FORT MYERS — The dogs sniffed every corner of the sole working elevator, trailing their waterlogged owners to and from the parking lot, where Hurricane Ian’s outer rains lashed the driveway of the Hilton Garden Inn.
The people of Southwest Florida had hoped for a glancing blow as the forecast, earlier this week, focused on Tampa Bay. But conditions shifted, the product of an atmospheric wobble, and Hurricane Ian cut east toward Lee County.
The Hilton, by the Southwest Florida International Airport, brimmed with people and pets by nightfall Tuesday.
Evacuees loaded whatever they could grab from their homes onto luggage carts, then gathered Wednesday morning for a $15.95 buffet breakfast — limited to one turn each through the line.
“I’ve been watching it for two days, watching everything, thinking it was going to go up to Tampa,” said Greg Copeland, who came to the hotel after evacuating his Fort Myers home.
WINK News looped on a TV, Ian’s swirling gyre hovering over the lobby in green, red and purple.
Late Tuesday, chief meteorologist Matt Devitt had warned of a 10-foot storm surge and leveled with his viewers. “This is our storm,” he said.
The prognosis was worse in the morning. Devitt turned over a map, showing Ian’s eye just west of the Florida peninsula, a Category 4 behemoth crawling toward Boca Grande and Captiva.
“We have almost a Category 5 that will be making landfall at high tide,” Devitt said.
The storm surge projections had increased to 12 to 16 feet.
Sharon and Bob Volpe, married 58 years, watched the storm coverage as they ate their hotel breakfast. They had bought their retirement home in Fort Myers’ Reflection Lakes community, several miles inland. As much as they liked the beach, Sharon wanted to be safe.
“I never thought of storm surge,” said Sharon, 78.
“We never heard of it until we came down here,” said Bob, 80. Back in Palatine, Illinois, they only feared tornadoes.
“We were worried about the wind,” Sharon said.
It was the water, though, that had forced them to leave their home behind in evacuation zone A.
Sharon put their children’s wedding photos in the dishwasher to, hopefully, keep them dry. Their kids called hotels from Illinois, finding the Volpes spots at the Hilton, which Bob called a “fortress.”
They arrived about 8 p.m. Tuesday after spending the afternoon trying to lift electronics off the ground at home. Bob had worked for years as a sales manager at Sears, Sharon a stay-at-home mom as they saved for retirement.
“It’s the not knowing that’s scary,” she said.
A couple of tables over sat Copeland, eating breakfast with his wife, Vanessa Long. She said she runs a nursery and left tens of thousands of dollars of plants in the path of the storm.
They had only been able to book the hotel for one night and were unsure where they would spend Wednesday. Hopefully, the Hilton would have extra space, or they could try to drive through gusting winds to a friend’s home in Lehigh Acres.
The hotel’s lights flickered.
“We can restart everything,” Long said, if they can manage to keep themselves safe.
At breakfast, tables turned quickly as people downed juice, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon. The hotel hoped to serve them again at 4 p.m., the likely height of the storm — a turkey dinner for hundreds.
Elizabeth Matz, 21, just moved to Fort Myers to attend Florida SouthWestern State College. She and her mother, Becky, were staying at her grandparents’ place on the beach as they moved her into an apartment. Early Tuesday, she said, they heard blaring phone alarms urging them to evacuate.
They were able to book one night at the Hilton but were also unclear where they would spend Wednesday night, as the teeth of the hurricane clamped Southwest Florida. Elizabeth’s new apartment was devoid of furniture.
“I don’t know when I’m going home,” said Becky, 56. Her Friday departure back to Wisconsin was in doubt.
Nearby, workers tied a rope around sliding glass doors at the hotel’s entrance. Trees shook in the wind.
“I am anxious about a lot of things,” Becky said. But she was happy to be there to help her daughter.
The Matzes had been watching the news all morning. Elizabeth was already surprised by the intensity of the wind and rain.
Over and over, the forecasters were saying that this was just the start.
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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
PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.
SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.
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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.