After a graze from Hurricane Irma, Tampa Bay will remember the emotional toll

Irma left mess in Tampa Bay, thrashed Keys, swamped Jacksonville.
Published September 12 2017
Updated September 12 2017

It was called one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. It was bigger than Andrew, bigger than the state.

First it aimed for Miami, then Naples. Twenty four hours before landfall, it set its sights on Tampa Bay.

Fleeing cars packed highways. Homeowners hammered plywood onto windows and anchored garages with sandbags, with scenes of a water-logged Houston fresh in mind.

"Stay safe," they told their neighbors.

They dissected spaghetti models and dug up insurance policies. They sealed family photos in waterproof bags and roamed their cities in search of bottled water and gas.

The storm plowed over the Florida Keys on Sunday and turned north.

Then Hurricane Irma blinked.

In Tampa Bay, the storm wrought little more than inland flooding, downed power lines and toppled trees.

But for uneasy residents, exhausted after nearly two weeks of dread and preparation, the storm's emotional toll would leave a longer-lasting mark.

'A glancing blow'

Weary residents stepped out of shuttered homes into Monday's gray mist, searching their yards for debris. Sheriff's deputies scanned the empty streets for destruction.

Forecasters had warned of catastrophe, spurring one of the nation's largest-ever evacuation orders. But Irma, it seemed, spared us.

In terms of physical damage, at least.

Hundreds of downed trees blocked roads and snagged power lines, knocking out electricity for hundreds of thousands. Winds tore the canopies off some gas stations. Suburban streets swelled into lakes. But no major injuries were reported locally, let alone any deaths.

"A glancing blow," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Irma's winds clawed off most of the steeple from a small church on Nebraska Avenue. Benjamin Curry, soon-to-be pastor of the Greater New Salem Primitive Baptist Church, found a 20-foot piece by its doors. Soggy ceiling tiles littered the pews inside.

"This is the worst that I've seen," Buckhorn told Curry.

The winds also chewed off the roof of a Madeira Beach apartment, spitting it onto a car. At St. Petersburg Marina, six boats sank and one became lodged under a dock.

Not bad for a hurricane, port manager Walt Miller said.

Falling trees destroyed about a dozen homes in Hillsborough County. Some cars were flattened. St. Petersburg's Freefall Theatre, just weeks before its season opener, lost part of its roof.

For most here, normalcy didn't seem too far away, as long as the air conditioning came back on. Roads were largely clear. Even Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa hadn't flooded. Palm fronds and overturned trash cans were the only traces of Irma in Ybor City, where the iconic lamps remained intact.

Even mobile home residents chatted about their luck.

For days, local officials had urged residents to heed the hurricane's biggest threat, storm surge pushed ashore by fierce winds. The high waters never materialized, with just 2 feet at Port Tampa.

Instead, rains and high tides swelled local rivers. The Alafia River flowed as high as street signs and into several homes. In Pasco County, officials told residents near soon-to-flood Anclote and Withlacoochee rivers to "get out."

Irma had grazed Tampa. But other cities will have more lasting scars. The storm snapped Miami cranes, sent a tornado spinning through Palm Bay. In Naples, waters rose 7 feet in 90 minutes. Jacksonville flooded by the acre.

News was slow to emerge from the flooded Keys, where the damage was most intense and buildings were crushed. State officials confirmed at least two deaths. One person died in a single-car accident in Monroe County, and another fell off a ladder in Lee County while putting up storm shutters.

Exhaustion and anxiety

The emotional toll was undeniable.

Days earlier, Hurricane Harvey became the first major hurricane to make U.S. landfall in more than a decade, unleashing torrential rains in Houston. Cable news networks inundated the airwaves with waterlogged homes and dramatic rooftop rescues.

The next named storm, Irma, became a hurricane Aug. 31.

It grew, quickly. Soon its winds measured 195 mph, a record. Its sheer size shocked forecasters, setting off panic across the state.

In Tampa Bay, people bought bottled water and plywood as fast as stores could restock them, starting a full week before Irma's impact. Gas stations shut down pumps, out of fuel. As Irma's path wobbled from coast to coast, people came to know their local meteorologists by first name. Denis. Paul. Bobby.

Ann Fresina, 57, started feeling sick on Thursday. Imagining water swallowing her car, rushing into her St. Petersburg home, bodies floating in the streets, like in New Orleans during Katrina.

A friend gave her a Xanax. It didn't help.

"Stress, anxiety, I thought I was going to throw up," Fresina said. "I've never felt physically scared like that before."

Fresina had faced dozens of storms in her 21 years in Florida. But after Harvey, and after watching Irma grow into a powerful Category 5 storm, she put hurricane shutters on her house for the first time.

"Took me eight hours," she said. "Eleven windows and 126 wing nuts."

She wrapped her mother's glass knickknacks in towels, took the art off her walls, covered the paintings in tarps and stored them in her shower. She bought propane for the camp stove, lighter fluid for the grill. She made room in the garage for outdoor furniture. She braced and bolted the garage door.

She couldn't sleep. Couldn't eat. Couldn't concentrate.

By Saturday, thousands had boarded up their homes and businesses, stocked their pantries with canned peaches and baked beans.

Sunday, there was nothing to do but wait.

Some people were exhausted. Others came out to marvel at the sandy seabed of Tampa Bay, drained of its waters by the powerful storm looming in the distance. Only the police could make them leave.

When tropical-storm force winds arrived that night, and the lights started to flicker from Brooksville to the Pinellas beaches, those who had opted to ride out the storm braced for the worst.

But instead of the predicted catastrophe, each passing hour brought better news for Tampa Bay. The storm lost strength. Its track shifted east. It weakened more.

Fresina watched the storm roll in with friends in her concrete block home. They drank all the white wine and dove into the rum. She slept for a few hours, for the first time in days. When she woke to downed branches, she said a prayer of thanksgiving and made a cheese omelette.

'Real lucky'

As the damage came into focus Monday, scenes of relief played out across the region, in front yards, outside offices, at beachfront bars.

Ed Allen, who had boarded up his St. Petersburg grilled cheese restaurant in a mad dash over the weekend, returned Monday to find it unscathed.

"I think we got real lucky," the owner of Central Melt said, removing plywood boards with a battery-powered drill.

Across town, in Tropical Shores, Bill Newell and his son David zipped around fallen branches on a white golf cart. They stopped to take a few pictures, like of a toppled pine tree near Lassing Park, which took down a power line.

"It really wasn't that bad compared to the hell storm it was promised to be," Bill Newell said.

Tampa General Hospital, located in a Level A evacuation zone on Davis Islands, had only to mop up after Irma whipped rain into some patient rooms.

In some cases, the relief felt like more like a celebration.

In Gulfport, three dozen people watched the whitecaps roll at O'Maddy's Bar & Grille.

"We cheated death again!" said Gulfport native Billy Trudell, 52, raising a bottle of Yuengling to his pals.

At 11 a.m., Charlie Williams, 64, walked into the bar and hugged Trudell.

"We did it again!" he cried. "We're all still here!"

Pennye Garcia lost power in her Land O'Lakes home. But the retired teacher found a silver lining: It was a good excuse to cook all of the food in her freezer.

"We're having a cookout for the neighborhood," she said. "We're going to count our blessings."

This story was written by Claire McNeill, Kathleen McGrory and Lane DeGregory. C.T. Bowen, Justine Griffin, Jonathan Capriel, Christopher O'Donnell, Andrew Meacham, Ben Montgomery, Adam C. Smith, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Langston Taylor, Kathryn Varn and Colleen Wright contributed reporting.