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Brainerd natives living in Florida prep for Hurricane Irma's worst

Former Brainerd resident Tim Norton installs shutters at his home in Estero, Fla., in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Dawn Norton/Submitted Photo

Tim and Dawn Norton have little experience with hurricanes, but the former Brainerd residents are bracing themselves for Hurricane Irma as it approaches Florida.

The husband and wife relocated to Estero, Fla., for the warmer weather like so many others, but nothing in their past has prepared the Minnesota natives for a natural disaster quite like this.

"Nothing's happened yet," Dawn said with a chuckle of her surprisingly calm demeanor, just days before the Category 5 hurricane may make landfall. "It's still sunny here."

As parents of two adult children at Florida Gulf Coast University—which will be closed Thursday because of Hurricane Irma—and as survivors of Minnesota's notoriously harsh winters, the 53-year-olds have been married for 25 years.

"I was out yesterday running around because we were going to leave this morning, so we got all of our (window) shutters on, sandbags, prepping the house, packing when we were going to head up to Jacksonville ... but the traffic on I-75 is bumper to bumper," Dawn said Wednesday.

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Tim did the morning show at The Power Loon, a Baxter-based radio station, while his wife was a stay-at-home mom and hairdresser before they moved to Florida three years ago.

If given the order to evacuate, Dawn said they're ready, even though the hurricane is now projected to pass along Florida's east coast.

"We have everything ready, so if we need to go, we can just go," Dawn said.

The Nortons would leave behind their new home in Estero, where the wedded couple lives with their daughters, ages 20 and 17.

"Everything is, like, gone," Dawn said. "Gas was gone last night, nobody could get gas around here. And we went to Lowe's and got most of our stuff on Monday, which was ahead of the game, so we had everything already bought."

She described the long lines on Tuesday of people waiting to purchase gasoline and water for sale in short supply at her local Costco as "just nuts."

"If you turn on The Weather Channel and watch that, that's pretty much what it was like here, too," Dawn said of the feeling of panic and apprehension in the air because of Hurricane Irma.

Plywood, sandbags, batteries and water remained in high demand as the storm, tied for the second-strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, approaches with its deadly implications.

"They can't hardly keep water on the shelves," Dawn said. "I went to the store yesterday morning, thinking I would just get some more water ... but people were just grabbing it—and it was gone."

Dawn lived in Brainerd for 50 years before buying the 1,500-square-foot home in Florida with three bedrooms and two bathrooms that her family has called "home" for a little more than a year.

"We had it built," she said of the home, which is located in a gated community in the Sunshine State called Corkscrew Shores, spanning more than 700 acres and including 648 home sites.

Dawn said Wednesday she has not seen any examples of civil unrest or chaos, even though Irma could include a devastating storm surge, destructive winds and dangerous flash flooding.

"I think what they saw with (Hurricane) Harvey people are just, like, on top of it this time and want to make sure, because it's been awhile since there's been a hurricane here," she said.

Hurricane Harvey was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Harvey left more than 40 inches of rain in a four-day period, causing catastrophic flooding in parts of Texas, was blamed for 70 deaths and caused an estimated $70 billion in damages.

"I've never been in a hurricane before," Dawn said. "Last year, we had (Hurricane) Matthew that ran up the East Coast, but this will be our first one."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged every Floridian "to get a plan and be prepared for potential life-threatening impacts from the storm."

"We're trying to figure out if we want to leave or not. We feel safe in our house because it's new and it's built to hurricane standards—cement walls, tie-down roofs," Dawn said. "I don't see myself wanting to go out on a highway and run out of a gas and not be near a gas station and be stuck in the middle of nowhere."

Dawn said her family would evacuate the Estero area near Fort Myers in Lee County if they were given the order to do so but even that is not without its perils.

"We've kind of decided that we might be better just to stay in our house and ride it out here," she said.

The Nortons have flood insurance and they have hurricane insurance, too, but possibly being in the path of a destructive hurricane still feels surreal to her.

"My husband put a lot of time and effort into preparing the house," Dawn said. "It was a very stressful and uneasy time for me. ... But there are people down here that I've talked to who are like 'Oh, no. We're staying. ... We've been through them before. We'll be fine.'"