Fear, trepidation and annoyance were the watch words for Maine natives living in Florida as they joined millions of residents, from Miami to Jacksonville, who are girding for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

Irma weakened from a Category 5 storm to Category 4 on Friday morning with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph, but it remains a powerful hurricane that already has created panic for people wondering if they and their families will be safer waiting out the looming disaster, or fleeing the high winds and torrential storm surge.

Those evacuating have faced gridlock on the interstates and pervasive gasoline shortages, as lanes of traffic filled with carloads of families sought refuge in points further north or west.

Those who have chosen to stay and ride out the storm have spent the last few days in lines at grocery stores, where shelves have already been picked nearly clean by worried shoppers stocking up on water, food and other emergency supplies.

“It is the price you pay for living in paradise,” said Troy Cunningham, who lives in Port St. Lucie, but was raised in Bath. “I’d rather live through a blizzard.”

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Although Molly Ham and her boyfriend, Andrew Turkanis, live on the sixth floor of a modern Miami Beach apartment building with shatter-resistant windows, they rose early Thursday morning to heed the call from state and federal officials mandating they evacuate.

Molly Ham and her boyfriend, Andrew Turkanis, began driving north at 5 a.m. Thursday in an attempt to avoid Irma. Photo courtesy of Molly Ham

With much of South Florida facing a potential direct hit from Irma, the couple said they packed water and food into their diesel Volkswagen, and with a neighbor following behind in his own car, joined the lines of traffic headed north to Orlando. The four-hour trip turned into a much longer ordeal, they said, with crawling traffic, accidents and disabled vehicles that ran out of gas dotting the highway.

Lucky for them, Ham said, diesel fuel, while sold at fewer stations along the way, has been far easier to find than gasoline.

Ham, a preschool teacher at a private school in Miami Beach, said administrators followed the lead of Miami’s public schools and canceled classes Thursday and Friday, telling staff and parents they weren’t sure when classrooms would reopen.

The couple made a hotel reservation in Orlando for Thursday night, but by midday, their plans were shifting with the forecast. They do not know where they will end up by this weekend, Ham said.

“Weather’s always unpredictable, but northwest seems like the best bet,” said Ham, 25, who moved to Miami about two years ago. “The east coast is going to be worse.”

WEIGHING EVACUATION PROS AND CONS

Brian Doe, who grew up in Gardiner and now lives in Key West, Fla., screws pieces of wood over the windows on his home on Thursday Photo courtesy of Brian Doe

Not all South Florida residents planned to evacuate – even with mandatory evacuation orders in place.

Brian Doe, 45, grew up in Gardiner and moved to Key West three years ago with his wife, after living there part time for almost a decade. He now handles the information technology for the Monroe County School District.

Doe said he planned to ride out the storm in Key West, and he spent much of Wednesday and Thursday protecting his windows – using a blend of lumber, screws and Gorilla-brand duct tape – and securing his outdoor furniture.

“One of the great worries is that anything that’s not tied down becomes a bullet,” he said.

Monroe County has issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors and residents, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Despite that, Doe said he based his decision to stay in Key West on several factors.

The projected storm track has been shifting, so that its most destructive part was forecast on Thursday to strike Florida east of the Keys, near Miami. He also recognized the risks that could come from evacuation, including running out of gas, and reaching an area only to realize that it’s more dangerous than expected.

And his house, which is not inside the flood zones designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, didn’t flood during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Before the hurricane arrives, Doe plans to attend one last happy hour at the local bar. But he also stressed that he wasn’t taking the storm lightly. If he gets a bad feeling before it arrives, he has access to a commercial-grade building in which he, his wife and their pets could stay during the storm.

“Right now, I’m so focused on trying to protect my house and keeping my family safe,” he said. “… I might come across as lighthearted, but this is scary (stuff) right now. There’s no doubt about it. It is not a joke.”

Northbound traffic is backed up on Thursday in Sunrise, Fla. Associated Press

CONCERNS ABOUT SEPTIC SYSTEMS

Even residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast, where the hurricane is expected to be weaker than along the state’s Atlantic Coast, were making preparations for Irma’s arrival.

Jamie-Lee Roach, 33, said her neighbors in Tampa were digging out their generators and making sure they’re ready to run when the time comes.

Tampa is bracing for wind, rain and minor flooding – a far cry from the more dire prospects in Daytona, where her boyfriend has a home.

Roach, who moved from Belfast in January, said the couple will be joined by their two German shepherds, and they expect the Tampa Bay area to fare much better than towns to the east. Roach works at a Verizon call center and said that during her new-employee orientation her managers told her she had a greater chance of being hurt in a lightning storm than a hurricane.

She noted that at local grocery stores, the first aisle to be wiped bare was the one with snack foods. There was nary a potato chip in sight, she said.

Gasoline, even this far north, remains scarce, so even if Roach wanted to evacuate, she couldn’t, she said.

Her one-story ranch-style home is well-prepared with storm shutters, she said, but others in her neighborhood are most concerned about their septic tanks.

“They fill up with water, so we just had ours pumped. Some people haven’t had theirs pumped,” Roach said. “That’s going to be more of a problem. It floods up through their house.”

ANNOYANCE MORE THAN FEAR

Troy Cunningham, outside his home in Port St. Lucie on Thursday. The wood frame home has no storm shutters and more than 30 unprotected windows. He will likely shelter elsewhere, he said. Photo courtesy of Troy Cunningham

Troy Cummingham has done this before.

First with hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in 2004. Then Wilma the year after.

Now with Irma bearing down on his tile-roof home in Port St. Lucie, Cunningham is tired – of packing, of preparations, of the commotion.

“It’s like, ‘Oh I have to do this again,'” said Cunningham, originally from Bath. “I’m more annoyed than scared at the moment. Everything is totally disrupted. I can’t really go anywhere right now. I have to save the gas in the car if and when I have to get out.”

This time around he may have more to lose, because of the storm track and the way his home was constructed.

Port St. Lucie, on Florida’s east coast, could feel the brunt of the 150-mph winds, he said.

“It’s a bit like looking into a blender,” he said.

Cunningham’s home, a wood-frame single-story house with over 30 windows, has no storm shutters.

So he spent Thursday packing up his favorite pieces from his collection of cobalt blue glassware, disassembling his three crystal chandeliers and dragging the outdoor potted plants into the garage. Anything left outside becomes a potentially lethal projectile in a hurricane.

When the storm arrives in full force, he will likely flee to his stepson’s home, which is built of concrete block and impact-resistant windows.

“I know what a Category 3 can do,” he said. “But I don’t want to know what a Category 5 will do.”

RACING HOME TO PREPARE FOR DISASTER

Last year, Rebecca Rife’s husband was deployed with the Navy when Hurricane Matthew hit their Jacksonville neighborhood, leaving the former Caribou resident alone to juggle storm preparation and care for their two children.

Rife’s husband retired from the service in September 2016, but this year, she’s once again handling storm preparation alone while he races home from a cross-country motorcycle trip cut short by the impending storm.

“There was supposed to be another two weeks for his trip, but he’s coming back early,” Rife said.

And with good reason. Jacksonville is expecting flooding in addition to rain and intense wind, so she will have to secure their chickens, rabbits and other livestock on high ground or in safe places, in addition to covering their windows with the plywood they saved from last year.

The high winds could not come at a worse time for the family. They just completed a nearly $30,000 project installing solar panels on their roof. Electricity only began flowing this week, just in time for Irma to potentially blow it all away.

Her children, age 8 and 11, are trying to stay calm.

“There’s a buzz in the air down here, a lot of nerves, a lot of anxiousness,” said Rife, who moved from Caribou about 10 years ago. “It kind of reminds me of Black Friday. It’s an experience.”

EERIE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

Andreas Galeati, 44, is used to a steady breeze blowing through his Delray Beach neighborhood.

But on Thursday afternoon, he noticed an eerie calm that he could not ignore.

“The trees and the leaves are kind of still here,” said Galeati, who lived in Orono for years. “When you’re on the coast you always have a zephyr, but it’s all kind of still. It’s creepin’ me out.”

Galeati said his greatest conflict has been whether to stay or go before the storm slams into his community. His urge to leave every material possession behind and flee has run headlong into the needs of his family: an elderly mother who does not want to travel, and a nephew who prefers not to leave, either.

They took a vote, and he was in the minority.

“I’m not in agreement with it,” Galeati said. “I’d rather get in the car and leave everything behind.”

So he did what he has done before, securing the metal storm shutters that are supposed to keep high pressure air from coming into the home and blowing the roof clean off.

He remembered last November, when a storm packing 85-mph winds had his house rocking back and forth.

“If we get hit with a Category 4 or a 5,” he said, “I don’t know what good (the shutters) are going to do.”

DECIDING TO NOT TAKE ANY CHANCES

It was a job offer, along with the promise of warmer weather, that took Liam Beliveau to Miami Beach a couple of years ago. The 30-year-old grew up in Hallowell and now works as a technical writer for a software company.

On Wednesday night, it was the weather that prompted Beliveau and his boyfriend to leave their condominium in South Beach – a part of the barrier islands that make up Miami Beach – and begin driving north. They plan to stay in an Airbnb rental in Savannah, Georgia, then with friends in Asheville, North Carolina.

After that, Beliveau said, he’s not sure when he’ll be able to return to Miami Beach and what will be waiting when he does. He’s heard about the damage from Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category 5 storm that hit South Florida in 1992. He also helped with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a dozen years ago.

“I have this vague apprehension (that it will be like) St. Bernard’s Parish, where the levies broke,” he said. “Stores were boarded up. There were dead dogs in the street. It seemed like I was in a war zone. The shiny facade of South Beach is very glamorous, but a very powerful storm can destroy that in a matter of minutes, so I wasn’t going to take any chances.”

Of particular concern to Beliveau is the fact that a contractor was midway through installing windows on his boyfriend’s condo that are meant to withstand the heavy wind of hurricanes.

“The contractor put one set on, then went on vacation,” he said. “So our situation is a lot more precarious, because we have this exposed set of windows that are neither protected by shutters nor hurricane-grade windows. If we’re in the eye of Irma, there’s no question those windows are going to break, and (at the expected wind speed), the hurricane windows could smash too.”

CONCERNED FOR HERSELF, AND THE HOMELESS

Erika Heffernan, who grew up in Augusta, now lives in Key West, Fla., and evacuated her home ahead of Hurricane Irma. She was concerned about her clients at the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, where serves the homeless. Photo courtesy of Erika Heffernan

Erika Heffernan, 36, who grew up in Augusta, decided to leave her home in Key West as Hurricane Irma advanced. On Thursday, she was planning to stay at a hotel in Sunrise, which is between Miami and Fort Lauderdale and inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

By Thursday morning, the weather forecasts had been improving, with the originally projected storm surge downgraded to around 9 feet, Heffernan said, but that still would swamp her first-floor apartment.

“I’m kind of assuming there won’t be much to go back to,” she said. “I tried to take as many personal and sentimental items in my car as I could.”

In addition to her own living situation, Heffernan was concerned on Thursday about the well-being of roughly 70 clients she serves as a program manager at the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, a nonprofit that helps the homeless.

They were hoping to stay in shelters at Florida International University that were near her hotel, Heffernan said on Thursday, but she learned that the shelter would not be opening until Friday and she was worried that the shelter wouldn’t open at all.

“We have people who need meds, families with young children,” she said.

While the roads were not heavily used Thursday, Heffernan noted that some people had left their cars at the highest points on bridges, presumably hoping to avoid flood damage.

“It’s such a weird experience,” she said. “I lived through four hurricanes in Orlando. This is a totally different animal, being on an island.”

HOPING FOR THE BEST

Roxanne and Margo Ellis, who live in Key West, also planned to ignore the mandatory evacution orders and brave the hurricane at a friend’s house.

Roxanne grew up in Waterville, and both lived there together until 1993, when they moved to Key West for the tropical weather. Roxanne, 67, used to own a cigar business there. Margo, 66, worked as a teacher until retiring this year.

They plan to spend Hurricane Irma in a friend’s house that is rated to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, Margo said, but she didn’t know which agency bestowed that rating.

They, too, have been securing their windows, using metal shutters specifically designed to withstand storms, and stocking up on nonperishable food.

Their home is elevated about 3 feet off the ground, on cinder blocks, and didn’t flood during Hurricane Wilma, Margo said. And like many homeowners in the area, they had to purchase flood insurance in order to secure a mortgage.

“We’re watching the (storm’s) track and hoping for the best,” she said. “We’re worried. We thought about leaving, but then didn’t. At this point, it looks like Miami may get worse. It’s not going to be fun. Hurricane parties are fun to think about, but it’s frightening when they’re here.”

THINKING ABOUT THOSE WHO STAYED BEHIND

Nick Courant, who grew up in Waterville, fled his home in Big Pine Key to get out of the path of Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Nick Courant

Nick Courant, 20, and his two roommates decided to leave the home they rent in Big Pine Key on Wednesday.

Before that, they storm-proofed their low-lying house, elevating furniture onto cinder blocks, sandbagging the outside and packing their most important possessions into their cars.

Courant was born in Waterville and grew up in Topsham. He moved to South Florida to be near his then-girlfriend. He now works as an auto mechanic.

Like the others who were evacuating, Courant wasn’t sure where he’ll be staying in the days and weeks to come. He said he might try to leave Florida entirely and get a hotel room in Alabama. He also might take up the offer to stay with friends and family.

But the safety of others is what’s weighing on his mind.

“I’m very worried about some of my friends who decided to stay behind,” he said.

Staff Writer Charles Eichacker contributed to this story. He can be contacted at 621-5642 or at: Twitter: twitter.com/ceichacker