Florida Atlantic University Owls take flight to Madison ahead of Hurricane Irma

September 9, 2017 GMT

Even with a powerful hurricane barreling toward their coast, Florida Atlantic University fans at Saturday’s football game against the Wisconsin Badgers kept an upbeat attitude, although some said they still felt an underlying sense of worry about what they will see when they return home.

Residents of Florida and other southeastern states have been bracing themselves and fortifying their houses in preparation for Hurricane Irma, which many fear will be the strongest to ever hit the state.

Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, is on the southeast coast of Florida and out of the direct path of the storm, but coastal cities are still expected to be hit hard by Irma.

“This one, they say it’s so much bigger (than Hurricane Matthew last summer) and more powerful than they’ve ever seen,” Casie Justice said, who moved with her family to Florida in spring 2016. “Normal Floridians aren’t really always scared, and everyone I’ve really spoke to is scared about this one.”

Justice, who is married to offensive line coach Garin Justice, was part of the group Florida Atlantic brought to to Madison. Parts of Boca Raton were required to evacuate. While Justice does not live in one of those districts, the athletic department at the school gave the wives and families of the coaching and some athletic department staff seats on the team’s flight to Madison.

“We were leaving no matter what,” Justice said. “So we are grateful that the team, the school decided to bring us up.”

Florida Atlantic University football coaching staff’s children, from left, Juliet Justice, 3, Bella Kiffin, 2, and Janelle Mathies, 9, play as their mothers pick up tickets at will-call before the Wisconsin Badgers football game against Florida Atlantic.

It’s not unusual for some of the coaches’ wives to attend away games, but it is uncommon for their children to come along. And they usually have more than one day to pack.

Holly Battle, whose husband works in Florida Atlantic’s athletic department, said she packed essential documents like birth certificates and health information along with family photos and baby books.

“What is came down to really was ‘Can we replace this?’” Battle said. If it could be replace, it didn’t make it into the suitcase.

The staff for Florida Atlantic plan to fly home Tuesday, Battle said, but that timeline isn’t definite. They may have to stay longer depending on the damage left by the hurricane.

Jensen Jennings, 27, from Delafield and a junior at Florida Atlantic University, at left, and his roomate, Dante Memmolo, 25, a senior at FAU, hang out with friends at Jordan’s Big Ten Pub before the Wisconsin Badgers football game against Florida Atlantic. The two had planned to come to Madison for the game months ago, Memmolo said, but because of the Hurricane, they aren’t sure when they will be able to fly back.

Dante Memmolo, a 25-year-old criminal justice major, didn’t come on the Florida Atlantic flight. He came with air force buddy and roommate Jensen Jennings, who is originally from Delafield. Jennings wore his badger colors proudly, but Memmolo wore his blue shirt with a Florida logo under a sweater.

They planned in advance to come to the game, and it just happened that they should leave town that weekend anyway. Even though he was in the Midwest, away from any threat of the hurricane, Memmolo still had his worries.

“I have all my family down their right now, so I just hope they stay safe. They’re on the east coast, so thankfully the hurricane is moving a little west,” he said, originally from West Palm Beach. “It looks like they’re a little safer now, but who knows what’s going to happen.”

Battle shared a similar sentiment about the shift of Hurricane Irma’s trajectory as it moves toward the Gulf Coast rather than the east. But she noted that the magnitude of the storm means that damage could be spread much wider.

“We’re less worried now that the storm has shifted, but certainly we’re not out of harm’s way,” Battle said.

Most of the children that flew to Madison with Florida Atlantic were young. The youngest was just over a year old and the oldest was not yet 10. They were exhausted from the late flight out of West Palm Beach, one of the mothers said, but that didn’t keep them from playing.

The families of Florida Atlantic’s coaching staff were invited to the tailgate hosted by the wives of the Badger’s coaching staff. The children ate snacks of fruit and donuts and ran around playing while their mothers talked with the Wisconsin wives and had their pre-game libations.

Juliet Justice, 3, and Bella Kiffin, 2, right, both children of football coaches from Florida Atlantic, play around at a tailgate party on a rooftop parking garage.

Memmolo was also letting himself enjoy game day in the face of the storm. Although, he wasn’t very optimistic about Florida Atlantic’s chances at Camp Randall Stadium, saying “If they score a touchdown,” he would put up the team’s solute -- fingers pinched into owl eyes to represent the team’s mascot.

Wanda Lund came from Florida, but she was cheering on the Badgers. She lives in Fort Myers, Florida, but is a northern Wisconsin native. She was planning to come to a game sometime in October since her son Brian is the head trainer for the team. When they heard the devastation the hurricane could bring, that trip was moved up a month.

“When I heard about the hurricane, my son said ‘Just get up here,’” Lund said. “So I put my photographs in the car, and loaded up my car, and left on Wednesday.”

After living in Florida for 17 years, Lund knows what it’s like to experience a hurricane. She also said she knows the damage it could bring. Even though Lund put up hurricane shutters and places sandbags around her windows and doors, she isn’t expecting to see a lot left of her home after Hurricane Irma comes through.

“I don’t think my house will be there when I get back,” Lund said. “It’s okay. I’ve rebuilt before. I’ll rebuild again.”