Sunday, October 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

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

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.

     
Comments
After Hurricane Michael, a hunt for surviving oysters in Apalachicola

After Hurricane Michael, a hunt for surviving oysters in Apalachicola

  The old oyster cleaning room at the 13 Mile Oyster House now shows a destroyed dock where the Ward family docked their boats and TJ maintains his smallest oysters that he farms. TJ Ward assesses his farmed oysters after Hurricane Mich...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/21/18
Wet and mild: Warm winter predicted for much of the U.S.

Wet and mild: Warm winter predicted for much of the U.S.

WASHINGTON — Winter looks wet and especially mild for much of the country, thanks to a weak El Nino brewing, U.S. meteorologists said. Tampa meteorologist Jennifer Hubbard said the Tampa Bay area can except mostly the same, with mild winter temperatu...
Published: 10/19/18
Record-setting hot streak continues across Tampa Bay, but not for long

Record-setting hot streak continues across Tampa Bay, but not for long

Friday will be another record-breaking day for Tampa Bay.
Published: 10/19/18
Mexico Beach was gone. But we found a way to get there.

Mexico Beach was gone. But we found a way to get there.

Reporting in a hurricane is dangerous, complicated and important. When it came to Hurricane Michael, we had to find a way to tell the stories.
Published: 10/18/18
Updated: 10/19/18
Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?

Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?

Hurricane Michael barely grazed the edge of the Tampa Bay area on its way to flattening the small towns of the Florida Panhandle.But what if Tampa Bay had been its target? What if the strong Category 4 storm had slammed into Belleair Shore instead of...
Published: 10/18/18
Updated: 10/19/18
More record heat for Tampa Bay to close out week, ahead of a slightly cooler Sunday

More record heat for Tampa Bay to close out week, ahead of a slightly cooler Sunday

It'll be another searing day in Tampa Bay as temperatures rise to 92 by the afternoon. With scarce cloud cover and little chance of rain, there's little chance of a cool down until Sunday.
Published: 10/18/18
Baby born after Hurricane Michael starts life in Walmart parking lot

Baby born after Hurricane Michael starts life in Walmart parking lot

Wilmer Capps, wife Lorrainda Smith and little Luke settled in for the longest of nights in the best spot they could find: The parking lot of a Walmart store shut down by the storm.
Published: 10/18/18
Hurricane Michael: How we prepared to cover the aftermath

Hurricane Michael: How we prepared to cover the aftermath

What is the storm category rating? Concrete block with steel-rebar-reinforced columns is acceptable. Stay away from brick-, wood- or metal-framed structures. They could collapse or be compromised by wind and water.
Published: 10/18/18
Searing heat continues to remain intact across Tampa Bay

Searing heat continues to remain intact across Tampa Bay

Another October day, another potential record-high temperature in Tampa Bay.
Published: 10/17/18
Michael’s most vulnerable evacuees make Pasco shelter their new home

Michael’s most vulnerable evacuees make Pasco shelter their new home

HUDSON — Linda Wood lay on a metal cot, closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep Monday night. Pictures of her Panama City apartment some 300 miles away kept flashing through her mind. The nearly blind 71-year-old envisioned her chocolate-c...
Published: 10/17/18