The two families had never crossed paths until Monday morning during breakfast at The Guest Lodge in Gainesville.
They soon found they had something in common — fleeing Florida and the potential wrath of Hurricane Irma.
Last Wednesday, as the threat of a direct hit from the storm loomed, Johnny and Maria Perez of Tampa decided they needed to leave.
“We started looking for accommodations,” Johnny Perez said. “It didn’t matter where.”
Two hours away, in Gainesville, Fla., Gerardo Medina and his wife, Delimar Delgado, who have a 2-year-old daughter, Veronica, began doing the same. Georgia’s Gainesville seemed a logical destination, as the couple has friends in the area.
“Georgia’s people have welcomed all the Floridians,” Johnny Perez said. “It’s been great.”
Hall County has been a temporary home for many Sunshine State residents, with hotels, campgrounds and other accommodations filling up.
Complicating matters this weekend were two big events, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival and Fishing League Worldwide regional tournament, said Regina Dyer, Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau manager.
“We were already pretty much filled up,” she said. “However, we had some rooms available. We coordinated with state resources but also reached out to other CVBs to see which locations had room availability.”
From there, “rooms went quickly,” Dyer said.
Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her agency worked last week with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and Georgia Emergency Management Agency to help evacuees with accommodations.
“Last time I checked, we were over 95 percent occupied countywide,” she said in a Sunday email.
“There’s no simple way to track the vacation rentals in the area,” Dickson added. “I'm sure some people did end up in those rentals, though.”
A.C. Patel, manager at the Motel 6 off Monroe Drive near Interstate 985, said the motel has been flooded with people from throughout Florida.
“We were almost booked (last) Tuesday,” he said. “Last three or four days, we’ve been full. We’ll probably have people staying a few more days.”
Patel, who has been in the hotel business for 17 years, said he has never seen such an event as the Irma evacuation.
“This is the heaviest flow (of guests) I can remember,” he said.
Al and Dee-Dee Lord of Ruskin, Fla., south of Tampa, were able to book a room at Motel 6.
“We have a doublewide trailer that’s fairly old, so we didn’t want to take any chances,” Al Lord said.
Dee-Dee left last Tuesday for the Gainesville area, where a couple of Al’s sisters live, and didn’t have the same traffic issues that faced Al on Friday.
In a trip that should have taken eight hours, Al drove for 14.
“The interstates were packed,” he said. “They opened up the shoulder to make an extra lane.”
John Walker of Best Western Plus off Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood said that in addition to Florida evacuees, the hotel has left open rooms for power crews from Jackson Electric Membership Corp.
Otherwise, “the biggest thing we have to deal with is the pets,” he said, with a laugh.
Best Western, along with several other area hotels, has relaxed its pets policy for evacuees to allow them as needed. Normally, the hotel has six rooms reserved for guests with pets.
“Their pets are their family,” Walker said.
Lori Hamby, assistant park manager at Don Carter State Park off North Browning Bridge Road in North Hall, said “quite a few” Florida evacuees are staying in the cottages.
“And then there are some who are camping,” she said. “We’re keeping an eye on the forecast. If it turns a lot worse, we’ll make sure they get in a more enclosed area.”