ST. PETERSBURG — Alberto Jauregui arrived at the Publix near Allendale Park with strict orders from his fiance: They needed hurricane supplies.
Jauregui steered his cart straight to the aisle normally packed with pallets of water bottles. It wasn’t even 8:30 a.m. Thursday and the shelves were already about empty — except for pricey bottles of alkaline water.
Jauregui spotted one remaining 24-pack case with its plastic wrapping torn open, but at least it was regular water. Success.
"I didn’t even know there was a hurricane off our Atlantic shores until a few days ago,” Jauregui said.
That kind of scramble played out at stores across the state Thursday, as Floridians searched for bottled water, flashlight batteries and nonperishable food ahead of Hurricane Dorian. Most say they don’t want to be left unprepared if the storm strengthens above a Category 3 hurricane as the National Hurricane Center predicts.
With days left for the system to churn through warm waters, its precise path is unclear. Even if the storm doesn’t hit Tampa Bay directly, high winds and rain could still knock out power for days.
Before the doors at the Aldi on U.S. 19 in St. Petersburg slid open at 9 a.m., a dozen shoppers waited with carts rearing to beeline toward the packaged water. When they got there, they saw gallon jugs had already sold out the night before. A sign was posted saying shoppers could only take two of the remaining 24-pack cases each.
A nearby Walmart was cluttered with shoppers who were facing empty water racks. The store, open until midnight, had been busy the night before. Popular hurricane snacks, like strawberry flavored Pop-Tarts, were sold out and the number of bread varieties was waning.
Tampa Bay Publix stores had water limits in place, too. Some stores were out of cases of water, but still had gallon jugs. Other stores had jugs, but no cases. Employees told shoppers they were getting more water that day, but couldn’t say exactly when the shipment would arrive.
In a statement via Twitter, Publix said it was working to send more packages of water to its Florida locations. Spokesman Brian West said the Lakeland chain prepares for hurricane season months in advance and that it has stashes of water, ice, batteries and weather radios ready.
In Tampa, Marlene Cox got the water and flashlights she needed at the Home Depot on N Dale Mabry Highway. While the stores can get chaotic, she said this is the time to help your community — not just focus on your own needs.
“This is when people rally together and unify,” she said. “I’m from the islands, from Jamaica, I know first hand what this is all about.”
Inside Home Depot, workers in orange aprons loaded slabs of lumber into carts. Generators sold out fast, but area Home Depots had pallets of water, tarps, and wood on hand.
“Be safe,” another shopper, Jerry Alonso, recommended, “and don’t take any chances.”
Home Depot is known to bring in truckloads of supplies — like generators — from unaffected areas to ones facing, or recovering from, a massive storm. The chain first assembled traveling teams to help with supplies in 2004 after several hurricanes hit Florida.
“Florida retailers have comprehensive procedures in place to ensure a constant stream of food, water, medicine and supplies are delivered to those areas potentially impacted by Hurricane Dorian," said Florida Retail Federation spokesman James Miller.
Jauregui was able to pick up the rest of the items on his fiance, Kelly’s, list: pasta, sauce, beans, cat food. He even found more water at CVS — all in under 45 minutes.
His main piece of advice? Go in with a plan.
Times staff photographer Octavio Jones contributed to this report.
2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter