Irma would barrel through that part of Georgia right after it was done with Florida.

In the hotel room on our first night, I examined the various storm tracks. Most showed Irma heading north after Georgia. My wife and I decided that, day-by-day, we'd make our way northwest.

We stayed the next night in Paducah, Kentucky. Tendrils from the various ensemble forecasts showed Kentucky as a possible hit point. So we drove west, to Lenexa, Kansas.

Sitting in a hotel was boring. Neither of us had taken a decent road trip in years. The storm wasn't due to arrive in Florida for almost five more days, so we decided to keep driving. We drove to Aurora, Colorado. The day after that we continued on to Grand Junction, Colorado. Each night, we'd decide on our next destination and make our next reservation.

Wi-Fi and lack thereof

We'd drive for about 4-8 hours each day, and check in at the next pet-friendly La Quinta. I'd then set up shop to work, writing until the Netflix traffic inevitably overwhelmed the hotel's limited broadband, signaling that it was time to go to sleep.

My tech kit included a MacBook Pro, one of the new, inexpensive iPads, and a whole pile of chargers and dongles. When the LTE connection on my phone was good enough, I used my iPhone as a hotspot. It often wasn't.

At this point, I should point out that although I have Verizon's unlimited data plan, that plan does not extend to using the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. When it comes to using the phone as a hotspot, Verizon takes a hint from every other company who uses the word "unlimited" to mean severely limited. There is a very definite ceiling on the amount of hotspot you are allowed to provide, even on Verizon's most expensive service. I got notices warning me that I was out of data. I was not amused.

I decided to switch to using the TunnelBear VPN program to connect into each hotel's Wi-Fi to get work done. See my recent article on VPNs to understand the importance of avoiding public Wi-Fi for security reasons.

Wi-Fi quality varied greatly in hotels across the country, even among the same chain. Some hotels had encryption keys, others didn't. A few hotels had Wi-Fi so bad I had to work in the lobby, as close to the router as I could get. At one hotel, I got no signal at all.

I used the iPad as a second screen for my MacBook. I originally though I'd have to do some sort of linkage, to make the iPad a true second screen. But I found that I could simply use Safari on the iPad to provide me with reference data I needed, and do most of my work on the MacBook Pro.

When Irma hit

By the time we had one more night to wait until Irma struck, we were in Logan, Utah. We'd been on the road for a week. Early in the morning on Monday, September 11, my home servers stopped responding, which meant either power or internet (or both) were gone. News reports said that Irma's eye was far to the west of our home, but because Irma was so huge, wind and water damage was still extensive.

It turns out that power at home was out for three days (the first time). By the time it was back on, we had been to Boise, Idaho, Bend Oregon, and Olympia, Washington.

When power came on briefly, a neighbor sent us a text with a picture showing that some shingles had blown off our roof, but otherwise damage seemed minimal. As it turns out, we had considerable roof damage and it will need to be replaced. We think insurance will come to the rescue, but we're waiting to find out for sure.

The power went off again back at home. It stayed off for another 96 hours, finally coming back on, and staying on, the following Sunday night. Power had been out for a total of about a week.

During our daily driving, and while waiting for news about the hurricane and our power, my wife and I had a lot of time to talk. It's no secret that I'm not in love with Florida.

We moved to Florida shortly after we got married. We liked the idea of the lower cost of living. Neither of us like snow. Mostly, though, my parents had retired to Florida. They were aging, and they really wanted us to be closer by. We helped them through their final years. They both passed away almost two years ago. Florida just isn't the same without them.

Other than our home, we no longer have any real ties to Florida. The heat is nearly unbearable eight months of the year. The now-annual hurricane scare, along with the accompanying blast back to the Stone Age due to a completely inadequate wires-on-poles power infrastructure, is getting old. We've grown weary of being at Ground Zero for hurricanes, year after year. Annual power outages are not acceptable for a person whose job depends on connectivity.

A big decision

By the time we made it to the Pacific coast, we had made a big decision: we were going to move away from Florida permanently. We started referring to our exit from Florida as our FLexit.

I'd been to the Pacific Northwest many times for work, and always loved it. My wife didn't like Washington as much as she liked Oregon. Oregon is really beautiful. There are also lots of little coffee kiosks, which make pretty darned good drive-through espresso.

Cannabis is legal, here in Oregon. That's fine with me, although I don't personally partake. My drug of choice is caffeine. It was a little odd at first, seeing just how commonplace and open the weed trade is here, as well as in Washington and Colorado. There seem to be as many pot stores as there are coffee kiosks, and there are a LOT of coffee kiosks.

Yes, it rains. And yes, there are volcanos. But there is not a lot of snow in our new area, which we are really starting to fall in love with. And there are huge old trees and mountains, which we both really missed.

Getting set up

The big news is we rented a house just outside Salem, Oregon. It's nice, with all the spaces I need for work, and some nice space for living, too. The garage is actually bigger than the one in Florida, which will give me more project space.

I'm here in the new house now, with my dog, my laptop, and the nice, inexpensive 49-inch 4K TV I reviewed last week. I'm using it as a second monitor. Once the all-important La-Z-Boy was delivered, I got up and running with a fully-functional work environment and 200 Mbps broadband. We started to feel at home once we got a microwave, an airbed, and a fridge full of Chinese food delivery leftovers.

Right now, my product testing lab (better known as my garage) and the little studio I set up are both on a moving truck somewhere in the middle of the United States. I won't be able to do too much fancy video for a month or so, but I have some ideas for some cool video projects, even without my full kit. I brought the laptop I use for webcasts, so I'm set up and configured for that already.

It's a big, huge, almost overwhelming change. It's kind of scary and kind of exciting. And it was all made doable by technology.

Tech made it possible

Here's what was pretty amazing to me: with my laptop, hotel Wi-Fi, a VPN, the LTE hotspot on my phone, and access to all my data and resources in the cloud, I've been able to do my job from just about anywhere.

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As my wife and I build our new life out here in Oregon, we can't help but feel for victims of hurricane Mary in Puerto Rico. Not only do we have the economic advantages that have come from living the life we have, we had the ability to get on the road. Those in Puerto Rico had no such opportunity. Being an island, there is no place for them to go. And the poor response on the part of other Americans only showcases the challenges our fellow citizens are going through.

Stay tuned: I'll be writing about the tech involved both in the trip across the country, and in the new setup here. I have articles coming about how cloud backup has managed to sustain my ability to do my job, what I carried in my bug-out bag and how to think about what you might need in yours, scanning and faxing from an iPhone, setting up a smart home, choosing and installing a smart thermostat, and a lot more.

The very coolest thing, though, was that in the middle of a 145 mile deserted stretch of mountain road between Colorado and Utah, where there wasn't even a single gas station, I had a business-as-usual Hangouts conversation with one of my colleagues by talking into my Apple Watch. For a kid who grew up on Dick Tracy in the 70s, I really do feel like I'm living in the future.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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