FORT RUCKER, Ala. — As Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida and made its way up the coast toward Alabama, Fort Rucker and the surrounding communities prepared for the worst, but one Army family was able to find respite through social media.
Jessica Perez and her husband, Warrant Officer Robert Perez, B Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment, were just like many families keeping their eye on the storm as Irma made its way toward the Florida coast, but as forecasters predicted the storm to take a more northerly path, they made to decision to stay put rather than evacuate with their children.
“We were waiting to see what was going to happen because it was suppose to go through the Carolinas,” said Jessica. “At first, I was going to go to my mom’s house because she lived in South Carolina, but the storm shifted toward Georgia and we made the decision not to go.”
Although they were sure they would be out of harm’s way, they continued to keep an eye on forecasts and early on the morning of Sept. 10, they noticed that the projected path put them right in the line of the storm.
The Perez family, like many Army families who are here for training, live in a mobile home park in a recreational vehicle with their seven children, which gave them concern considering the high winds that were predicted to accompany the storm.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, now it’s coming straight for us,’ and they were talking about up to 65-mile-per-hour winds,” she said. “The trees around the RV are really old, and they shed their limbs all the time, so we started looking for a hotel and realized that everyone from Miami and Tampa were now in [this area], and all the hotels up to Birmingham were booked, so we just didn’t know what to do.”
Jessica said she called around numerous locations to try and find lodging, and she had heard through social media that rooms were available at the InterContinental Hotels Group hotel on post, but every time she called she was told that rooms were no longer available.
The family stayed in their home until Sunday when they finally made the decision to get out of the mobile home and made their way to a shelter in Ozark.
“We went to the Ozark shelter, and I remember I started crying, thinking, ‘I can’t believe this. We waited until the last minute, and now I’m taking my kids to a shelter,'” she said. “It was the first time anything like this has ever happened to us, so I was a bit emotional, but [a volunteer] there was really nice and hugging me, telling me it was going to be OK.”
As the Perez family settled into the shelter, Jessica said she didn’t know what to expect because she had always heard horror stories about storm shelters, but said she was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality they were met with.
Although the shelter exceeded their expectations, the Perez’s were still worried for the safety of their children since they did have at least five of their children to look after in a place where so many people from so many different walks of life were coming in.
“They weren’t checking IDs when you came in, so anybody could just walk in off the streets and go in there, and since my husband and I have both worked in law enforcement before, for us it was a safety nightmare for our family,” said the mother of seven. “Our priority was to keep our family safe — we attract a lot of attention because our children are really friendly and really outgoing.”
Jessica began looking for other options as the shelter began to fill up, and not only was the safety of her family on her mind, but she was also concerned that her family was taking up valuable space from families who were coming in from south Florida who might not have homes to go back to.
“I felt bad because there were a lot of people in the shelter from Tampa who fled from the storm and they had no idea if their home was going to be there when they returned,” she said. “We’re a large family and we brought our own beds and stuff, but it was filling up. That’s a large area of the floor we were taking up and I didn’t want someone to get turned away because we were here.”
Jessica decided to look to see if there were other options for her family, so she decided to check the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Facebook page for updates, and at the time she saw that no shelter was planned to be opened on post, so she decided to leave a comment about her situation.
The last thing she expected was to be directly contacted by an official from the post, especially with the installation dealing with the potential shutdown due to the storm, she said.
Lisa Eichhorn, Fort Rucker Public Affairs officer, reached out to Jessica to inquire further about her and her family’s situation.
“[Eichhorn] reached out to me and private messaged me and asked about my situation, and I told her that we were in a shelter right now, so we start talking and she asked for some suggestions,” she said. “I told her about the hotel and how it was full, so she ended up talking to the manager at the hotel and somehow they found us a room right around dinner time. It was amazing how fast they worked.”
Karen Brenenstahl, IHG general manager, was on duty at the hotel Sept. 10 trying to work through the bookings and cancellations they were experiencing due to the storm, and when she got the call from Eichhorn, she worked hard to try and secure a room for the Perez family.
“It was really just a matter of going back and looking through our inventory because we’re basically watching that inventory constantly because of cancellations, and the problem was they needed a family room,” said Brenenstahl.
The hotel houses 652 rooms, but only 38 of those rooms have two beds, so availability was a big issue. But despite the low availability of family rooms, Brenenstahl was able to find one for the Perez’s and get them in.
“When we finally got in [the hotel, her husband said], ‘Just being here is such a relief — I can let my guard down, I can relax, and I know my family’s safe.’ It was a huge relief,” said Jessica. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be [administrating] these [social media] pages [on a Sunday]. [Eichhorn] spent so much time helping us get into a room, and we got a room and it was awesome because I don’t know if I would have been able to sleep that night.
“If it weren’t for [Eichhorn] or [Brenenstahl], I have no idea what it would have been like,” said the mother of seven. “I think it was a really positive experience for us and it really made us feel like someone cared.”
Eichhorn said that it’s a big part of her job to monitor the installation’s social media for families who might be in need.
“When we say we put your safety first, we mean it, and that’s why we monitor our social media so closely,” said the public affairs officer. “We take the safety and security of our families very seriously.”