We always try to plan our Simply Smart Travel trips well in advance. It pays to do our homework, research the best places to stay and learn about attractions and culture. But long-term planning is not always possible.
That is the situation we faced at our Sarasota, Fla., home as Category 5 Hurricane Irma churned toward us, days away. The official message was clear: Get out if you can; go to a shelter if you cannot.
We heeded the advice and fled north. But planning and preparation proved valuable and made our evacuation less stressful.
After studying TV weather reports and downloading the Florida Storms app for our phones, we filled our gas tank, loaded our precious computers in the trunk, packed appropriate clothes and a few necessities, and decided that Northwest Georgia seemed to be a good destination, given Irma’s predicted path.
Knowing Atlanta would be mobbed by evacuees, we decided on Cedartown, about 60 miles west-northwest of Atlanta. We made a reservation for two nights at the Best Western Cedartown Inn & Suites and hit the road four days before the storm was scheduled to strike.
We correctly figured the highways would be clogged. We called hotels along the way when it became obvious that we would not make Cedartown in the normal drive time of nine hours. After a lot of “Sorry, we are full” responses, we found a room in Tallahassee and arrived there after a 10½-hour drive (normally about 5½), mostly on secondary roads because Interstate 75 became a parking lot.
The next morning we set off from Tallahassee on U.S. 27 toward Cedartown and arrived in midafternoon. The front desk suggested we go to Jefferson’s restaurant across the street for dinner because it was offering free food to Florida evacuees.
That was our first taste of Southern hospitality. What wonderful and generous people. We tried to pay, but they would not let us.
The hotel filled up fast, and the next morning people were sleeping in campers in the parking lot (provided gratis by people in the town). The hotel opened a room where evacuees who weren’t staying inside could shower.
Even though we had reservations for only two nights, the hotel accommodated us and extended our stay to four nights.
The hotel lobby began to fill with huge quantities of food of all kinds, bottled water, diapers, pet supplies, toiletries and so forth, all donated by private citizens, stores and churches, and all available for the taking, no questions asked.
The volunteer fire department made provisions to set up a huge tent if needed. Fortunately, it was not because the hotel let people to stay in the lobby and in the campers in the parking lot.
Soon, grills appeared on the lawn, and the townspeople began preparing hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue and urging evacuees to take their fill. They kept it up every day until two days after the storm, when we left to return home.
Nobody would take any money for anything.
To put it mildly, the people of Cedartown stepped up and showed what hospitality is all about.
Since we had a car, a room, credit cards and adequate provisions, we decided to make the best of a bad situation and explore the region.
Cedartown, the county seat of Polk County, is a picturesque town with a population of 9,750.
The town was named for its red cedar trees. Its downtown is full of historical buildings and listed is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its 1890s architecture.
Although the town was ravaged by the Union Army during the Civil War, the coming of the railroad and U.S. 27 helped it recover in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Postscript: We arrived back home to find no damage. Irma had largely spared our town. Unfortunately, other places were not so fortunate. Thanks for everything, Cedartown.
Before You Go
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Cedartown is at the intersection of U.S. 27 and U.S. 278, 27 miles north of Interstate 20 and 60 miles from Atlanta.
On a Day Trip
- Visit the historical Cedartown downtown.
• Go to Big Spring, the largest natural limestone spring in the South.
• Take a stroll on the Silver Comet Trail, which runs through town.
Staying Two or Three Days
- Take a drive to the restaurants and antique shops at nearby Cave Springs.
• See the still-open West Cinema Theatre’s art-deco architecture.
- Explore the gorgeous campus of Berry College in Rome.
• Wander through the Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia in Cedartown.
Dressing to Evacuate
Dress comfortably for being in the car a long time and for the expected weather. Forget fashion. If you are evacuating a natural disaster, emphasize clothing that will help you survive.
At a Glance
- Over 50 — Small-town Georgia oozes history and hospitality. Cedartown’s historical downtown is walkable and welcoming.
- Mobility — Public and commercial buildings are accessible. There is no public transit. The terrain is flat to rolling, and most places have convenient on-street parking. A car is a necessity.
• When to Go — When you need to in order to beat the throngs of hurricane escapees. Hurricane season is June through November.
- Where to Stay — Before you leave, make hotel reservations. Plan on slow driving because you are not the only one with plans to escape.
- Special travel interests — Safety and comfort. While you are away, be sure to explore your surroundings and enjoy the hospitality, history and charms
If being with fellow Jews and having access to Jewish institutions are important to you during a disaster, you will find Jewish comfort in most big cities in North America. But because you likely will stay or at least stop in smaller towns during your evacuation, take kosher food with you if you observe the dietary laws.
We found no Jewish institutions in Cedartown, but the local Christian community provided aid and comfort while asking no questions about religion, color or creed.
Rome, 20 miles north of Cedartown, has a significant if small Jewish community, including Reform Rodeph Sholom Congregation, whose building dates to 1938. The town’s Jews survived the Civil War and Reconstruction and today constitute about 1.3 percent of the population.
Jeffrey Orenstein, Ph.D., and Virginia Orenstein are husband-and-wife travel writers from Sarasota, Fla. Their Simply Smart Travel column appears in newspapers and magazines in nine states. They publish travel ideas, articles, photos and a blog at www.SimplySmartTravel.com and at www.facebook.com/SimplySmartTravel.