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Holiday in a hurricane

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Kelsey Brown of Winnipeg drew the eight of spades on Sept. 15 in the first week of the Chase the Ace lottery for the 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games Host Society. Brown won $600.

While people in Hay River watched on television as Hurricane Irma cut its destructive path through Florida, Tom and Donna Lakusta were in the path of the massive storm.

This beach in the St. Petersburg area of Florida is usually jammed packed, but not just after Hurricane Irma. The seaweed on the beach is from the storm surge caused by the hurricane. Photo courtesy of Tom and Donna Lakusta

The Hay River residents were on holiday and visiting their daughter Danielle Gillespie, who is a nurse in Tampa.

They ended up among the millions fleeing north to escape the hurricane.

"What happened was the hurricane was coming through the Caribbean and the spaghetti charts they were showing on TV had the hurricane eye going toward the east part of Florida, and so our plan was to stay in Tampa," said Tom Lakusta. "We thought it would be away from the eye of the hurricane. And then as it got closer and closer toward Miami and the south of Florida, those spaghetti projections changed it and put the eye right over Tampa."

The Lakustas helped their daughter and son-in-law prepare their house in case the hurricane hit.

Tom and Donna Lakusta, along with their son-in-law and grandson, left Tampa for Georgia in the face of Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Tom and Donna Lakusta

And as the hurricane got closer they decided to evacuate north to Georgia, where the parents of their son-in-law Brandon Gillespie has a house.

However, because of the emergency situation, their daughter was called for mandatory work at Tampa General Hospital and couldn't leave for four days, even sleeping at the hospital.

So the Lakustas, their son-in-law and their 18-month-old grandson William headed to Georgia the day before the hurricane hit Tampa in the early morning hours of Sept. 11.

Donna Lakusta said it was difficult to leave her daughter, especially since the forecasts were saying the eye of the hurricane was to go over her hospital.

"They weren't even sure how the hospital was going to hold up," she said in a telephone interview from Tampa. "The reason that we actually left at the last minute is because it was so stressful for her knowing that we potentially could be hit in the same eye. So she wanted us to leave with her son and her husband and go to Georgia. It was hard for us to leave and leave our daughter here."

Gillespie agreed she was worried for their lives.

"I wanted them to leave," she said.

Now looking back, Donna Lakusta said the funny thing is there were actually more effects from the hurricane in Georgia than in Tampa.

She said in Georgia there were "crazy" winds with gusts up to 110 miles per hour, things flying all over the place, and a lot of rain.

And the power went out in Georgia, but not at her daughter's home in Tampa.

Tom Lakusta said the storm was between a category one hurricane and a tropical storm when it passed over where they were in Georgia.

"We still caught it. We caught it as a tropical storm up in Georgia," he said, noting there were heavy winds and about six inches of rain.

Donna Lakusta noted the drive to Georgia was just like the evacuation scenes on television with long lines and slow-moving traffic, and a shortage of gas.

"Because five million people at least were evacuated, and coming back, the full five million were coming back," she said.

The drive to Georgia that normally takes about five or six hours stretched to about nine hours, and that was even when their son-in-law took back roads to avoid congested highways.

Danielle Gillespie said, while the storm was forecast to go right over Tampa, it moved to the east.

She said there was no damage to her house, but half of the nurses she works with did suffer damage to their homes and power outages.

Even though she lives in Florida, Gillespie said Hurricane Irma – one of the biggest on record – was her first experience with a hurricane.

"People were scared, even people who had been in hurricanes before," she noted. "People told me this was a lot different than anything they'd ever experienced."

Gillespie said, if Hurricane Irma had come right up the Tampa Bay as forecasted, the results would have been catastrophic.

"So everybody around us was evacuated except for our hospital, and there are other hospitals around there that were evacuated, as well," she said. "So for us it was just scary thinking that at that time a category four possibly could hit us dead on."

For the Lakustas, it was their first experience with a hurricane.

"It was really interesting, I guess. Interesting in a very kind of stressful way," said Tom Lakusta.

Donna Lakusta also recalled the stress of waiting for a hurricane.

"The whole time we were down here it was just 24/7 newscasts of the hurricane coming closer and closer," she said. "Originally, we thought it was going to miss us. It was stressful because you're not sure what you're supposed to do. We don't live here. We don't know where we're supposed to go. So all you're doing is just anticipating."

And now that she has experienced a hurricane, Donna Lakusta said, "I don't think I'd want to do it again, to tell you the truth."

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