Pat and Leila Leupold thought the eye of Hurricane Irma might just miss their community.
Then the former Fremonters heard a news update at their Florida home.
The fierce storm was coming straight up the peninsula — and right toward them.
Pat Leupold, a former principal at Trinity Lutheran School in Fremont, and his wife, Leila, a registered nurse, moved to Florida in 2004. They live in Winter Springs, Florida, about 1 ½ hours from the state’s west coast.
As of Monday morning, the couple didn’t think they had anything more than landscape damage at their home in a suburb of Orlando.
But they — and others in their community — faced a furious storm on Sunday night and into early Monday morning.
“It’s amazing how the storm can shift just that little bit,” Leila Leupold said. “They can predict all they want, but it still does what it does.”
The Leupolds and friend Lynette Tegtmeier, a middle school teacher, were prepared to ride out the storm in the couple’s house.
By 7 p.m. Sunday, they thought the eye of the storm was going over Tampa, about 11/2 hours away.
An hour later, they learned it was coming up the spine of Florida — and was headed their way. And while the eye of a hurricane is calm, the area directly around that is dangerous.
“Especially, the east and southeast side — not sure why, but the force is greater on that side,” he said.
And they live to the east of where Irma was coming through.
They waited as the storm approached.
“You’re already hunkered down,” Leila said. “You’re just really wondering, ‘When is it going to get here and how are we going to fare?’”
The hurricane began to hit Winter Springs at about 1 a.m. Monday and was the worst between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m., Pat said.
By the time the hurricane reached their community, it was considered a Category 2 storm, but still had wind speeds of 80 to 100 mph.
They heard the wind.
“It came intermittently with heavy rain and then occasionally we would hear a ‘thunk’ on the roof and that would be a branch landing on the roof,” Leila said.
Pat Leupold ventured outside a couple times. The rain had stopped for the most part.
“There was one time when a gust came up and almost blew me over,” Leupold said, adding he should have stayed inside.
Neither the Leupolds nor Tegtmeier were injured.
“I spoke with our local firefighters this (Monday) morning,” Pat Leupold said. “They said they had a lot of calls — mostly babies being born and a few people they had to rescue from 3 and 4 feet of water in their house. We certainly didn’t have that in our area.”
The Leupolds didn’t lose power, but between 60 to 65 percent of the community did. Leupold also said he heard 7,000 extra utility workers from around the country were already in Daytona, waiting in a staging area to help out.
Leupold said they weren’t really afraid during the storm and knew people from Fremont and throughout the country were praying for them.
“We’ve got our trust in God taking care of us. We did what we should have done in preparation and so the rest of it was left up to God,” he said.
The Leupolds began preparing for the hurricane about a week before the storm.
“The one thing you absolutely have to do is make sure there’s nothing in the yard that can blow around, because a flower pot, whatever, becomes a projectile,” Pat said. “Patio furniture — you either have to get it tied down well or put away somewhere.”
They had blue tarps to cover the roof of their house just in case a tree limb went through.
Having enough water and gasoline were the biggest concerns.
On Sept. 4, Pat Leupold went to a store, where people already were buying all the water bottles.
The couple began bagging ice from their refrigerator and froze bottles of water.
“Worst case scenario, if the water bottles melt, you’ve got water,” he said.
They stocked up on enough non-perishable food to last for three to five days.
“We made sure we had bread,” he said. “I made sure we had M&Ms (candies).”
Leupold had topped off the tanks of their cars with gasoline by Sept. 5 or 6.
By Sept. 7, long lines began forming at gas stations, which were running out of fuel.
Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott provided police escorts for tanker trucks to get them to the communities more quickly and to protect the drivers and keep order around the gas pumps.
Tempers can flair when people are afraid they might not get the gasoline they need, Leupold noted.
Floridians also are told to fill their bathtubs with water in case of a power outage due to a hurricane. That way, if the lift stations go out, the people can use water from their bathtubs to fill their toilet tanks.
The Leupolds almost didn’t do that on Sunday night, but changed their minds and did so at the last minute.
“It was a good thing, because the first thing they said this morning was ‘Refrain from showers. Refrain from using the toilet as much as you can, because the lift stations are struggling,’” he said. “I think it’s because we got a good 10, 12 — maybe 14 inches of rain.”
One situation they had to fight — even before the storm — was something called “Hurricane Fatigue.” With news stations continuously broadcasting about the hurricane prior to the storm, people can become so fatigued by the coverage that they don’t want to watch it anymore.
But they need to watch.
Leupold said they wouldn’t have known they were in the path of the hurricane’s eye if they’d turned off their television.
Looking back, did living in Nebraska prepare the Leupolds for this?
“I suppose so, because you have lots of notice before a blizzard and you do start preparing; it’s much the same,” Leila said. “But when you lose your power here, you’re at least not going to freeze to death. You’re just going to be really hot and uncomfortable and cranky.”
From a schoolteacher’s perspective, Tegtmeier noticed before the storm that students were asking about getting “Hurricane Days” off of school.
“They’re just as excited as we used to get about snow days,” said Tegtmeier, a former Manhattan, Kansas, resident.
Classes were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday.
On Monday, the Leupolds planned to spend time cleaning up. Two of their children, who live not far away, are fine, they said.
Now, the couple’s thoughts, directed toward others in their community, are these: “How can we help out and what can we do?”
The flag was beautiful and in good shape.
So Brian Essen was a little surprised to see it in a collection box outside of Dugan Funeral Chapel in Fremont.
For almost two years, the funeral home has had a box in which area residents can drop off worn and tattered American flags for proper disposal.
When the flags are worn, the Veterans of Foreign Wars website states they must be burned and the ashes buried.
So the funeral home, which has a crematory, is able to do that.
And whenever possible, one of these flags is draped over the container of a veteran who has chosen cremation as his or her final wish.
“We honor the veteran — because the flag is so important to veterans — and we honor that flag with its final use of draping a veteran of our country,” said Essen, a partner of Dugan Funeral Services, Inc.
Since the funeral home first installed the box, it has received 1,271 flags.
“This is a number that has significantly exceeded our expectations, proving the need for this service in the Fremont area,” Essen said. “The response has been continual.
“People are flying flags and they are worn as they’re flown so the need is truly ongoing.”
Last week, a flag was dropped off with a note which said it was the flag of a woman’s late husband.
The flag had never been flown and was in good shape.
“I called the woman up and I said, ‘I have your flag and it seems a shame to dispose of it.’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t want it disposed of. I want it to go on the Avenue of Flags.’”
Essen was glad the woman put her and her late husband’s name with the flag so he could call and ask her what to do with it. Essen then gave this flag to Vern Gibson, an employee at Dugan Funeral Services, who’s also co-chairman of the Avenue of Flags.
The Avenue of Flags is a display of American flags that line Military Avenue on holidays. The large flags are those presented to the families of deceased veterans.
While the collection box is intended as a drop-off container for people who want to have their worn American flags properly disposed of, Essen said those who want to donate their flag to the Avenue of Flags can leave their flags, too. They just need to attach a note so it can be directed to the right place.
“We’ll make sure it goes where it needs to go,” Essen said.
The drop-off box, which has a decorative wrap that resembles a flag, is in the south driveway of the funeral home at 751 N. Lincoln Ave.
Essen noted that people drop off flags of different sizes.
“You never know when you open the box what you’re going to get,” Essen said.
The water-tight box is checked a couple of times a week.
“We view it as a community service,” Essen said of the proper worn flag disposal, adding, “It’s wonderful to be able to honor the American flag and veterans in a special way.”