GULFPORT — Streets and sidewalks were empty Tuesday afternoon. No one pushing strollers, walking dogs, riding bikes through this tiny waterfront town. The library and senior center were closed, but the parking lots were full of cars people had parked on higher ground.
Everything was eerie, except for one bar.
All day, O’Maddy’s was packed. The waterfront watering hole has long been the town’s hurricane hang-out, always the last to close, first to open. When the power goes out, the bartenders serve warm beer.
Every table was full inside and out, every seat at the bar, people standing by the porch railing drinking long neck Buds.
But at 2 p.m., a police officer shut down the party. The restaurant, which faces the pier, is in an A evacuation zone, he said. Everyone had to go. Now.
“We got no notice. It was crazy. All of a sudden, I had to kick out all of these people,” owner Joe Guenther said while stacking chairs. “I have 85 employees who stayed here to serve through the storm. They depend on this. It’s beautiful out here today. I’m not putting anyone in danger.”
He was watching the hurricane, he said, and planned to close when it got close. He was frustrated he couldn’t keep serving folks at least through the night.
“We’ve been here since 1989,” said Guenther, who lives a mile away from his bar and planned to ride out Ian at home. “We never close unless they make us.”
The town of 12,000 people, which sits across from St. Pete Beach on Boca Ciega Bay, is artsy, quirky and laid-back. Residents pride themselves on celebrating differences. And most embrace the dozens of “boat people” who live aboard their vessels anchored offshore and row to town to shower and shop.
By late afternoon, most of the downtown businesses had sandbags buffering the doors and plywood shuttering the windows, many with slogans fitting the establishment. “Good Vibes” read one on Qi Crystal Energy, followed by a heart, peace sign and smiley face. “No ice cream for Ian,” read the one on Let it Be sweet shop. Paw Paws pet boutique’s sign read, “Bark off Ian! No treat for you!”
Fran Miller, 71, walked along the waterfront with her friend, visiting from Buffalo, New York. The women had planned to spend the day at the beach, but since the Gulf beaches were closed for the hurricane, they went to Gulfport. “We had to get outside before this storm comes and something happens,” said Miller, who planned to spend the storm at home in Kenneth City.
“I’m in a second-story condo in Zone E, so by the time they’d have to evacuate me it would be too late,” she said. In the 30 years she’s lived in Pinellas County, she’s never evacuated.
“What’s the point?” she asked. “That storm will chase you all the way across the state. Then you’ll run out of gas or get in an accident, for what? We went without power for five days after Irma. We can always charge our phones in the car.”
Her friend Linda Marotta, 62, had never been in a hurricane. But as long as Miller wasn’t worried, she said, she wasn’t either. “We started drinking sangria at 10 a.m. today,” she said. “By tomorrow, we’re hoping this will all have turned away.”
Across the street, a bearded man was paddling a kayak across the waterway, a guitar strapped to his back. A man in a red shirt was rowing a jon boat from his sailboat toward the town docks. And a blonde woman was tying her motorized dinghy to a piling.
“Hey, do you need help?” asked a woman with a black Lab on a leash. “My boys can help you!”
“That would be great!” said the young woman. She unloaded Target bags of clothes, toilet paper, snacks onto the dock. A cooler. A camouflage dry bag. The boys, 16 and 9, picked them up to carry to her car. “Leave the sewing machine for now,” the woman told them. “We can come back for that later.”
The boys and their mom, Christina Osburn, live on a 33-foot boat with their dad and dog, Lady. A year ago, they moved from Idaho to Florida and bought their first boat. They anchored off Gulfport because the mooring fee is only $144 a week. “I’ve never been through a hurricane,” Osburn said. “I’m not sure what to expect.”
Her friend, Jennifer Porter, 54, lives on a 38-foot boat nearby. She loves being able to row to the little town, tie up at the municipal docks. She’d been trying to decide when to evacuate. She and Osburn planned to stay with friends in a block house in Pinellas Park. Both women were worried about waves battering their boats, but decided not to steer them into a marina or storage.
“I’ve got a 55 pound anchor, and another that’s 73 pounds,” said Porter. “During a storm, there’s no better place for a boat to be than out to sea.”
But people need to be on land during hurricanes, she said. Of the dozens of vessels anchored off Gulfport, Porter knew of at least three people who planned to ride out the storm on their boats.
“We’re not that stupid.”
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2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.
SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.
IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.
RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.