Weary Irma evacuees from Florida find sanctuary in a NC mountain town

Kathy and Stephen Zimmerman drove 23 hours from their home in Cape Coral, Florida, to find refuge at the Kanuga Conference Center near Hendersonville. The mountain town is full of Hurricane Irma evacuees from Florida.
Kathy and Stephen Zimmerman drove 23 hours from their home in Cape Coral, Florida, to find refuge at the Kanuga Conference Center near Hendersonville. The mountain town is full of Hurricane Irma evacuees from Florida. kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com

Kathy and Stephen Zimmerman may have had the longest trip of all.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida’s west coast, they filled their car trunk with whatever they could, shrink-wrapped their treasured pictures, stereo and computer equipment and left their home in Cape Coral, near Naples, at 4:30 a.m. Thursday.

After 23 hours of driving – 12 hours Thursday and 11 more on Friday – they finally reached the Kanuga Conference Center outside Hendersonville at 8 p.m. Friday, exhausted and heartsick.

Stephen Zimmerman, 68, a retired Episcopal priest who still works at Trinity By the Cove in Naples, Florida, said they considered seeking refuge at the Sewanee Episcopal seminary near Nashville. But they decided to aim for Kanuga, the Episcopal retreat center where he had gone camping as a boy.

“We were lucky to get a room,” he said.

Actually, Kanuga had plenty of rooms by then: The center, which has cabins and an inn, had scrambled Thursday to make space for 200 staff members and assisted-living residents from the Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community in Charleston. But then Irma shifted west, away from the South Carolina coast. Suddenly, Kanuga had a lot more space than it expected, said marketing director Leslie Hartley.

The center started making room for Florida evacuees instead.

“We pride ourselves on being a sanctuary for the spirit,” Hartley said Saturday. “We’re happy to be a sanctuary for those seeking refuge instead.”

Hotel managers all over the Hendersonville area were doing the same. As fast as hotels cancelled rooms for people from the Carolinas, they filled them with people from all over Florida.

“It’s fluctuating by the hour,” said a spokesman for the Hendersonville Visitors Bureau. Some hotels were so busy they couldn’t answer the phone to provide updates on room availability.

At the Mill House Lodge in Flat Rock, owner Bob Harky said, “It’s actually like summertime – chaos.”

Many hotels waived cancellation fees, eased no-pet policies and let guests check in with no check-out date.

June Rhodes, owner of the Holiday Inn Express at Interstate 26 and Upward Road in Hendersonville, said people arrived weary and terrified. But most also helped each other, sharing supplies and working together.

In the hotel parking lot, Jerry Iseli unloaded Saturday morning after a 13-hour drive from Hernando, Florida. The night before, somewhere in Georgia, he and his wife Susan had stopped for dinner and talked to a stranger for a few minutes. When they went to pay their check, the man had already paid it.

“We don’t know his name or anything,” Iseli said.

All around Hendersonville, it was a busier than usual fall weekend. Cars with Florida license plates jockeyed for spaces at the gas pumps at the Triangle gas station by I-26 and lined up at Sky Top Orchard, a major tourist attraction, where some cars even parked among the apple trees.

Cars with Florida license plates lined up this weekend at Sky Top Orchard, a major tourist attraction near Hendersonville, as evacuees fled Hurricane Irma. Kathleen Purvis kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com

“Even with the stress, the long hours and no gas, everybody is being so nice,” said Todd Edney, the manager of a Hampton Inn.

The Zimmermans had spent two days inching up from Florida, hunting for gas and driving 20 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic even on back roads. By the time they reached Kanuga Friday night, they were bleary-eyed.

With Irma expected to bring a 9-foot storm surge to Naples, they didn’t expect to even have a home or church left once the storm passed.

“It was a nice house,” Stephen Zimmerman said, and then caught himself: “I said ‘was.’ I hope it’s still there. If the roof goes, the walls go and all bets are off. We called it our perfect house.”

Zimmerman had been through hurricanes Andrew and Wilma when he was a priest in Boca Raton, so he and his wife didn’t hesitate to leave.

“We know hurricanes,” Kathy Zimmerman said.

At Kanuga, they were quickly encircled by members of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, which was having its annual church retreat. During Sunday morning services, the Rev. Josh Bowron had the congregation form a “prayer nest” around the Zimmermans in the center aisle of Kanuga Chapel to pray for their safety.

“I guess we need to start thinking about where we want to go,” Kathy Zimmerman had said before the service. “What’s it like in Charlotte?”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis