As Hurricane Irma edged closer, a Florida dealership turned into a makeshift disaster shelter, offering refuge for employees unable to escape Irma's wrath.

The idea came to Rick LeMaire, general manager of Largo Honda in Florida City, Fla., south of Miami, after an employee, Chris Buchanan, asked him if she could stay at the dealership during the storm with her cats.

"I live in a trailer in the Keys, and I literally live check to check," Buchanan, a title clerk at Largo Honda, said. "I can't afford to run from a storm, but I live in a trailer so I had to leave."

What began as a favor to one employee ended up being extended to almost 40 more people, including children, six dogs, six cats and a pet rat.

"It just kept growing and growing," said Buchanan. "It started with one and ended with 40."

LeMaire's cat, Binky, surveys emergency preparations in the general manager's office. Evacuees also brought dogs and a pet rat.

With his own family desperate to leave, LeMaire then decided it wouldn't be such a bad idea to ride out the storm at the dealership, and ended up staying in his office with his wife, daughter and cat.

LeMaire never even asked for dealer principal Ronald Esserman's approval. Afterward, he said Esserman would "never question" such a decision by LeMaire.

The dealership opened in 1981 in a converted gas station in Key Largo, Fla. There it endured Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Twenty-six years after it opened, the dealership moved about 30 miles north to Miami-Dade County into a six-story concrete building with high-impact glass windows.

"Needless to say, when we built it, we built it with storms in mind," said LeMaire.

Storm prep

Before 1993, Florida had a pastiche of building codes, including separate ones for coastal areas. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 changed that. As a state-produced document, "The Florida Building Code: Florida's Response to Hurricane Risk," puts it bluntly, "The best hurricane code in the USA failed!"

In 2002, after a series of new regulations had passed all legal challenges, a statewide mandatory building code took effect. It required buildings in "high-velocity hurricane zones" — such as Miami-Dade County — to follow rigorous design and construction standards, according to reports by the Florida Building Commission.

Largo Honda sells 2,000 new and 600 used vehicles per year. Dealership staffers managed to move all vehicles from the front and top lots to the fourth and fifth floors in preparation for the storm.

Evacuees gather in a makeshift sleeping area.

When employees began arriving on Friday, Sept. 8, they were told to bring food and water, LeMaire said, along with bedding. Most of the evacuees slept on air mattresses in the accounting department on the second floor.

At first, LeMaire admits, there was apprehension about whether the building would be able to withstand the high winds.

"Not everyone was as cognizant of the strength of the building as I was," said LeMaire. "But within a matter of hours, everyone seemed to understand that this was going to be a safe place."

Everyone cooked, cleaned and did their part, said Joalice Andino, a receptionist at Largo Honda. ​

General Manager Rick LeMaire grills food for Hurricane Irma evacuees staying at Largo Honda in Florida City, Fla.

"When it was time to go, everyone cleaned the dealership from one end to the other. Even the people who didn't work there were cleaning toilets," said Buchanan. "I was very impressed."

Most of the children spent their time in the dealership's playroom, watching movies and playing together, Andino said.

"You couldn't hear the storm unless you passed the elevator," said Andino. "They were running around the dealership like they had no care in the world."

Worries about homes

Andino, who slept in the Internet office with her two boys, her brother and his son, said her biggest fear was a power outage. She also worried about the 5 to 10 feet of flooding predicted for her home's neighborhood. When she returned home, though, she was pleased to find that the storm had done minimal damage to the house and that there were no signs of flood damage.

"As our boss, he gave us an opportunity to feel safe. We are forever grateful," Andino said of LeMaire. "It never crossed his mind to say no."

On Monday, Sept. 11, most of the evacuees returned to their homes. Buchanan and others who live in the Keys returned home on Thursday, Sept. 14.

Buchanan's trailer lost a side awning and had frontal damage, but Buchanan said she's in good spirits for the most part. And grateful for Largo Honda.

"That building saved my life," she said.

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