Meet the Floridian couple that hosted evacuated families after two powerful hurricanes

Categories: Open Homes

When Jason and Karen were separated during Hurricane Michael, Open Homes hosts Bob and Juan helped bring their family back together.

 

In October 2018, after a tropical storm escalated to a Category-5 hurricane over the Florida Panhandle, Jason and Karen gathered their kids to flee for Orlando.

“Being Floridians, we’re kind of stubborn when it comes to hurricanes,” said Jason, whose family lives in Fort Walton Beach, three miles from the coast. “We don’t actually blink at them unless they’re a strong Cat-3 or Cat-4.  But when this one hit Cat-5, it was a no-brainer. We decided to get out.”

Realizing you need to evacuate
“They closed the schools for two days, which is unusual,” said Karen, who teaches theater at a local high school. “That’s when we knew it was a big deal. And we wanted to be together, in case something really catastrophic happened.

Hurricane Michael hit landfall in central Florida with 150 mile-per-hour winds— upending roofs, flooding highways with seawater, knocking down power lines, and endangering whole neighborhoods. At the time, Jason was stuck 10 hours away on a business trip, and Karen was at home with their two sons. The family quickly realized that nearby shelters were full and hotels were too expensive.

“I checked my hotel apps and saw that they were booking up fast and the prices were getting out of hand, so I opened my Airbnb app,” Jason said. “It’s definitely part of our evacuation plan now, to check Airbnb before checking the hotels. You don’t want to be caught on the roads trying to evacuate when the storm hits. The longer you wait, the more people decide to evacuate.”

He opened the Airbnb app on his phone, and a notification asked if he or his family was affected by the hurricane. That’s when he discovered Open Homes, a program that connects people impacted by disasters with free places to stay. The house he found — a three-bedroom, three-bathroom spot — was accessible by car and perfectly located for the family to reunite.

Finding refuge with Open Homes hosts
Jason and Karen met at their Airbnb in central Florida, directly south of Orlando—an especially popular spot given its proximity to Disney World. The home had a relaxing, seaside aesthetic — with jewel-toned furniture and cheerfully colored walls.

Husbands Bob and Juan
first opened their home with the program in 2016, and have since housed several families impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Michael.  The couple has been married for 7 years and together for over a decade; Bob is retired and manages their properties, and Juan recently launched a LGBT-oriented travel business for travel to Ecuador. To date, they’ve hosted more than 2,000 people from over 35 countries.

“When we got there, it felt like a home away from home,” explained Karen.Of course we were very nervous about our home, but it was nice to have some of that stress lifted off our shoulders. The pool was a pleasant surprise.”

For three nights, the family rested, regrouped, and monitored the news while the storm intensified. “In a stressful situation, we felt cared for,” Jason said. “Through an app, of all things.” Even though Bob and Juan were at home in Fort Lauderdale,  they were still able to make a difference from afar. Juan kept in close touch with Jason, and frequently checked in on how his family was doing. “There’s still a sense of responsibility for having guests in your house,” Bob said, “Even if they are fleeing worse circumstances, you’re still thinking: I hope nothing happens to them.”

Preparing for hurricane season
Typically, Jason and Karen prepare for hurricane season by stocking up on nonperishable food and filling their bathtub with ice and extra water. “If you wait till the day of, when everyone’s going to the stores, the shelves are empty,” Karen said. “We keep batteries, flashlights, and hand-cranked battery-operated chargers for our phones, in case the power goes out.”

Juan and Bob prepared to host Jason and Karen’s family like they would for any other Airbnb guest. “When we’re traveling, we all want to find a place where we can feel at home,” Juan said, pointing out that this situation was no different. “A place that’s clean, where you’re welcome, that’s going to be safe.”

Going home after the storm
When Jason and Karen returned to their house later that week, they didn’t find significant damage, but many people in their community weren’t so lucky. “It’ll take years to recover and rebuild,” Jason explained. “The news doesn’t cover it anymore, but there’s still people whose houses have been demolished and who are living in tent cities in Panama City.” At least 36 people died during Hurricane Michael, the most destructive hurricane in the region since 1992.

“There’s something rewarding about helping someone out without expecting anything in return,” Juan said. “Jason offered to pay a couple times and we told him: there’s no need to. We know that you’re displaced and we’re happy to help.”

“If we were ever in their shoes with a hurricane coming our way,” he continued, “it would be nice to know that we could go to Open Homes.”

 

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