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As others evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian, Al drives for Uber

As daily life begins to shutter, rideshare drivers fill in the gaps.
Uber driver Al Moreno, 59.
Uber driver Al Moreno, 59. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 27|Updated Sep. 27

The requests are nonstop. Since Monday, Al Moreno’s phone has been chiming.

“Wow! I already got a passenger,” he says seconds after turning on the Uber app on his phone Tuesday.

It’s 11 a.m. in St. Petersburg, hours after Pinellas County’s evacuation orders went into effect for Hurricane Ian.

Moreno, 59, is among a growing number of older adults who drive for Uber or Lyft to afford life in Tampa Bay.

His own waterside apartment on Beach Drive is in a mandatory evacuation zone. But he’s got work to do.

As Ian barrels toward Florida, surge rates — which give drivers bonus cash for offering rides during times of high demand — are “way high,” according to Moreno. They’ve been that way ever since residents were encouraged to flee Monday.

Related: Ian is near Tampa Bay. Here’s how the area fared in other storms.

A former NASCAR driver, Moreno is unfazed by the midday chaos. He’ll pass three accidents on his drive this morning.

So while others evacuate, he stays, ferrying residents to their destinations as the infrastructure of their everyday lives breaks down.

There was Angelo, the Panera Bread employee who needed a ride home from work. He feared Pasco County bus services, which would halt later Tuesday night, had already been suspended.

There was the man from Seattle who was kicked out of his Tampa hotel the night before because of the storm and had to get to shelter in the Hard Rock Cafe.

There’s the couple leaving their downtown St. Petersburg apartment this morning, two suitcases in hand and a cluster of bags under their arms. It’s the woman’s first hurricane.

“So we’re going to his parents’ house, and it’s in evacuation zone A — is that going to be a problem?” she asks Moreno hesitantly.

Moreno chuckles, but gets it. He doesn’t need to ask why they’re abandoning a high-rise flat to head to flood territory.

“It’s family,” he said with a knowing nod.

There’s the young teacher in Holiday who arrived from Jamaica a mere month ago, and ran out of time to get a car before the storm warnings began. With a single bag in tow, Moreno helps her hop towns to stay with an acquaintance.

Moreno is always chatty — it’s good for tips — and he has a lot of stories to share. He’s been struck by lightning twice, he tells a couple. His race car had the number “9″ painted on the side — a nod to his mother, who has always joked he has nine lives.

But there’s a special kind of camaraderie in the air today, as he and passengers swap past hurricane horror stories or tell each other to “stay safe” as the riders reach their destination.

The couple leaves him a $10 tip.

As Hurricane Ian projections rolled in throughout the day, Moreno said he had decided to leave after all. He’ll wrap up his drives around 7 p.m. and head to New Port Richey to join his mother for the storm.

“I’m on the second floor, so I’d be fine,” he said. “But I realized I just can’t risk losing my car.”

• • •

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

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

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