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At potential ground zero in this Florida beach town, they can only hope Ian veers away

The city of Venice didn’t even lose power in Charley in 2004. But residents know they were lucky and are watching Ian closely.
From left to right: Chris Iovanna, 31, Justin Short, 35, and Nick Patel, 38, work to place shutters on their restaurant, the Soda Fountain of Venice, on Tuesday.
From left to right: Chris Iovanna, 31, Justin Short, 35, and Nick Patel, 38, work to place shutters on their restaurant, the Soda Fountain of Venice, on Tuesday. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Sep. 27

VENICE — At what could be ground zero for looming Hurricane Ian, the main avenue was desolate Tuesday afternoon. Some small boutiques had plywood boards over the windows. Only a few shop owners in this small Gulf Coast town were making final preparations in gray, drizzly weather.

Daniel E. McDonald, 65, fastened the last few metal shutters that mostly cover his storefront window at Sea Pleasure and Treasures, a souvenir center on Venice Avenue. His purple shirt drenched, he didn’t have enough to fully seal the window, so he tried his best to guess which arrangement of panels might minimize damage.

He knows there is only so much you can do when a major hurricane is churning toward a coastline vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. This community, like so many in Florida, is on a first name basis with previous storms that either swept over their homes or turned away at the last minute.

Late Tuesday, in fact, the National Hurricane Center shifted the center of the cone of concern for Ian slightly south again — but Venice remained in a high-risk zone.

Venice escaped serious damage from Charley, a 2004 hurricane that sliced across the state, devastating nearby Punta Gorda and Fort Myers just to south. At one point, Venice was directly in Charley’s path before a last minute turn inland and most of the Venice never even lost power.

Locals here are hoping for similar fortune or perhaps a late saving pivot — maybe one that would keep Ian’s eyewall, expected to be near 130 mph, offshore.

“Charley was small and horrible,” McDonald said. Ian is a much larger storm, pushing storm surge that could reach 12 feet high in spots

Venice is a charming small beachside town, home to about 25,000 people, a popular fishing spot and is probably most famous for shark tooth fossils found along Caspersen Beach. The town bills itself as the “Shark’s Tooth Capital of the World.”

A block closer to the beach, Jackie Bybee, 33, helped her coworkers mount a sheet of plywood over a window at the Soda Fountain of Venice. The restaurant manager who lives in North Port evacuated when a powerful Hurricane Irma threatened most of Florida’s peninsula in 2017. This time, she said she wasn’t up for a traffic jam from here to Georgia.

A transplant from Wyoming, Bybee said she’s going to ride out the storm with her partner and their 1-year-old and 4-year-old in their bedroom. When it comes to weather, she said she’d take a tropical cyclone over other natural threats out west any day.

“I think if you had to pick a natural disaster, it might as well be one you can see coming,” she said. “At least it’s not a tornado or an earthquake that comes out of nowhere.”

A few feet away, 31-year-old Chris Iovanna held up the wood as a colleague drilled. He lives on the island in a second-story apartment, and he’s decided to stay.

“I have everything I need,” he said. The stash: a cooler full of cold beers and a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Across the street, Jane Molen hopped out of her car to run to the Bank of America ATM. She was taking care of the last things on her checklist, pulling some cash. A Canada native who came from California to Venice in 2008, Molen said she had her shutters up, “tons of food,” many bags of ice and prescription drugs. Still, she said she was a bit nervous. It’s her first hurricane. One of her neighbors had more nerves.

“He said he was a coward and he was headed north,” she said.

• • •

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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