The Ritcherson Family Weathered Hurricane Ian in Key West, Florida: Bonding in Paradise During Hurricane Ian

Rod Ritcherson01

The “Survivors” - Velma Ritcherson (center), Eli Ritcherson (l-r), Dr. Michelle DeBose, Jerrell  Ritcherson, Rod Ritcherson, Sabrie Ritcherson, Asai Ritcherson

By Jonathan Gramling

It all started so wonderfully. Jerrell Ritcherson, son of Rod Ritcherson and Dr. Michelle DeBose, won a stay in paradise and decided to make it a family reunion, of sorts.

“Jerrell is an actor in LA,” said Rod Ritcherson, owner of The Ritcherson Companies. “During his down time, he auditioned for The Price Is Right game show. It is funny that you have to audition to get on the show. You have to audition to even be in the audience. Jerrell was surprised that he was called up to be one of the actual contestants. But it makes sense because they want people who are exuberant and show emotions and all of that. For my son Jerrell, give him a camera, an audience and a microphone, that’s him. He auditioned. He was selected to be on the show. And then he was selected to play one of the games. And he won his game. He won a five-day snorkeling trip to Key West, Florida. He had a year to decide on when he wanted to go. He called the family members and he wanted us to join him to make it a family vacation. That was a nice thought, to make it a fun-filled family vacation in Key West, Florida.”

The family booked flights and the bungalows they would live in for five fabulous days in Key West the last weekend of September, several months in advance. They began arriving in Key West as the discussion about Hurricane Ian picked up.

During the weekend, it was paradise as usual.

“It was a snorkeling trip for two,” Rod said. “Jerrell and Subrie went snorkeling and I went with them to observe. We went out about an hour off shore. They both suited up. But as people were jumping into the water, there were jellyfish stinging the snorkelers. My kids chose not to get stung.”

They also rented a golf cart built for six to tour Key West.

“What was really neat was that you could rent a golf cart. Jerrell was driving and we were going all around,” Rod said. “It’s been a while since we had been that together in that close proximity for that length of time without completely getting on each other’s nerves. I had always wanted to see a build-up of a hurricane and the splashing on the shoreline. But I never wanted to actually go through one. When we were in the golf cart touring, the sky started to change and the wind started to pick up, you could tell it wasn’t just your normal day in paradise. It looked and felt ominous and it was.”

By Sunday evening, when it was clear that Hurricane Ian was going to impact Key West, they decided to try to leave early.

“On Sunday, we started saying to ourselves, ‘We should get out of here,’” Rod said. “So we started looking for flights on Sunday. My flight was scheduled to leave Tuesday evening. Michelle and the kids were not supposed to leave until Wednesday morning. I was able to switch from Tuesday 6:30 p.m. to Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., a six hour difference. That is a lot of time in terms of changing patterns of a hurricane. So I felt good about that because they were still forecasting that Key West was not going to be in the full path. But something was still going to happen. With six hours earlier, I was feeling that I might be able to squeeze out of there. Well Sunday night and Monday morning, flights on Monday were cancelled. Flights on Tuesday were cancelled. We rebooked for Wednesday. And Wednesday was also cancelled. We realized that we were stuck there.”

Since they were going to be stuck in Key West as Hurricane Ian passed, the family decided to stock up on basic provisions because one never knows for sure how the hurricane will go.

“When we went to the store to get food, we were thinking about each other in that Jarrell, I know that he likes this and that,” Rod said. “My mom likes this, this and that. We were all thinking about each other. I found it very appealing and appeasing. I was thankful. Michelle and I were no longer looked at to make decisions. We all made the decisions as adults. The stores were okay. But the stores, which have gone through this before, said, ‘We’re closing at one o’clock.’ You had to stock up before they closed. On Monday night, we got a text message saying there wouldn’t be any breakfast service. The staff called in to say they weren’t coming in and they didn’t come in. That was apparently okay with management. They were looking out for their staff’s safety. And so on Tuesday-Wednesday, there was no staff at the hotel. Ultimately they let us know that we were on our own. We had to make decisions for ourselves. And we had to look out for each other because no one else was going to do it for us.”

The threat of the hurricane helped the family realize that it was no longer a mom and pop operation.

“When my kids were younger and when I would give them the illusion that they were voting on a decision, I let them know that, ‘You guys can vote, but there is only one vote that counts and that is mine,’” Rod said with a chuckle. “But now that they are 34-years-old and 32 years-old, I can’t really get away with that. So we made decisions together. Jerrell was looking forward to this for almost a year. And so, we had to go. Now that they are adults, I couldn’t really use that on a vote. But that was okay because we were all thinking about each other.”

On Tuesday night as the hurricane force winds began to be felt, the family gathered in one of their bungalows to play games and pass the time.

“When we were playing Family Feud, we had teams,” Rod said. “Jerrell was the game show host. None of us were really cooperating with him. He was getting upset. I teamed up with my nine-year-old grandson and my 10-month-old grandson. So we were a team. I was just yelling out anything. He got upset because we weren’t taking it seriously. But we were all laughing. He was being serious.”

Rod was trying to rebook their flights on his cell phone and so he went back to his bungalow so that he could focus on the telephone call. He never made it back to the bungalow where everyone was gathered.

“The winds and the rain started to pick up,” Rod said. “After a while, it was no longer safe for me to go back outside again. We had to shelter in place, each of us in our own bungalow. About 8:30-9 p.m., the power went out. It was a tough thing for me because as a father, their job is to provide and protect. We had done the providing stuff. Each of us had food and water. But the protecting thing, I was helpless. There was nothing I could do to help anyone else. We were all sheltering in place and the power was out. It was pitch black. Luckily for me, I brought a flashlight, so I had some light in my room. But in order for us to communicate, we texted on our phones. But if your battery dies, you are cut off from the world and each other. I had my laptop with me, so I was charging my phone from my laptop. I didn’t want to completely drain my laptop because there wouldn’t be any other way for me to recharge my phone because there wasn’t any other way to charge anything.”

With the power out, there was no air conditioning or fans for that matter. And as Rod’s bungalow was on the second floor, heat rises. And he couldn’t open the windows. So he opened his door with the winds howling outside.

“You don’t go to sleep knowing that your room is open,” Rod said. “It was an interesting night that I am glad we all made it through. I’m praying because there was nothing else that I could do. I prayed for strength, prayed for patience, prayed for endurance for all and for protection for my family members. That was a weird feeling because prior to the power going out, I had said, ‘Man if the power goes out, we are really stuck.’ I was speaking personally because I knew I couldn’t open my windows and there wasn’t any air. It was in the 90s and it was hot.”

They had made it through the worst of the hurricane, but that didn’t mean that the ordeal was over. They were still on their own without power.

“We had to shelter in place until the next morning,” Rod said. “The power didn’t come on until about 1 p.m. Apparently the hotel manager had been texting my son Jerrell saying that the utilities did not work while the storm was going on. But I expected the next day that someone was going to be out there doing whatever they can. But the hotel manager was saying the power is out all over Key West and it will probably be out for a while. That wasn’t good enough for us. So we decided to find another hotel that had power. And if the power does go out again, we might stand a better chance for it being restored sooner. So we checked out of the bungalow situation and went to a Hyatt that gave me more assurance that they would have the facilities and staff who would stay on site. We wouldn’t be in our current situation where no staff was on site. They were all looking out for themselves. I can’t really fault that. But there was no hotel staff on site. Whether the power was restored or not, we were checking out. And we checked out before the power came back on.”

The family headed for a Hyatt hotel on Wednesday afternoon.

“On Wednesday afternoon and all day Thursday at the Hyatt, it was like night and day,” Rod said. “It was still windy at times, but our rooms were right on the beach and it was what a Key West vacation was supposed to have been from the onset. I would like to go back because when we changed hotels, everything was back to ‘normal.’”

Rod and Velma flew out of Key West Thursday evening and the rest flew out on Friday.

While it was a harrowing experience, it was something that Rod will never regret. With the need to survive the hurricane, they all came together as adult relations.

“The ordeal made us closer,” Rod emphasized. “And again, we were all consulting with each other and looking out for each other as adults. Every child gets to the point where you are talking to your parent one-on-one, looking each other eye-to-eye as adults and at a certain point, adults realize that they are speaking to an adult and they can share their thoughts. But your adult child is going to make their own decision. In this case, we were all making decisions based on what was best for our family unit. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I realized that there really is nothing more important than family. There really is nothing more important than family. We were all looking out for each other. It was amazing to see in myself and my kids where each of us put ourselves second. ‘What can I do for you?’”

And as the family experience of going through Hurricane Ian fades in the past, not all of that sense of family cohesion has faded with it.

“I just talked to Jerrell the other day and he asked if I had readjusted,” Rod said. “We have settled back into our routines. But I think each of us will always remember that in our own special way and we will take away that family cohesiveness. We all are adults doing our own thing. But at that moment in time, we weren’t individuals in the same location. We were all actually acting and proceeding and thinking as one. We had to rely on each other. There was no one else around to help us. It was on us to do what we needed to do to get through this.”

As the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. And surviving Hurricane Ian has made the Ritchersons stronger as a family, a silver lining in those threatening hurricane clouds.

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