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Tri-Cities puts out the welcome mat for Irma evacuees

Nathan Baker • Sep 8, 2017 at 12:19 AM

As cars of evacuees streamed north to escape the 175 mph winds of the advancing Hurricane Irma, people in the Tri-Cities and beyond offered their homes and food to help.

Kiran Sing Sirah said he and Ren Allen came up with the idea Tuesday evening at the Willow Tree Coffee House: a Facebook group where people could post available rooms and supplies for evacuees who make it into the area.

“We set it up, and within 12 hours, it had over 300 members, now it has over 645,” Sirah said Thursday afternoon of the Irma evacuation support group. “It started locally first, then we got some people from Asheville and other places in North Carolina, then a friend from Bristol asked if Southwest Virginia could be involved.”

In post after post on the group’s page, people offered spare rooms, RV parking, help with meals and laundry and even pasture land to keep horses. A post shared from Quantum Leap Trampoline Sports Arena advertised 71 trampolines on which evacuees could sleep.

Some evacuees already took up some of the offers.

One woman who said she was nearing the Tennessee state line was looking for room for her family of six, including her husband, mother and three children.

Adam Shepherd, a Realtor for The Property Experts in Johnson City, started a gofundme.com campaign to raise money to help pay for hotel rooms for evacuees in the area.

With his Irma Victims Need a Place to Sleep campaign, Shepherd hopes to raise $20,000, which he estimates should pay for 50 rooms in local hotels for four or five nights.

“My wife, her brother and sister-in-law live down in Florida, and the only thing they grabbed were some clothes and photo albums,” he said. “Seeing the huge line of cars going out, people trying to get out of the way, I’m thinking all these people are going to need a place to stay, and they may not have money for it.”

Thursday afternoon, Irma was passing north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic at 16 mph. It’s expected to swipe Cuba Saturday, then swing toward the southern tip of Florida, making landfall there sometime Sunday.

More than a half-million people were ordered to leave South Florida, which includes the Keys and the Miami metropolitan area with its 6 million residents. People fleeing the encroaching hurricane reported traffic congestion and gas shortages.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned the state’s residents not to become complacent.

“It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate,” Scott said.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for all areas east of Interstate 95, which includes Savannah. From Charleston to Columbia in South Carolina, mandatory coastal evacuations will begin Saturday. It and the coast of North Carolina are under states of emergency.

When the evacuees make it inland, our neck of the woods will be ready for them, Sirah said.

“It’s sending a message that this is a strong community, we’re welcoming and we’re going to support our neighbors. I’m sure they’d do the same for us,” he said. “We’re not emergency services, just a group of people who want to welcome people into our homes. We felt we could do something small, and it’s turned into this.”

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