A tale of Irma: Two stores, different decisions, but customers first

OKEECHOBEE — When a massive, possible Category 5 blowhard of a storm is bearing down on you personally, your own survival and the safety of your family, your home and your business become the stakes in one of the biggest decisions you might ever make: Do I stay or do I go?

This is a story of the opposite choices made by two businesspeople in Buckhead Ridge. Even though the two – who were separated by a street, Hunter Road, and very divergent backgrounds – decided differently, they both provided the utmost service they could to the folks, their neighbors and in some cases friends, who had come to depend on them. And although it ended up that nobody’s survival actually came to be in jeopardy, no one could have known that would be the case at the time.

Neither had to think very hard about what they would do; their choices seemed naturally clear to them as Irma bore down on the area starting around 10 days ago.

Familiar, homey oasis in a tempest: Ridge Market

For Lynn Hingson, owner of Ridge Market & Storage, 1124 Buckhead Ridge Road, it almost didn’t require any thought. She’d been in a similar situation before, 12 years ago when a whirlwind named Wilma was in the offing.

To the question about how things were at her eclectic country general store leading up to the arrival of Irma, Ms. Hingson was concise and blunt.

“Stressful. Hectic. Scary. People were panicking. But I had a generator, my ex-husband brought me a generator, and so I had the whole store going.”
Wait, what? She stayed open Sunday when the winds were building up to the nearly Cat-3 strength felt here?

“Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t remember what time it hit, but … we closed when the winds started getting really bad, and then as soon as the storm was over, we reopened. We did the same thing 12 years ago, during Wilma. There’s nothing open, you know.”

She didn’t have to tell anybody that. Many were busy looking online at the last minute, seeking fuel, or bottled water, or just good stuff to feed the kids. And there they found her and Ridge Market.

“I mean, people were coming here even from Basinger, because we put it on the Okeechobee Scoop, and Facebook, that we were open. There was nothing open. We boarded up just these shutters here on the front of the store,” said Ms. Hingson.

Some might’ve come just to be around others and find comfort in camaraderie in those stressful, panicky hours and days after it became clear Irma would affect nearly everybody in some way. But they took advantage of the market’s offerings anyway.

“Yeah,” she said, “they purchased things, but there was a whole lot of talking. Well, we have gas in the kitchen, and the generator was running everything. So we had no problem at all.”

Rhonda Patrick has worked behind the counter for owner Lynn Hingson for two years. Irma was her first hurricane. The Ridge Market kept its large clientele fueled with food for Irma – even during the storm. Photo by Chris Felker.

Interviewed on Wednesday afternoon as FPL crews continued working in the area to restore power to residents, Lynn said: “I haven’t been out of the store. I live next door and I went over there for a half-hour [Sunday as Irma was hitting here] to take a shower and to see if my house was standing, and I’ve been in this store the whole time, sleeping here.”

Ms. Hingson agreed with the whispers that no one wanted to fall victim to another scenario that even resembled what happened in South Texas about two weeks prior when Hurricane Harvey ravaged that state’s Gulf Coast and then flooded countless communities en route to Houston and beyond. She said that heartbreaking calamity struck a cold fear into the hearts of many, leading to the pandemonium witnessed at stores across the entirety of Florida beginning around Tuesday, Sept. 5.

She said it was “crazy busy” at her store the whole week before, but once she got the generator she didn’t think twice about staying open as long as possible, including late into Sunday, Sept. 10, and first thing the next morning.

“But you know what I couldn’t understand, we were so busy for food beforehand, and even the cook’s going, ‘We thought everybody stocked up on food before the hurricane. Why are they going out to eat?!’ Do you know how many people do not have grills?” she said.

“We had throwaway grills, which we didn’t even sell them all. I think we had four or five, you know, just to heat something up. But I didn’t sell a lot of charcoal and stuff, either. Yes, we were very busy all the way through.”

Her family and staff had their own decisions to make, of course, but they all stuck with her. “I couldn’t have done it without the loan of the generator from Mark and Patti Pearce (of L Cross Ranch) and help from my sons Caleb and Chase, and also my employees who helped through it all.”

Does she think people overreacted because of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas?

“Oh, yes, I think so.”

Rhonda Patrick, a West Virginian by birth who’s worked at Ridge Market for two years and lived in Buckhead for just three, was one of those workers. Was Irma her first experience with a hurricane?

“Very first hurricane, yeah. Friday was crazy,” Ms. Patrick said. “But we were open the day of the storm. Sunday we opened regular hours, 7 a.m., and we closed … well, it was bad when I left, I didn’t know if I should leave or not!

And people were still coming in.”

Ridge Market usually doesn’t even serve hot, cooked-to-order food on Sundays, but they did on Sept. 10. The next day, too.

“Monday I opened at the same time, and it was even more crazy that day because people had nowhere to eat.” Normally, Rhonda leaves around 3 each day. But Sunday, it wasn’t until around 4, she wasn’t sure of the time, and Monday not until 5 because there was just so much stocking and we were running out of things, and we were still trying to provide people with the things they needed. We helped them in any way we could. They had nowhere to go!” Ms. Patrick won’t forget last week for a long, long time.

Gas all gone, panels up, lights out: Buckhead Sunoco

Across the road at the Sunoco station familiar to many drivers who mostly just whiz by on State Road 78 (although the best-informed always stop if they’re in need because they know gas is cheaper there than anywhere nearby), Mina Darji was just beginning to get needed restocking shipments for her store on Wednesday, Sept. 13. But she took a few moments to talk about her and her family’s choice. She and husband Hemant are hands-on managers of the gas station owned by her daughter Mira, who lives in southern New Jersey.

Business also was bonkers there the whole week before Irma made landfall at Marco Island and ruined everyone’s weekend, long before the hurricane even set its sights on Cudjoe Key where the devastation is unspeakably sad.

The Darjis were almost too busy to think much about their choice. By Wednesday the 6th it was pretty much made for them: Gas, water – all sold out.

“From Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, we had a gas tanker in two times. Whatever we usually sell in three days, we sold in one day,” Mrs. Darji said, “so that was a good thing. Everybody was filling up their big containers for their generators, after their cars or RVs. Tuesday and Wednesday we were super busy, probably double the usual business, I would say.”

So much so, in fact, that they sold every drop of both H20 and each blend of gasoline.

Mina and Hemant had never experienced a hurricane, and they didn’t particularly want to be in Irma’s path when a more attractive alternative presented itself. “Mira and we decided we should close. So we took a little vacation,” said Mrs. Darji. “We went to New Jersey to see the family. We haven’t had a vacation or been up there to see them in three years. We left Wednesday night after store closed at 9 o’clock, at 11 o’clock that night we drove out, my husband and two kids also.”

Traffic actually proved to be scarier than Irma.

“It took us like 24 hours to get there,” she said. Bad traffic? “Oh yes, it was bumper-to-bumper on I-95.”

“Usually it’s only an 18-hour drive,” said Hemant.

“I wasn’t scared,” Mina said, “but it’s just like, you know, I didn’t want to stay open because I didn’t want any damage inside because of the strong wind, and plus I didn’t have gas, and I didn’t have water, either. I sold everything out. We did everything we could for our customers, and then decided it was a good time to take a vacation.”

So off to South Jersey they went, “and we met my mother-in-law, and everybody’s doing OK. We were so glad.”

Once they returned, they realized how lucky they’d been.

“Thank God nothing happened to our store or house. Only one tree blew down, and it didn’t even go on my house or nothing, it was just hanging on the fence,” Mrs. Darji said.

Mina and Hemant Darji manage the Buckhead Ridge Sunoco station for their daughter, Mira, and were grateful they suffered no harm and were able to help keep their customers fueled up. Photo by Chris Felker.

But their customers missed them, and many of their loyal regulars came in to inquire when they’d have gas back after they reopened on Thursday.

“Yesterday I opened at 7 o’clock, but I still don’t have gas yet, but I’m going to get the gas today, that’s what he told me,” she said on Friday.

Their customers love the station, she said, “because we always have cheaper gas than anywhere else in town, and many people drive out here because of that.”

One regular who pulled up to their pumps looking to gas up early Friday began to leave right away when he saw the pumps were down. But he obligingly lowered his window to answer a question, smiling and shouting as he was pulling away: “I’ll be back. They’re so friendly, and they try hard to always give us the best price, so I don’t ever buy it anywhere else.”

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