ST. PETERSBURG — Nancy Hanley had just dropped her grandson off at school when she got the phone call saying she’d need to pick him right back up at 11 a.m.
She had a hair appointment at 10 a.m., but it could wait.
“I called my stylist and she told me she was on her way to the salon,” Hanley said, “but I told her to turn right back around.”
Now it was time to prepare, she said.
Tropical Storm Eta canceled plans all over Tampa Bay Wednesday after briefly strengthening to a hurricane. Eta’s latest path is projected to make landfall near Tampa Bay, sending shoppers out in droves in search of bread, batteries and packs of water.
Checkout lines at Aldi on U.S. 19 and 15th Avenue N stretched into the grocery aisle, as shoppers leaned patiently over carts packed with canned goods and other pantry staples. Winn-Dixie employees hammered steel shutters over large glass windows. Home Depot’s table saws buzzed steadily, filling the store on 22nd Avenue N with the scent of fresh-cut plywood.
Hanley wasn’t stressed by the storm, but did want to grab another case of bottled spring water for her and her husband. Late Wednesday morning, Walmart was already sold out so she stopped by Aldi where she found some in stock, along with a sign limiting purchases to two per shopper. She shrugged.
“I only need one, anyway," she said.
Over at one of the Publix stores on 4th Street N, Lauren Hartmann described the storm as “another blow in 2020.”
“I’ve always worried about how sort of vulnerable Tampa Bay is to a hurricane,” said Hartmann, who grew up in the area.
She and her husband, Kevin, walked the aisles of Publix for breakfast foods and water. The couple expected to lay low for the next few days.
At Home Depot, Dawn Hunter clutched two new flashlights. She and her husband had arrived at the hardware store for a slab of wood to make a shelf, not to board up windows. The couple already had a hurricane kit ready and were prepared for a storm. Hunter said her flash lights were getting old, so it was time to upgrade.
“We’re not panic buyers,” she said, “that’s for sure.”
Carlos Fines, Home Depot’s regional director of operations in the Southeast, has been studying weather reports closely since Monday. While a track toward Tampa Bay seemed unlikely, Fines said he and his team still knew it was a possibility.
“We always tell customers to be ready and be prepared and this is a great example,” Fines said, referring to the storm’s shift.
That might have been a shock for Tampa Bay shoppers, but Fines said Home Depot was steadily preparing for the possibility behind the scenes. The chain plans for what will be needed most at a storm’s onset, such as wood, nails, generators. And it prepares in-demand items for the aftermath: gloves, bleach, chainsaws.
“We’re an essential need for our communities so we want to make sure we’re taking the best care of associates and customers,” Fines said. “A lot of responsibility lies on our shoulders.”
In statements to the Tampa Bay Times, Publix and Winn-Dixie said they were prepared for the storm and had long been setting up supply chains for in-demand goods during hurricane season.
“We work with our suppliers to secure inventories of canned goods, batteries, we produce an abundance of water, and send supplies to stores based on predicted impacts,” Publix spokesman Maria Brous said in a statement.
Joe Caldwell, a Winn-Dixie spokesman, said putting up shutters and investing in generators are measures the chain takes to ensure stores can be open as long as possible leading up to, and after, the storm.
“We have decades of experience in helping our customers and communities prepare for and get through tropical storm events," Caldwell said in a statement. “We activate our storm preparedness team whenever there is the potential of any impact to the communities in our footprint days in advance.”
Michael Sharp, 18, went to Target with his girlfriend, Ashley Crookshanks, 17, to help his mom get the snacks and other food they needed. His mom was still at work and the teens got out of school early. The couple decided to reserve the rest of the day to play board games. Most likely Monopoly, they said.
Dwight Snow stopped in for some project supplies at ACE Hardware and snagged some paste in case he needed to seal his doors against water. The 64-year-old lives in Shore Acres.
“We get water coming up through the storm drains on a full moon, you know, just regular high tide,” he said.
Even as rains poured down outside and phones lit up with tornado warnings, Snow remained calm. He said he planned to “hunker down” for a couple hours, but he wasn’t too concerned.
“Hopefully that’s all it’ll be,” he said. “It’s weakening out there.”
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season
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