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Tampa Bay braces for Hurricane Ian as forecasts ease worst fears

After days of anxious scrambling, a projected shift prompted small signs of relief.
(From left) Kenny King, a handyman in Safety Harbor, and Jon Walker, the co-owner of Tides Seafood Market & Provisions, board the Safety Harbor market’s entrance on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, ahead of Hurricane Ian’s arrival.
(From left) Kenny King, a handyman in Safety Harbor, and Jon Walker, the co-owner of Tides Seafood Market & Provisions, board the Safety Harbor market’s entrance on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, ahead of Hurricane Ian’s arrival. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Sep. 28|Updated Sep. 28

ST. PETERSBURG — On Tuesday, waiting replaced the chaos.

As Tampa Bay residents finished their last-minute supply runs ahead of Hurricane Ian, emptying grocery store shelves, draining gas stations of fuel and hammering on newly boarded windows, some of the region’s streets turned quiet.

In the stillness, residents watched to see if Tampa Bay’s 101-year streak of near-misses would once again prevent the worst. Dire forecasts predicted a potential monster storm overwhelming the region with catastrophic flooding. But Tuesday afternoon — roughly a day before projected landfall — an eastward shift prompted some hope.

But only some.

“This is not the time to let down our guard,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. “Do not focus on the center track. This still is a huge storm that can still bring damaging weather to our city.”

One day earlier, Welch said he hadn’t felt this uneasy about a storm since Hurricane Charley, the 2004 storm that once threatened to wipe Tampa Bay off the map — but then turned east. By the end of the day Tuesday, his comparison looked perhaps more apt than even he had intended.

“Hurricane Warnings have been extended into the Orlando area. This track really is looking like Charley 2.0,” tweeted Denis Phillips, a Tampa meteorologist with ABC Action News.

The news turned what looked like a potentially disastrous forecast for the Tampa Bay region into one that was merely terrible.

Instead of slamming into Tampa Bay head on, the National Hurricane Center’s models had the storm’s center likely landing dozens of miles to the south, near Port Charlotte or Venice. As of 8 p.m., the storm is expected to hit that area Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s a really good thing for Tampa Bay, especially for storm surge,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure. “That’s the biggest, No. 1 big positive, because all of a sudden, the storm surge threat goes way, way down.”

Still, the region as far north as the Anclote River remained under a hurricane warning Tuesday, meaning residents should expect hurricane conditions in the coming days.

Allen Silke, 33, left, helps his brother’s family, Isabella, 4, JP, 8, and Heather, 35, load their belongings into vehicles as they evacuate their Tampa home on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, before Hurricane Ian makes landfall in the area. Heather Silke said Allen will take in the family’s dogs as they shelter with family friends in Riverview.
Allen Silke, 33, left, helps his brother’s family, Isabella, 4, JP, 8, and Heather, 35, load their belongings into vehicles as they evacuate their Tampa home on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, before Hurricane Ian makes landfall in the area. Heather Silke said Allen will take in the family’s dogs as they shelter with family friends in Riverview. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And the storm comes with other risks, warned Jamie Rhome, the acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, in a broadcast Tuesday. The massive system is likely to slow down once it hits Florida’s Gulf Coast, meaning some areas could see as much as 15 inches of water Wednesday, Thursday and into early Friday.

”A typical summertime thunderstorm here in Florida would put down about 1 inch,” Rhome said. “Multiple that by 10 or 15 to give you a perspective of just how heavy it could rain.”

The ever-shifting forecast led some officials to reverse plans they would have enacted had the worst of Ian come to Tampa Bay. Tampa officials planned — and then scrapped — a curfew for Tuesday night. Mayor Jane Castor said future curfews depend on the severity of the weather.

“Right now, with the trajectory, if we don’t have the damage that was predicted before ... then there won’t be a need to put a curfew in place,” she said.

National Guardsmen, who asked not to be identified, fill gas cans at the Wawa gas station Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Pinellas Park.
National Guardsmen, who asked not to be identified, fill gas cans at the Wawa gas station Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Pinellas Park. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Whether the storm’s eye heads to Tampa Bay or not, there were signs across the region Tuesday that people were taking Ian seriously.

President Joe Biden talked with Gov. Ron DeSantis as well as the mayors of Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg Tuesday, offering the resources of the federal government to assist with the region’s response.

Related: Hurricane Ian update: President Biden calls Tampa Bay mayors to talk planning

Tampa International Airport stopped all its commercial flights at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Waterproof barriers surrounded Tampa General Hospital.

Two Florida institutions, Publix and Disney World, announced closures.

A flood barrier surrounds Tampa General Hospital in preparation for Hurricane Ian's arrival on Sept. 27, 2022.
A flood barrier surrounds Tampa General Hospital in preparation for Hurricane Ian's arrival on Sept. 27, 2022. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And there were quieter, more subtle moments of preparation. A car line in St. Petersburg stretched more than a dozen blocks as drivers waited for sandbags near 58th Street and 37th Avenue North. Local police agencies asked people not to skip those long lines or pilfer sandbags from neighbors. Not everybody listened.

Hundreds of thousands of residents were mandated to evacuate their homes by local government authorities. Those who heeded the warnings packed onto the clogged Interstate 4 or into shelters.

Earlene Schwitzner, 71, had mentally let go of her Clearwater home by the time she reached Largo High School, which had turned into a shelter.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “If I lose it, I lose it. Some people think their home is more important than who they are.”

She and her husband planned to sleep on an inflatable mattress in the gym and listen to jazz.

But for many newer Florida residents, like Cathy Bianca and Paul Granger, who moved to Largo eight months ago from New York, the prospect of the hurricane brought a new kind of dread.

The couple bought a mobile home they hoped would be for their whole retirement. Now they’d be sleeping on blankets, with their two cats in crates in the school’s locker room, worrying about the 60 years’ worth of photos they left behind.

“I don’t expect to have much left when we get back,” Bianca said at the shelter. “We saw mattresses in there and thought, ‘Those people must be Floridians.’ We’re not used to this.”

City employees load sandbags into people’s cars as they pull up to a station at Northwest Park, in preparation for Hurricane Ian, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
City employees load sandbags into people’s cars as they pull up to a station at Northwest Park, in preparation for Hurricane Ian, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Other longtime residents tested their luck.

Anne Lynch, 57, has lived in her St. Petersburg neighborhood near Coffee Pot Bayou since the early 1970s. It’s in evacuation Zone A — the most vulnerable part of town. She’s seen hurricanes menace the region before.

She’s never evacuated, and she’s not leaving now.

She has her reasons, citing her proximity to a non-evacuation zone and wanting to look after her neighbors’ property.

And then there’s the part the mother of five knows she’s not supposed to think: She loves storms. She doesn’t want to miss it, authorities be damned.

”They don’t want anybody following me off the porch and beyond the pale,” Lynch said. “But that’s where the fun is.”

John Doyle, of New Port Richey, helps his friend board up his home to prepare for the hurricane near the 300 block of Country Club Drive  on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Oldsmar.
John Doyle, of New Port Richey, helps his friend board up his home to prepare for the hurricane near the 300 block of Country Club Drive on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Oldsmar. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

If the storm’s late turn brought relief — or even a thrill — to Tampa Bay residents, it also spurred new fears in their southern neighbors.

Artist Kathy Groob, who lives in Lakewood Ranch, had to evacuate her studio space in a shopping center near Sarasota Bay by noon Tuesday.

“I do feel like this morning everybody woke up to a whole new thing,” Groob said.

Times staffers Jay Cridlin, Tracey McManus, Sam Ogozalek, Colleen Wright, Leonora LaPeter Anton, Luis Santana and Lane DeGregory contributed to this report.

• • •

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.

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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