Refugees pushed through Selma

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 7, 2004

The Magnum Safari SUV with Florida plates was parked in the Wal-Mart parking lot after lunch on Labor Day. Attached was a Jeep Cherokee Sport with an aluminum ladder latched to the roof and a KTM 525 EXC dirt bike strapped to the back.

They were Florida refugees on the move.

Swimming pool builder Earl Stephens and Jennifer Clark, with Earl’s son Keith

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and his wife Margaret, and their two sons Keith Jr., 19 months, and Nathan, 9 months and the families Golden Retriever, Ginger, were headed toward a KOA campground in Meridian, Miss and out of the path of Hurricane Frances.

“I’m wondering if we’ll ever get home,” said Clark with a chuckle.

They stopped in Selma to restock at Wal-Mart after spending the previous night in Eufaula.

The clan stocked up on gas cans, batteries and water.

The family set out last Thursday and had found the travel north from Palm Beach Gardens where they live to be hectic but very slow.

“It took us seven hours to get to Orlando. The traffic was terrible. People were running out of gas. The rest area was overflowing so we went on. And we couldn’t find a campsite. We finally stopped at a rest stop on I-75. The next night we spent in Eufaula,”

Clark said.

“We had thought we might go to Auburn where my aunt lives, but it looked like the storm was heading more that way, so we drove to Selma on the way to Meridian where we found a space in a KOA campground,” she said.

Stephens, a native of Miami, has been in the high-end swimming pool construction and maintenance business for the past 20 years, and Clark, a native of Maryland, is an interior decorator who has lived in Florida for the past 30 years. She considers herself an almost native.

Keith works for his father in the business, ES Unlimited.

“We wanted a haven, air conditioning and power,” Clark said, “and we didn’t want anything to happen to our SUV, so we decided to leave last Thursday. Our neighbors are flooded and have no power. We consider ourselves fortunate,” she added.

The Stephens had been checking in with friends in Florida on their own real estate while on the road. They received reports that nothing had been severely damaged.

“We had storm shutters,” said Clark.

Margaret Stephens

heard from her father that there was a lot of flooding at his place and that the fence and the screened porch were gone.

“It’s hot, wet and boring,” he told his daughter on the phone. “Nothing to do but clean up the mess.”

Clark remembers a lot of hurricanes – most recently Charley this season, and Andrew, Floyd and David in the past, but Frances was by far the worst in her opinion.

“This is the biggest and largest hurricane I can ever remember. It’s covering the whole state,” she said.

“What makes it worse is that our area is so rapidly growing that the roads are constantly under construction and with all the rain and flooding it will be a nightmare, a total mess,” she said.

Both Stephens and Clark spoke of the hospitality that they had enjoyed in Selma.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to go to New York or New Jersey,” he said.

“I had a man from Alabama who worked for me for 15 years. He was great. And now I know why. People here are so nice,” he said.

Clark said they had had time to go through Selma’s historic district, which they loved.

“It’s beautiful country here and we plan to come back,” Stephens said.

“We’ll have to return by way of the west coast of Florida,” Clark said. “We hope the traffic will not be as bad (on that side of the state). Right now we couldn’t return if we wanted to. All the roads are blocked off until the crews can restore power and do the cleanup,” she said.