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Southwest Florida grapples with Hurricane Ian’s last-minute turn

Residents of Sarasota and Charlotte counties were caught off-guard.
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, Sept. 27, 2022, in Venice, Fla. Venice residents are preparing for the impacts of Hurricane Ian.
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, Sept. 27, 2022, in Venice, Fla. Venice residents are preparing for the impacts of Hurricane Ian. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Sep. 28|Updated Sep. 28

Up and down southwest Florida’s coast, residents woke Tuesday to a jolt as they realized Hurricane Ian had shifted a bit south. As storm surge predictions nearly doubled for some of Florida’s southwest counties, residents struggled to finish buckling down homes and businesses for the blockbuster storm.

“I’d say I’m a little bit caught off-guard,” said Kenny Palin, owner of Solorzano’s Pizzeria in Sarasota and Longboat Key, as he ferried the last of the pepperoni and sausage from the barrier island store Tuesday afternoon. A three-hour line for sandbags forced him to collect his own sand from the beach.

He, like many, thought the storm would hit further north, maybe Tampa Bay. Many were still figuring out what to do.

“We’re not sure yet,” said Lenny Martire, 40, under an evacuation order in Charlotte County. He owns an IT business and lives a five-minute walk from Charlotte Harbor. A gamer, he is streaming his front yard on the Twitch app for as long as Florida’s power grid will let him.

He said he will wait until Ian gets closer to land before deciding whether to leave.

The storm’s curveball path gave counties further south less time to prepare and evacuate for worsening conditions. Where evacuations began early Monday for Pinellas, Hillsborough and Charlotte counties, they did not begin in Sarasota County until early Tuesday.

“I do feel like this morning everybody woke up to a whole new thing,” said artist Kathy Groob, who lives in Lakewood Ranch and had to evacuate her studio space at St. Armands Circle in Sarasota County by noon Tuesday.

Groob said all day yesterday, she tried to figure out the status of her business on Sarasota County’s emergency website, but it wasn’t working. “I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ ” The agency later acknowledged in a Facebook post that the website was having trouble.

“When I got down there at 5 p.m., the business people I talked to, nobody knew anything,” she said of St. Armands Circle. “They were all just scrambling around, raising things off the floors.”

It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that she realized she would not be allowed back to her studio space on St. Armand’s Circle after noon. They were shutting off the water.

“We were pretty confident that it would go past us, but the change in the projected forecast was definitely startling,” said Racheal Evasius, a 22-year-old veterinary medicine assistant who lives in Sarasota County’s Venice and had made no plans to evacuate.

Cathy McDonald, a retired ER nurse, sat in her Brooklyn house worrying about her 89-year-old father and 86-year-old mother who live alone in Englewood.

For days, she and her siblings had been trying to talk the couple into leaving, to no avail.

“But last night everything changed,” she said. “The storm started to go south. Elderly people are very stubborn and set in their ways. Nobody wants to go to a shelter.”

She said she called Sarasota County at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday to see if her parents’ home was in an evacuation zone. She waited 38 minutes.

“I asked her, ‘Do you think there is going to be a zone B evacuation at this time?’ and she said, “‘No, they are not.’ I think the emergency preparedness system for Sarasota County was a little slow.”

A few hours later, Sarasota County posted evacuations for her parents’ neighborhood. She believes if her parents had been told to evacuate sooner, they might have left.

Sarasota County spokesperson Brianne Grant said the county informed residents Monday it would be ordering evacuations Tuesday. The emergency management site was down for about 45 minutes Monday, Grant said, but was fixed and a temporary problem.

Charlotte County activated its first evacuations at 3 p.m. on Monday, after the National Hurricane Center predicted a 7-foot surge for the area representing about 64,000 people, said Brian Gleason, a spokesperson for Charlotte County. On Tuesday, it activated the next level, representing another 64,000 people.

“The level of surge we’re expecting now, according to the Hurricane Center, is 10 feet,” Gleason said. “We’re going to see serious potential flooding in areas that have never had it before.”

• • •

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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